Individualism is Spreading, and That's Not Good

A new report shows a marked uptick in individualism worldwide. The collective voice of societies will be the loser. 


Economist Enrico Moretti believes the best indicator of income is not your profession but rather whether you live in a region with a high degree of college graduates. Five Western states, including Colorado and Montana, feature the lowest unemployment rates in America, writes Richard Manning in the latest issue of Harper’s. 

Manning speculates that the combination of high concentration of college graduates and lower wage workers employed in forward-thinking industries makes for an especially potent force against unemployment and poverty. 

In his article, “Political Climbers,” Manning discusses the collective mindset of Western states regarding environmental issues. Over the last few years concerns over the environment have affected elections in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. Candidates focused on identity politics suffered losses while those who speak out on climate change and land perseveration persevere. And when elected officials threaten selling off public lands to private interests—think Jason Chaffetz and Ryan Zinke—the backlash is harsh and immediate.

Collective action is an important political and social driver. In Los Angeles, where I live, the reverse occurs: people pay little attention to environmental issues such as water conservation because we don’t live near the Colorado River or the Sierra Nevada, nor do we endure extreme droughts inland farmers suffer. We only get mad when avocado prices skyrocket.

Unfortunately humans tend to only notice what’s immediate, which makes sense in tribes but creates substantial problems in nations legislated by one government. It promotes a thrust toward individualism in which the concerns of the few become more important than the welfare of the many. It becomes—America. And America is spreading. 

More generally, the “Western” value of individualism is spreading, according to new research published in Psychological Science. Examining fifty-one years of data covering seventy-eight countries collected for the World Values Survey, authors Igor Grossman and Michael E.W. Varnum discovered that it’s not only Western cultures becoming more individualistic. As Science Daily reports,

In general, individualist cultures tend to conceive of people as self-directed and autonomous, and they tend to prioritize independence and uniqueness as cultural values. Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, tend to see people as connected with others and embedded in a broader social context -- as such, they tend to emphasize interdependence, family relationships, and social conformity.

According to the authors, Cameroon, Malawi, Malaysia, and Mali showed a substantial decrease in individualistic practices, while five others—Armenia, China, Croatia, Ukraine, and Uruguay—showed a substantial decrease in individualist values. In both cases the predominant number of countries studies showed substantial increases in both fields. The individual becomes more important than the group.

The strongest indicator of increased individualism is increased socioeconomic development. This makes sense, as the better off individuals and their families are, the more concern they exhibit toward remaining that way. This drive is the basis of growth economy—numbers need to constantly rise in order to maintain social position, creating a strong sense of competition, which the free market relies on. 

But what one gains in personal wealth the society loses in collective power. Concentrated corporate wealth in America hardly needs to be mentioned. With an increased focus on robots and AI taking over the retail market to the same degree automation has changed manufacturing the long view of employment is going to shift dramatically in the coming decades. 

Which, as Manning points out, does not have to be a problem, if the collective mindset keeps up with the times. Though our current president is weirdly fixated on miners, Manning writes that actual statistics are making a larger impact than emotional rhetoric. 

Clean power is rising in popularity as people are making money on it. Twice as many Americans work in solar as in coal, and the former is creating jobs at about twelve times the rate of the rest of the economy. This momentum is what will have to carry us forward. 

But this requires a reversal of the trend that Grossman and Varnum allude to in their report. This trend in power is not dissimilar to the current health care problem. Sure, the situation is not ideal for everyone—I’m a cancer survivor who has been one of the losers on the current market—but the approach is to cover everyone, not to only provide coverage to top earners. It is not an individualist approach, but an attempt at a collective solution. 

The main problem is the perpetual drive to capitalization of every market. Other important factors help determine which nations are becoming more individualist; as the authors write, this trend “particularly increases in the proportion of white-collar jobs, in education levels, and in household income.” As America is showing, the creation of two classes—the extremely wealthy and everyone else—also fosters perpetual competition between the middle class and the poor, which in the long run helps no one.

An example of this is put forward by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who in a conversation with Sam Harris talks about his decision to wait to install solar panels on his home. When he’s initially told that the panels will pay for themselves in a dozen years, he recalls his training as an economist: if he waits three years, he thinks, those panels will pay for themselves in a much shorter duration of time. 

This is a proper market view. But it’s a poor decision regarding the planet’s health and, by extension, the health of those who can’t afford to think much about markets. Those extra three years of oil maximize gains for the individual, and there are certainly psychological and short-term financial gains made with such a mindset. What is lost in a world striving toward individualism is the collective thirst for and subsequent implementation of equality. Without that, the voice of the collective won’t matter much at all, for the individuals who make them up will be gone.

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Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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