American Individualism Will Not Survive a Generation Raised on Social Media

Notes from the 5th Annual “Non-Obvious Dinner”**

The ideal of American individualism will not survive a generation raised on social media.

For nearly 300 years, a paradigm has prevailed of the self-made person, the “rugged” individualist (to use Herbert Hoover’s term), which elevates the person who transcends his circumstances to make his way in the world.  It has been common to celebrate the lives of people like this, such as Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, or Andrew Carnegie.  Even leaders who began their lives in relative privilege, such as George Washington or John F. Kennedy, still have their narratives told from the perspective of their individualism, emphasizing their leadership as ahead of the curve, or visionary, and attributable to their own character.

Horatio Alger became one of the best selling authors of the 19th century peddling stories of the rugged individualist who starts from nothing and makes it big.  Individualism has as the following assumptions:

–Community is built up by collecting worthy individuals.

–Social structures are a hierarchy or “ladder” one must climb

–Success or failure is a result of an individual’s actions (work ethic)

–Ambition is a positive character trait.

By contrast, today’s “millennial generation”, the first to be immersed in social media full time, have completely different assumptions. For them, to be in community is the default:  hence you see very little desire to join long standing traditional communities, such as the military or the clergy, especially if these require personal sacrifice or long term commitment.

Members of this generation are trying to “find themselves” not make their careers.

Instead of the traditional assumptions of American individualism, you find these assumptions:

–I will opt in and out of the communities I belong to

–The best organizations and structures are flat

–Individuals are products of their environment and have little self-determination

–Ambitious people are bad

Anecdotally, you see things from this generation valuing the “four hour work week”, or preferring flex time over career promotion from an employer. This generation has strong preferences for

–self-expression over appreciation of the great works of others (poetry has ceased to exist).

–gaining experiences over acquiring things.

The main reason for this new set of assumptions is the shift from an internal standard (such as guilt or shame) to an external standard.  Individualism has people looking inward to their own sense of right and wrong, their personal aspirations, etc.  Social media by their very essence have individuals looking outward, to their peers, for external validation of their actions and views.

The dynamic has shifted from being the individual who goes out to establish himself in the community and in the world to being people already in community through social media with others globally who need to “find themselves” as individuals.  Narcissism is the logical extreme of this, which cannot exist in individualism which emphasizes becoming self-made, as judged by external standards.

American individualism cannot survive in this culture except as a relic of history or in small minorities who opt out of the mainstream.

** The “Non-Obvious Dinner” is an annual event hosted by Ben duPont, Jeff Rollins, Henry Mellon, and Mike Kane in Wilmington, DE.  Each guest presents a two minute argument for a trend that is currently not obvious but will become so over the next five years.  The presenter with the best idea of the evening gets bragging rights, promises of major book advances, and a metal award difficult to take through airport security.

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