New York Times columnist Ross Douthat furrows his brow that we’re living in an age of untrammeled individualism.
Douthat’s expression of concern is prompted by an extensive poll of Millennials from the Pew Foundation. Pew found:
a generation that’s socially liberal on issues like immigration and marijuana and same-sex marriage, proudly independent of either political party, less likely to be married and religious than other generations, less likely to identify as patriotic and less likely—by a striking margin—to say that one’s fellow human beings can be trusted.
Here Comes Trouble
Like many others of older generations (he discloses he hails from Generation X), Douthat sees trouble ahead:
[the question is] whether this level of individualism—post patriotic, post-familial, disaffiliated—is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.
Douthat frets that the Millennials exhibit an individualism that may be altogether dangerous.
Could excesses of individualism occasion an authoritarian reaction? Might there be a thirst for submission?
Is this reminiscent of the social tinder that burst into flames in the nihilism of Nazism and Communism in the 20th century?
Perhaps it is… or not.
Not Your Great-Grandparents’ Individualism
History may be out of sight—but it’s still there, laying in wait. It’s not for nothing that we’re warned about the siren song: It’s different this time.
And yet, there may be reasons for optimism in the Pew findings. The new individualism is being cobbled together in the very different circumstances of the early 21st century.
Unmoored from Institutions
Pew reports what anyone can observe: the Millennials are “unmoored from institutions.”
Why should anyone be surprised?
Corporations, unions, finance capital, NGOs, government, political parties, the professions, the courts, organized religion, education, journalism, the military… all of these institutions have failed in their obligations to serve.
The Millennials are on the receiving end of many of these failures.
It would be far harder to understand if today’s young were not unmoored from these institutions.
Perhaps it’s more apt to say that institutions became unmoored from the Millennials. Or, perhaps, they never served the rising generations effectively.
In these circumstances, a better question might be: why are older generations holding on to these outdated arrangements? Could it be inertia–and self-interest?
20th century arrangements are being superseded. Generational change is speeding the process.
It’s unclear what’s coming next. It’s in the nature of change: we know what we’re losing before we can see what’s coming.
We do know some things:
—Many institutions that appear immutable are, in fact, highly mutable. The dominance of the national government in our federal system, the roles of CBS News, the New York Times, and many other longstanding, familiar institutions and understandings… each of these will adapt or perish.
—Their 21st century successors may well be something quite distinct from the institutions in the traditional sense. There will be all manner of ad-hoc arrangements. Networks will link people through all manner of boundaries that once were insuperable. They will create value in one way–then regroup or disperse to meet new challenges.
Dress suits and finery; bells, books and candles; Madison Avenue and Hollywood and Wall Street and Capitol Hill and the White House… authority is being challenged and bypassed.
In the Information Age, consent is conditional. It must be continuously earned. This may be profoundly unsettling at citadels of tradition such as the New York Times. It may well be bracing, even exhilarating, for the rest of us.
Millennials Leadership Opportunity
It’s fascinating–and predictable–that many in older generations would seek to maintain their prerogatives. That includes safeguarding their ways of understanding the world–even as the world is changing.
Some conservatives fear that Millennials are “reliably leftist.”
Some liberals see Millennials as selfish, because they may be on the “left” for personal freedoms, yet on the “right” for economic freedoms.
Some environmentalists assert that Millennials don’t care about the environment, because they don’t engage in the narratives that have ruled since the 1960s.
Some partisans see Millennials as irresponsible, non-political, because they reject the tired tropes of the Democrats and Republicans.
And so on…
Could it be that such reactions say more about older generations, than about the rising ones?
Everyone in America knows that we need to make major changes. Everyone in America knows that the Baby Boomers who have held sway in the Bill Clinton-George W. Bush-Barack Obama years have left many things worse than they found them.
The Millennials may be on to some big things.
Information Age transparency and collaboration are linking individual potential with social needs in ways that were quite simply unimaginable in the past.
When this writer looks for a successor prospectively worthy of the “Greatest Generation,” he sees them in them stirring in their twenties.
Will they make it?
I believe they can.
To succeed, they will need the judgment and perspective of older generations–just as older generations need the Millennials’ energy and insight to disrupt outdated arrangements at the dawn of the 21st century.
Millennials | Unsustainable Individualism?