Crowded tube trains – a recipe for anxiety?

It’s 9.30am, just a little over a week ago, and I’ve just managed to squeeze myself onto a packed tube train at London Bridge station – this being the third train to arrive since I took my place on the platform. Grasping a rail to steady myself as the train jerks along I find myself in the kind of close proximity to total strangers which is normally reserved for family, close friends, or else lovers.  A man nearby sneezes leading to the people crushed up against him to wince. Thankfully for me this journey is a one-off, but for the majority of passengers in their smart business attire this must be part of their daily routine, squished together like a glutenous mass of red-blood cells fueling the body of some greater being. At this moment I start wondering to myself ‘just why are Londoners’ so anxious?’

I know Londoners are particularly anxious, because when asked by the Office for National statistics ‘Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?’ where nought is ‘not at all’ and ten is ‘completely’  44.5% of Londoners provided a ‘high, or very high’ rating of between 4 and 10 compared to 41.8% in the next highest region, the North East, and 35.5% in the lowest, Northern Ireland. The question was asked as part of the attempt to measure national well-being and featured alongside other questions in which respondents were asked to rate their overall life satisfaction, the extent to which they felt the things they did in their life were worthwhile and their happiness the previous day – all of which Londoners tended to provide a greater amount of poor ratings compared to the rest of the UK.

So why the anxiety? What makes London so different from the rest of the UK? It can’t be just the impact of being crammed on the tube – though that may well explain some of the anxiety. London is particularly prosperous relative to the rest of the UK, but can that really explain why people in London are more anxious? One explanation could be in the way that prosperity is divided; London is by far the most unequal place in the UK with the ratio between the hourly earnings of the 99th and 1st percentile, based on 2011 figures, being 16.2. By contrast the most equal, Wales, has a ratio less than half London’s at 7.0.

Source: ONS. Well-being data Annual Population Survey, Office for National Statistics data from April 2011 – March 2012. Income data for April 2011 from Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.

In their book, The Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that though inequality is not the cause of what have been rising levels of anxiety..

Greater Inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status

They continue that the more the inequality, the more status competition and the higher the levels status anxiety, but were this to be the case we would expect to see a relationship between inequality and the levels of anxiety and a regional level, at least, this appears not to be the case as this scatterplot shows:

Source: ONS

Of course even a fairly strongly correlated result would be far from conclusive owing to the small sample size, but going back to the data The South East which has the  second highest inequality ratio of 9.6 had a fairly middling proportion of people recording high, or very high responses to the anxiety question, 38.8% – lower for instance that the much more equal North East (7.6 & 41.8%).

Perhaps however, it is something else about London. In her seminal work Saskia Sassen (2001), who famously analysed increased income inequality and polarisation in what she termed ‘global cities’,  observed about London:

As in New York, a distinct lifestyle has emerged, and there is a sufficiently critical mass of young, high-income workers engaged in high levels of consumption that it makes itself felt in certain parts of London and the region. New, elegant shops and restaurants – and sharp increases in the prices of housing – manifest the new lifestyle. There has also been high-income gentrification of some parts of London, including areas of inner London once inhabited by lower-income people, especially minorities. (p.272-3)

What Sassen is pointing to is that high levels of inequality have helped to shape the city, both physically and culturally, creating an urban form which may well be more conducive to the sort of status anxiety mentioned by Wilkinson and Pickett which may in turn explain its inhabitants higher than average levels of anxiety. Finally the tube disgorges me at Old Street and thankful and relieved I emerge into the grey morning and gulp down the (relatively) fresh air on the surface. Maybe it is the tube after all, or else as they say on the underground, mind the gap.


Office for National Statistics (2012) First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results 24th July 2012

Sassen, S. (2001) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, (2nd edition) Oxford; Princeton University Press

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone London:Penguin