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Is this the decade individualism dies?

January 10, 2020 - 7:00am

Summing up a decade in its recent aftermath is a fools’ game — it is only with a bit of distance we will be able to see what was going on.

One theme of the 2010s does seem likely to remain defining though: disconnection and division. Isolation, loneliness and associated mental health problems are soaring. The world is going to hell, and it is someone else’s fault.

This weekend a piece in the FT by Anne-Marie Slaughter gave me hope that the 20s might offer something different. Slaughter pointed to a spate of recent books calling for a rejection of what might be seen as “boomer” values — the generational cohort that has long been characterised as self-sufficient and competitive — to a more connected, co-operative posture in the world. Many voices have been calling for a shift, including thinkers themselves in their 50s and 60s who have largely lived defined by individualism.

It is possible to point to ways in which competition and self-sufficiency have served the world well. Much innovation, growth and progress in technology can in part be attributed to them. However, there are many problems individuals cannot tackle, and the limitations of these values are being starkly revealed in the face of climate crisis.

Presidential advisor, Yale dean and elder statesman of the environmental movement Gus Speth:

“I used to think that thirty years of good science could address these [environmental] problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
- Gus Speth

Boomer authors like Arthur Brooks, David Brooks (see UnHerd’s interview from last year, below) and Anne Marie Slaughter herself are publicly and repeatedly questioning an atomised individualism that looked like freedom in the twentieth century and now seems set to unravel us all.

The centrality of relationships and the human need to be part of something bigger than ourselves are of growing importance amongst the generation who still largely run the world. In boardrooms and CEO boot camps across the world, connection, not comparison is the buzzword. Slaughter ends by saying:

“Connection to others, rather than comparison with them, submerges ego by locating identity in the bonds among people rather than in an individual… The goal here is not self-gratification of any sort, whether through professional achievement or service to others. It is actually to achieve an important common good.”
- Anne-Marie Slaughter

If even the Financial Times is calling for a spiritual revolution, these ideas, more familiar from churches and ‘new age’ retreats, are becoming mainstream. Connection over competition and meaning over financial reward are values already seen as defining in younger generational cohorts —  though no cohort can claim moral superiority in our present crisis. If the generations can align in rejecting individual good in favour of what we hold in common, this decade might just be remembered as the one we, together, saved the world.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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