The Age of Individualism

Will the millennials come back to community?

This screed by Douthat is the classic crotchety old-man "the world is going to hell because the youth are awful."

Herodotus exclaimed "these are the worst of times. The young no longer respect their elders ... and everyone is writing a book."

If the youth are awful it is our fault ... and probably most of the youth aren't awful, and they will find their way, as we did.

13 2016-05-11 12:32:38 - Lee Harrison

Ideologies are systems of ideas--co-hering; ideas of the real world (familial, political or even supernatural), the ideal world and strategies to go from real to ideal.

Ideas of both reality and ideality are based on a classification system outlining possibilities--possible worlds.

Labels often emphasize one aspect or another. Value systems, emphasize ideals; reality is the goal of science. But each has implications for the other; the real is the object of the true which is the aim of rational belief--which is the basis of personal normality.

"Individualism" names at least two ideologies. One might be called "atomism" (individual coming from Latin for indivisible) or even reductionism (wholes are nothing more than sums of their parts). Societies are "useful fictions" said Bentham. "Useful"--say Holists, because wholes are really more than sums--new properties, forces and realities emerge with the organization or the parts (as all organs are more than their parts). Sub-atoms make up today's atoms, human organs make up human beings. Personality is yet a higher order.

Another brand of 'individualism" focuses on ideals/values. Asking what your country (or polity of any size) can do for you as opposed to you for it--and so forth. Persons are not islands.

Individual humans are aspects of bio-cycles. Individual personalities are aspects of cultural forms of life.

Rejecting cultural traditions is not rejecting culture. It merely seeks a better one.

0 2016-05-06 04:28:32 - Michael Kubara

I don't know if, perhaps, this turn towards individualism amongst the so-called Millennials (I have voiced my skepticism of lumping together those from 18 to 33 into one generation in a comment to Charles Blow's column) is more a response to the fact that many of the opportunities afforded previous generations have been cut off for them. The US consensus, at least as it emerges from the polarized disfunction in Washington, is that the only aspects of life that are valuable are the ones that make money. Government investment in scientific and historical research? No, that will increase the debt. And by the way, when do historians and writers create anything that can be considered valuable if their writings do not make money? What about massive increases in college tuition, prompted in part by an austerity ideology that has yet to prove its worth?

What I'm saying here is that this individualism is, in fact, the ideology pushed by contemporary American politics and culture? Many millennials (like myself, I suppose) would like more collective institutions, etc., but the fact of the matter is that American political ideology, fueled by the unceasing, unquestioned notion that financial accumulation is the only thing that is important, has bred pure cynicism. Individualism (libertarianism and indifferentism) does not stem from "personal optimism" but rather collective despair in the direction that our country is headed politically.

16 2016-05-04 22:48:57 - Nick

what's with this fixation to peg a generation? these futuristic abstractions are lazy and indulgent. let's let it unfold. Based on experience with an irrelevantly small yet very personal sample size, I feel tremendous confidence in the deep innate activism I see in this 20 something crowd ... but kill that - i loathe speaking of the group as if it were an individual ...

0 2016-05-02 22:30:39 - mb

This is over-analyzed, projected and as full of sweeping generalizations as I have ever seen. We are talking about humans here. They have different life experiences than me, but our need for love and other basic social needs are the same. And no matter how young Americans develop and become as a voting bloc, we can all rest assured that it beats a life lived in devastating poverty and starvation in Africa or other third world nations.

We have basically hosed a lot of young people by destroying our economy with greed, war and materialism, and offered them a bleaker future than we had at their age. Our religious institutions are more about control than about love and compassion, and politically we have demonstrated that a lot of wealthy, intelligent and powerful adults cannot come together for a higher purpose.

What's to like about that?

56 2016-04-08 17:20:14 - Tom J
The millennial's aren't any more self obsessed than any generation is at their age. Maybe Douthat is unaware that the boomers were referred to as, "The Me Generation" when they were young.

The millennials are probably more collaborative & communal in their approach to life than their predecessors. They are more likely to think about how what they do, fits in the context of people around them. They just don't trust the institutions Douthat thinks they should be flocking to... and with pretty good reason!
7 2016-04-04 08:10:44 - Uncle Joe

I tried hard to get this, since I'm trying to be kinder to deep-thinking conservatives. But I still found much of this over the top. Here are two of Ross's points I found most striking:

1...."whether they will push our political debates leftward in the long run (probably, because youthful voting patterns tend to persist across the life cycle), and whether this gives the Democratic Party a hammerlock on the future (it doesn’t, because political coalitions always adapt and fracture in unexpected ways)."

I'm not sure what Ross means by this, other than an attempt to hedge his bets. if millennials are individualistic but still more liberal than not, and if youthful voting patterns persists throughout life, what does he mean by saying political coalitions always adapt? Wouldn't the preferences of voters stay the same from 20 to 80 unless someway, somehow, their political parties (or coalitions) reshaped themselves? It's an odd way of getting this across.

2. "....the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism."

So Nisbet's point is that sudden freedom from the local and oppressive control of clan, church and guild pushed citizens back to the comfort of collective control, albeit on a national level? Isn't this overly simplistic?

Frankly, I think we're underestimating the ability of generations to adapt, grow, and change from life experience. Let's give the millennials a little time.

17 2016-03-26 17:48:15 - Christine_mcmorrow

For those of us who study American culture professionally there is no surprise here. American culture has long been reeling between the polarities of individualism and conformity as a major orientation scale for everything--attitudes, politics, consumer consumption patterns, child rearing and social relations. Many times both are invoked at the same time. One needs only to look at advertising which incredibly sends messages like: "Show what an individual you are. Choose product X, the most popular product of its kind." Apple has exploited this seeming cultural paradox to the hilt.

Generations tend to show their difference with earlier generations by moving a little more to one side of the scale than their parents. The millennial mix of individualism and communitarian conformity is completely American, absolutely within the range of normality for American life.

Anyone who finds Mr. Douthat's comments intriguing might take a look at Margaret Mead's "And Keep Your Powder Dry," written in several editions in the 1940's. Dr. Mead understood these basic patterns in American life perfectly. Reading this 70+ year old work is an epiphany, because it helps us understand how little we have changed, and how bound we are by the basic patterns of our own culture.

One can only imagine what one can imagine, and our cultural patterns, learned from our parents and peers, determine what that imagination can be.

2 2016-03-22 18:03:14 - William O. Beeman

The millennials are living in a rotten time. They are seeing our country sour; lose interest in fairness, faith, friendliness, and willingness to help. They are starting out their lives deep in educational debt, joblessness, and an atmosphere of anger and hate. This doesn’t bode well for anyone and how they will come to terms with that is anyone’s guess. Congress is showing them leadership by self destruction.

At age 77, more than a decade retired, I have watched America go through a destructive stage which appalls me and yes, I am referencing George Bush and Iraq and worse, his appointments to the Supreme Court that have led to the best Congress money can buy. Today, we have Congress whose job it is to support Americans, refusing to do so and making the needy the criminals.

Diana Moses writes about the "pendulum." I am hoping that it starts back on an arc of kindness and understanding. I am furious that the unemployed have been demonized and left unsupported, that SNAP has been refused adequate funding, that Congress would vote more than 50 times to cancel the ACA and that the Republicans cannot see their way to support health insurance for all.

When will the pendulum move away from that? I am hoping the whole country will come to its senses. I won’t see it, but I can still hope. It’s what the millennials need to experience.

68 2016-03-19 22:42:42 - Steve C

"Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism." I have to wonder how Fascist Italy could have possibly come into existence, as its people defined themselves, and still do, by strong affiliations with family, town, region, and church. if Nisbet is correct, Mussolini should never have come to power.

2 2016-03-18 15:38:52 - C Landrey

Individualism is modernity. What separates the ancient world from the modern is contrary overarching cultural principles: in the ancient world things exist only in relationship and in the modern world things exist in isolation. The latter principle explains why modern societies have fragmented into a collection of isolated, autonomous individuals, who desperately desire love and who, in the main, are unhappy. Moderns are separated from each other, from nature, and from the transcendent. Thus, S.S. Moderna, the steamship we have all booked passage on, is headed for catastrophe, for a collision with an iceberg broken free from the polar cap by global warming.

8 2016-03-09 20:40:26 - George Stanciu

From the description of millenials above I take a different view. They are anti-Conservatism. Thankfully, because every challenge we face is hindered by rightwingers. Falling wages, declining middle-class, increasing inequality, borrowing to wage war and cut taxes, climate change, poisoned ground water and food and human bodies, etc...

3 2016-03-09 15:23:51 - LauraNo

As one who is a few decades older than Mr. Douthat, it is entertaining to hear him sounding more old, fearful, and curmudgeonly than most folks in my own peer group. Just because the new generation rejects Douthat's corrupt and dying institutions does not mean that they cannot or will not create new institutions of their own. If Douthat takes a bit of time to study history, he will discover that time passes, but the story of life does not really change too much.

11 2016-03-06 07:44:36 - James

The decline of patriotism and religion, the two most regressive, repressive, and destructive social forces, offers a glimmer of hope for humanity as my otherwise cynical spirit slides through my seventh decade on the planet. "Nothing to kill or die for," sang John Lennon. As for postponing marriage, why is that institution so inevitable? I never sailed those waters myself, but I have known many victims of so-called marital bliss who would have been much happier had they not tied the knot. Divorce lawyers may disagree.
The great conservative hypocrisy sings there glory of the individual and bemoans the decline of collective institutions. Use each when convenient.

10 2016-03-05 10:35:34 - Ralph Averill

In North Carolina, at the moment, the more left leaning people are disenfranchised by gerrymandering. With no chance to have their votes count, no wonder the young are disillusioned. However, everyone who is poor is suffering. Eventually I hope that some who now vote Republican realize that they themselves are hurt by the Republican policies that neglect just about every social need that you can mention, including education, the environment, food aid, unemployment, and low wages.

28 2016-03-02 19:44:13 - Ro Mason

It is certainly premature to proclaim in which direction " individualism" is headed. Much will depend upon whether the newly hatched Electronic Communication Age will become a modern day bread and circuses , a popular distraction without real purpose( the current generation content to let the 1% run the show), or whether it will mature into a resource for thoughtful action and progress by the millennials. Likely a bit of both.
I think the " privacy surrendered" that we see online, and that Douthat signals as a warning, is more a passing fad than a pathway to tyranny and conformity. Like you, I have more confidence in the positive aspects of the individualism we see in today's youth. And from the same era as you, I also don't believe labeling generations is very useful. But one must admit the moniker " War Babies" is in fact at least accurate to time and events.

0 2016-03-01 10:27:23 - splg

It is interesting that the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Nisbet already has Mr. Douthat's words as part of its content. That being said Prof Nesbet and Mr. Douthat have ignored other modern lines of thought. Tolerance and the social contract. I am always wary when someone proclaims some superlative or another for someone's work instead of just saying what it is proposing. Communities should share their strength and open their doors willingly. The us against them of the creed of clans and tribalism once served a purpose long ago, but today we understand that acceptance of lawful, ethical lifestyles enriches us not vice versa. Religion and marriage is being tested because much of the premise of those institutions did not fit the evolving stage of increased individual rights.

0 2016-02-29 08:39:00 - Donald Green

Humanity has survived these hundreds of thousands of years not because it is social or individual, liberal or conservative, or even aggressive or timid. Like all successful species humanity is pragmatic, and lucky. The millennials are responding to the gridlock of political parties and the frightening exploits of nations. They are witnesses to the yielding of religion to science, the advent of social media and the globalization of human interaction.

We are deluding ourselves if we believe that left and right ideologies, theocracies, sovereign nations, racial diversity, and huge imbalances in the access to wealth will persist very long into the future. Whatever our moral attitudes to them are, they are impractical and self destructive.

The millennials may be experiencing change at a faster rate than our ancestors, or even than us. They are, however, just as obligated to respond to it as all of those who preceded them.

2 2016-02-28 22:45:46 - Ken H.

Funny how Mr. Douthat ignores the individualism of the top 1% and their tax breaks (15% for Hedge Fund managers as an example) at the expense of the rest of the country.

11 2016-02-25 04:33:35 - Charles

Whatever generation we want to focus on, I see the disconnect between individualism and obligation pivoting on deciding who we are obligated to support. I watch my dad, now 87, go out of his limited way to help out family, friends, and neighbors (while they in turn help him). In this context he gives without hesitation. But bring up institutionalized giving, and this kind man loses his temper. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out, we can all support the same moral dimension in different ways.

0 2016-02-18 00:17:02 - Bob Krantz

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