“Today we are crawling out from the wreckage of that hyper-individualism.”
That was David Brooks, in his cover story for the Atlantic on the decline of the nuclear family, pinning the blame for society’s woes on the rise of individualism.
Individualistic values, such self-expression, individuality, self-development, autonomy, privacy, and choice, have in fact triumphed in the U.S. and in many other places around the world. Brooks is not the only person who finds that frightening. But should it be?
Brooks is interested in the different ways we are creating family and community now that nuclear families account for only about one out of every five households in the United States. Because I wrote about that in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, the Atlantic interviewed me about their cover story. I didn’t get a chance to say as much as I would have liked about the key question about the rise of individualism: Is it an opportunity or a threat?
I wrote about that in How We Live Now. I’ll share that section in two parts. In this first part, I will explain more about what individualism means, and how it can be experienced either as exhilarating or threatening. Then in a future blog post, I’ll share Part 2, about what I learned from interviewing people all around the country about the choices they made about how to live and how those choices worked out for them. (Here it is.)
Twenty-First Century Individualism: Opportunity or Threat?
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.
In the United States, and in many other nations, individualistic values have triumphed. We value self-expression, self-development, autonomy, privacy, individuality, and perhaps most important of all, choice. In a bravura analysis of more than a million books published over two centuries, UCLA scholar Patricia Greenfield found that instances of the word choose climbed over time while uses of the word obliged declined. Between 1800 and 2000, the words individual, self, and unique showed up increasingly more often whereas the words authority, obedience, or belonging became less commonplace.
The rise of individualism has, for many, been exhilarating. People who never did feel comfortable with marrying or parenting or living in the suburbs or handing over their lifelong loyalty to a single employer, for instance, are liberated from soul-crushing strictures and expectations. People who once believed that no one in the world shared their quirks or maladies discover others like them everywhere and can share their lives online and off. Individuals of all stripes can design their own lives, filling them with the people and places and spaces and pursuits that they find most engaging, most authentic, and most meaningful.
For others, though, the new developments are ominous and even terrifying. People who prefer certainty, predictability, and commitments that are bolted in place by powerful institutions and revered traditions feel insecure and adrift in the brave new world of individualism. Skeptics assessing the state of modern life fret that people are using their newfound freedoms to become self-obsessed and self-indulgent, flitting from one relationship, pursuit, or place to another, abdicating their responsibilities to their relatives and their communities and threatening the very foundations of civic and family life. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the term liquid love to describe the fragility of contemporary human bonds and the never-ending efforts we marshal in our fraught and futile attempts to create some permanence.
Contemporary anxieties about our weakening ties and compromised values have many precedents. Each new wave of large-scale social change, such as the rise of urbanization or the introduction of new technologies such as cars, telephones, televisions, and computers, stokes our fears and unleashes a tsunami of scolding screeds.
Part 2 of this section will be published in a future post. (Here it is.)
[In How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, this section on individualism appears on pages 241-246 in Chapter 8, “There’s Nothing Sweeter Than Solitude: Living Alone.”]