When you tell people they are acting like they are the center of the universe, you usually don’t mean that in a good way. But more than ever before, people do stand at the center of their own social worlds. That can be a good thing.
The fundamental unit of society today is not the couple or the family or any other tight-knit social group. Instead, individuals construct their own social networks and design their own lives. Even married couples get in on this more than they once did.
Here’s what I wrote about this “networked individualism” in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century:
In twenty-first-century America, individuals are freer than they have ever been before. They are no longer tied to predetermined life courses in which marrying, having kids, and staying married are obligatory.
They can, if they wish, cycle in and out of different dwellings, towns, jobs, and relationships. As sociologist Ulrich Beck put it:
Marriage can be subtracted from sexuality, and that in turn from parenthood; parenthood can be multiplied by divorce; and the whole thing can be divided by living together or apart, and raised to a higher power by the possibility of multiple residences and the ever-present potentiality of taking back decisions.
Individuals, not couples or families or other social groups, are now the fundamental units of society. It is not that building blocks such as couples or families are not still significant. They are. Married couples, for example, can raise children together, and they can take advantages of all of the deals that are cheaper by the couple and the government policies that benefit only them and not people who are single. They can talk as if they are a single entity (“we really like modern art”), and other people can smoosh together their two names as if they are one (DickAndJane).
And yet, today’s married couples are not as enmeshed as they once were. A study of couples in 2000 and twenty years earlier showed that the spouses in 2000 were less likely to have their main meal together, work around the house together, go out for fun together, or have as many shared friends as did the couples from 1980.
Contemporary couples often have their own mobile phones, not (just) one shared landline. They have their own laptops, their own online bookmarks tagging their own favorite sites and movies and books and blogs. Marketers know their separate preferences. Ask each person in a couple to name all of the people in his or her life—including the important ones and the not-as-important ones—and the two sets may well overlap significantly, but each person is at the center of his or her own unique social network. This networked individualism is the new social operating system in societies around the world.
Single people who live alone, if they have adequate resources, have even more options for designing the lives they want to live. They can pursue their careers and their passions. They can avail themselves of copious amounts of contemplative solitude. They can create homes that reflect their values and their tastes. They can reimagine love and relationships in the biggest, broadest senses of the words. Friends and nieces, for instance, rather than a spouse and offspring, can be the people who mean the world to them. They can set the priorities for their lives and then live by them.