The Latest Neo-Liberal Buzzword: Resilience

How academics at Dalhousie University unwittingly started a movement that punishes people for being poor and says capitalism is the solution to all our problems.


How did this gaggle of liberals measure this mental toughness of resilience? One common tool to measure resilience is called the Children and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM-28). The CYRM-28 is a 28-item questionnaire that explores the individual, relational, communal, and cultural resources that may bolster the resilience of people aged nine to 23. The measure was designed as part of the International Resilience Project, based in Canada — a group on the forefront of resilience studies and partially funded by the Nova Scotia Department of Justice Correctional Services.

—Melissa Chadburn, author of “Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty,” an essay in


Michael Ungar

Michael Ungar

The IPCC, the World Bank, and the UN make for unlikely bedfellows. But these organizations– along with thousands of non-profit organizations and many governments, including our own, besides – share somethingfundamental: a mission. Trace that mission back to its source and one of the places it’ll take you is Dalhousie University, where a group of researchers led by psychologist Michael Ungar have been instrumental in forging a new paradigm. And that paradigm that comes down to one word: resilience.

In the 1980s, the kind of cross-pollination rare in academia took place. The idea of resilience – typically associated with the physical sciences, either to describe the ability of ecological systems to absorb shocks, or the capacity of a material to bounce back after being stressed – began to appear in the literature of the social sciences.  Resilience, as defined by the institute devoted to it at Dalhousie, is defined as a “universal capacity which allows a person, group or community to prevent, minimize or overcome the damaging effects of adversity.” Resilient people view hardships as learning experiences; assume responsibility for their own well-being; and adapt themselves to their circumstances. Importantly, resilience is a proactive concept, designed for a future in which adversity is not to be avoided, but expected.

It’s a theoretical model that emphasizes individual strengths rather than deficits, a development informed by longitudinal studies which showed that a percentage of children exposed to high risk environments would go on to live fully functional adult lives. Rather than studying those who succumbed to adversity, which in any case encouraged stigma and fatalism, it was argued that more could be gained from analyzing those who had thrived. Results gained from such study could be used to improve the functioning of those whose resilience wasn’t quite tough enough.

Since the 2008 recession and accompanying austerity fever, the vocabulary of resilience has popped up everywhere from international development (where it “optimizes investments that forestall the underlying vulnerabilities that turn man-made and weather-related shocks into disasters”);  to climate change policy, serving as a panacea for everything from flooding to famine; to community services, such as with the Resilience Consortium, formed in the aftermath of the 2011 London Riots, positioning individual grit and perseverance as a way of controlling social disorder.

But despite being the subject of much spilt ink, resilience is notoriously hard to elaborate on or even define, making it an unlikely candidate for global theoretical domination. Instead, the explanation for the success of resilience in the age of neoliberalism has more to do with context than content.

Neo-liberalism extends the values of the market into every sphere of existence, cloaking deregulation and privatization in the language of innovation, responsibility, and personal freedom. As such, it isn’t just a theory of how markets work, but a worldview where the value of competition between economies, institutions, and entrepreneurial consumer-citizens reigns supreme. And that worldview is necessarily populated by subjects who are adaptable, responsible, and self-reliant — in other words: resilient.

In 2005, Ungar noted in Handbook for Working with Children and Youth that resilience was at risk of being of being coopted by a neoconservative agenda that lionized individual success and punished those who failed to achieve it. In society as it’s currently configured, he wrote, resilience can only get you so far.

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Although early research on resilience focused on the individual personality traits that explain wellbeing despite adversity, the concept has shifted to accommodate the role of institutions and cultural contexts in ensuring individual flourishing. And indeed the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie has focused on  “cultural” resiliency since 2002, which includes the availability of resilience-generating institutions and resources in the community, such as schools, access to housing and public transportation.

But somewhere in the translation from theory to policy, this apparent commitment to culture fell by the wayside, and the political application of resilience is rife with the language of personal responsibility and individual autonomy.

In Canada’s case, programs like the Resiliency Education Leadership Adventure and Youth Services for young offenders in Cape Breton seek to help youth “access the emotional resources needed to thrive in high-risk environments” and use “evidence-based models…to help at risk youth make smart choices.” And as Melissa Chadburn describes it in a recent essay about her own encounter with resilience in non-profit work on poverty alleviation in the US, “It’s poverty amelioration through behavioural change… changing people’s behavior was the solution to their problems, which meant absorbing the idea that people’s behavior was the source of their problems.”

What explains this apparent discrepancy between theory and practice? Evan Coole, Dalhousie Legal Aid Outreach Worker, says resilience’s rise to prominence should be placed on a neoliberal continuum that ranges from the outsourcing of community services to the introduction of a free market approach to social welfare. The biggest effect of resilience on the ground, he says, is an ideological shift in how community supports are delivered.


Turning social programs into investment opportunities

In 2013, Nova Scotia became the first provincial jurisdiction to announce it would be offering “social impact bonds,” echoing an earlier announcement by the federal government that it would be doing the same.

Social impact bonds – more revealingly known as pay-for-performance vehicles —  harness private capital to pay for social programs. Investors (who include such well-known champions of humanitarianism as Goldman Sachs) are repaid – and receive a return on their investment – only in the instance that the program is demonstrably successful. But these investors aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. In Canada, early research suggests that investors in social impact bonds will expect a guarantee of their principal, increased government “transparency and innovation” and reduced legal and regulatory barriers, in return for their generosity.

So how does this relate to resilience? Like the privatization of formerly public services, replacing decently-paid public sector employment with cheaper contract jobs, social impact bonds are a consequence of a worldview that sees the market as the ultimate arbiter of value. A mania for quantifiable outcomes, however specious, is an inevitable part of this. And the purveyors of resilience have provided ample means of measurement, including surveys generated by researchers at Dalhousie, which Chadburn – who was based in LA at the time – mentions using in her work. In an environment where programs are competing with one another to secure private funding, one can expect an idea like resilience, that’s both intuitive and amenable to the needs of capital, to gain even more ground.

Researching resilience “can help us understand where to best invest our limited social and financial capital” according to Ungar. But by emphasizing the scarcity of resources — because after all, where there is no risk, there can be no resilience — resilience normalizes the need and the value of competition, along with the inequality that stems from it.

Most importantly, the ultimate goal of neoliberalism is free market capitalism that perpetuates itself forever and ever. So it comes as no surprise that what emerges as the dominant social policy paradigm isn’t about finding an alternative, because within the logic of neoliberalism, there isn’t one, but managing the instability – er, flexibility — that such capitalism inevitably engenders.

And promoting resilience need not have a strictly humanitarian motive; after all, the stability of an economic system that itself lurches from crisis to crisis depends on the ability of those on the ground to withstand these crises while adjusting themselves to an ever-deteriorating reality.

As Chadburn points out, initiatives to develop resilience among low-income populations are almost nonsensical; under constant pressure to navigate financial and institutional barriers, people living in poverty are nothing if not resilient. Resilience, then, isn’t a pro-poor concept — not only do low income people have it in spades, but the fact that they do is in no way a guarantee that they’ll be able to escape poverty.


Capitalizing on resiliency

With a tuition of $29,800 a year, Seattle’s Lakeside School teaches the children of the rich how to be “resilient.”

For proof of this, look no further than the appearance of resilience in the pedagogical philosophy of independent schools in the US:

With a tuition of $29,800 a year, Seattle’s Lakeside School teaches the children of the rich how to be “resilient.”

With a tuition of $29,800 a year, Seattle’s Lakeside School teaches the children of the rich how to be “resilient.”

“The hot topic in independent-school circles these days is resilience,” begins a 2013 message from Bernie Noe, head of Seattle’s Lakeside School. “We are all asking ourselves if we are developing students who will have the tenacity, the toughness, and the determination to compete effectively, over time, in a global marketplace.”

In 2012, the Parent Association at the Lakeside sponsored a lecture series titled “Raising Happy, Successful, Resilient Children: Preparing Young Adults for the Rest of Their Lives.”

Parents of Lakeside pupils pay $29,800 a year in tuition — not the demographic typically the target of resilience promotion. Buttressed by family dynamics and institutions that work in their favour, students at Lakeside and other schools like it have little experience with risk. But the benefits of a brush with adversity — particularly ambition, flexibility and personal responsibility — are seen as essential for a future characterized by uncertainty, to the extent that a teacher at a similar school in New York (tuition $40,660) wondered aloud if her students weren’t disadvantaged relative to their low-income peers. The anxiety over this disparity doesn’t stem from worries about an inequitable distribution of wealth, but from a fear that these affluent students will be out-performed by needier but more resilient children.

Resilience, in other words, is a codeword for the ability to compete. The thing with competition though, is that someone has to lose.

Like a motivational poster exhorting us us to “fail better,” resilience touts the ennobling function of adversity. But what about those for whom hardship is more than a teachable moment, who need, as Chadburn says, not to be more resilient, but to have safer communities and better jobs? Resilience, even if it’s cultural, doesn’t guarantee those.

A decade after Ungar identified the neoconservative bent at the heart of resilience, it seems pretty clear that that potential has been realized. Perhaps it’s time for resilience to embrace its own failure.

But that’ll be a hard sell, because it would mean questioning not only a well-funded research agenda, but also the neoliberal institutions that resilience has helped promote, inadvertently or otherwise — and resilience, for all its focus on transformation, is ultimately about maintaining the status quo.