Individualism as the defining characteristic of Millennials

by Ryan Streeter on March 17, 2014. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Ross Douthat has a characteristically good column on the individualism that surveys shows is at the heart of what defines the millennial generation:

[M]illennials’ skepticism of parties, programs and people runs deeper than their allegiance to a particular ideology. Their left-wing commitments are ardent on a few issues but blur into libertarianism and indifferentism on others. The common denominator is individualism, not left-wing politics: it explains both the personal optimism and the social mistrust, the passion about causes like gay marriage and the declining interest in collective-action crusades like environmentalism, even the fact that religious affiliation has declined but personal belief is still widespread. (emphasis added)

So the really interesting question about the millennials isn’t whether they’ll all be voting Democratic when Chelsea Clinton runs for president. It’s whether this level of individualism — postpatriotic, postfamilial, disaffiliated — is actually sustainable across the life cycle, and whether it can become a culture’s dominant way of life.

To get some perspective on individualism’s place in modernity, Ross turns to Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community:

Trying to explain modern totalitarianism’s dark allure, Nisbet argued that it was precisely the emancipation of the individual in modernity — from clan, church and guild — that had enabled the rise of fascism and Communism.

In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity, he suggested, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.

You don’t have to see a fascist or Communist revival on the horizon (I certainly don’t) to see this argument’s potential relevance for our apparently individualistic future. You only have to look at the place where millennials — and indeed, most of us — are clearly seeking new forms of community today.

That place is the online realm, which offers a fascinating variation on Nisbet’s theme. Like modernity writ large, it promises emancipation and offers new forms of community that transcend the particular and local. But it requires a price, in terms of privacy surrendered, that past tyrannies could have only dreamed of exacting from their subjects.