In the Mecca of Capitalism that the U.S. is, it may perhaps be inappropriate to ask: Are young Americans becoming more materialistic? As I read David Brook’s column The Streamlined Life in the New York Times, just two days ago, this question is addressed, quite directly and his argument seems to suggest that indeed they are becoming more materialistic. With greater economic insecurity, lack of opportunities, are young people these days becoming more obsessed with wealth and economic stability? What is at stake here is how does this bode for the future of America’s role in the world?
Is this greater focus on just material wealth and success going to make the future leaders of America more insular, inward looking and disconnected from the outside world. In his column, Brooks thinks out aloud whether American college freshmen are becoming too goal oriented and focused on success, to the detriment of other bigger questions such as ‘meaning of life’ and developing a coherent living philosophy. Based on the survey results of the survey by U.C.L.A., he says “Their overall values change. In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.” While there is a tendency among many Americans to think that their country is ‘exceptional,’ due to its super-power status, they also mistakenly assume that it is ok for them to be completely self-absorbed with their own problems and not care about the rest of the world. This is visible through various surveys conducted about Americans attitudes towards rest of the world, including the amount of foreign-aid that America should give, the role that U.S. should have in global affairs etc. Consistently, the average American seems to think that the lesser involvement, the better. While this is a normative question, where each answer can be equally valid, from a realist perspective, this seems foolhardy; as a super-power cannot afford to be self-absorbed. It not only hurts its ability to influence world events, but also hurts its moral standing.
The questions raised above, about whether greater individualism and focus on wealth is impacting American society are not new ones, by any means.In their classic book, Habits of the Heart (1985), Robert Bellah et al investigated the phenomenon of individualism and argue that Americans use their public and private aspects of life to make sense of their lives. They say “Our conversations with our fellow citizens have deepened our conviction that although we have to rely on our traditions to answer those questions, we have to probe those traditions much more critically than we are used to doing if we are going to make sense of the challenges posted by the rapidly changing world we live in.” (p.21).While identifying individualism as a uniquely American trait, that my well define the ‘American character,’ Bellah et al contend that “Whatever the differences among the traditions and the consequent differences in their understandings of individualisms, there are some things they all share, things that are basic to American identity. We believe in dignity indeed the sacredness of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and for the world, are closely linked to our individualism.”(Pg.142). This individualism is a consequence of the Western liberal tradition, which holds the freedom of the individual to be paramount, but has also been informed by the strongly religious traditions in the country. They have identified various forms of individualism such as ‘expressive individualism’ and ‘utilitarian individualism’ and Walt Whitman and Benjamin Franklin are given as examples of the two types of individualisms. So, in effect, individualism is not a hindrance to collective action or idealism; but it can rather help Americans deal with and make sense of the demands that their communities make of them. The trouble seems to arise when there is too much of individualism and it leads to people becoming self-absorbed to the extent that there is a total disconnect from society. This could have implications for democracy as such, as scholars such as Robert Putnam (2001) and Robert Wuthnow (2004) have argued in their books.
Another finding that troubles Brooks and bothers me as well is the following. “In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.” While the limitation of this survey, and any survey, by virtue of its methodology is that the results don’t capture a lot of the nuance in the answers given; they are definitely indicative of the broader ‘mood’ in the country. The mood among youth, of claiming their rights, while not remembering their obligations towards the country is captured by this quote by Amitai Etzioni, a staunch proponent of Communitarianism “Young people have learned only half of America’s story. Consistent with the priority they place on personal happiness, young people reveal notions of America’s unique character that emphasize freedom and license almost to the complete exclusion of service or participation. Although they clearly appreciate the democratic freedoms that, in their view, make theirs the “best country in the world to live in,” they fail to perceive a need to reciprocate by exercising the duties and responsibilities of good citizenship.” (p.3). While these debates will continue to play out in the years and decades to come, there is a growing realization among some scholars that civic engagement, responsibility towards one’s nation and fellow beings is declining and that is not a good thing – both for the individual and the community.
The warning that Bellah and his colleagues sound in Habits of the Heart is relevant today, as it was when they wrote it. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous – that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities.” This may be a fair warning and given the results of this survey, policy makers, religious heads and educators and parents should all take heed and perhaps re-focus their attention on making the youth more ‘integrated’ into society, rather than ‘alienated.’ The stakes are very high and if this trend is not stopped, the very individualism that has made America the most innovative nation in the world may also make it the most self-absorbed and nihilistic one. That, the U.S. cannot afford.