Numbers from Pew released in March of 2015 continue to affirm what everyone already knew: that Americans stand out from other countries in the world when it comes to individualism.
In answer to the statement that ‘success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,’ some 57% of Americans disagreed, compared to, for instance, 31% of Germans or 27% of Indians—the global median was around 38%.
Interestingly, Americans seem pretty happy about this. When asked in the same poll if they would describe their day as particularly good, some 41% of Americans did; this is effectively double the rate of self-perceived happiness in other developed countries (Germany, Spain, Italy, e.g.) which all hover around the 20% mark.
So Americans are self-sufficient and happier for it. It is no surprise that in the blog post rehearsing these findings Pew chose to feature a picture of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose sociological-anecdotal account of American individualism examined the ways in which it reinforced a public spirit and made possible a vibrant civil society.
More recently, and most notably since Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, it’s become a common refrain of communitarians on the left and right that American civil society is coming undone. That finally, shorn free of the buttresses of collective trust and affection, America’s impulse toward individualism is beginning to dismantle, not reinforce, its delicate web of civic interactions. (My apologies to Putnam and others for my admittedly hit-and-run summary here.)
But is this an accurate picture? Consider just one aspect of our current socio-economic situation that has attracted a fair share of attention and concern: the sharing economy. Apps like Uber depend on utter interchangeability; it is the service, not the service-provider, that counts. The Infatuation app can help indecisive diners pick where to eat by crowdsourcing and curating restaurant reviews. You can even call up a personal butler to run errands for you by texting requests to Magic, a service which handles everything from reading emails to arranging travel.
Communitarians tend to lament this typical millennial proclivity to self-siloing, while also fearing what the general anonymity of this exchange system means for face-to-face interactions. But rather than evidence of millennials’ collective opting-out of civil-society, might we not see this as a strengthening of the invisible bonds of social trust?
Young people today show a profound degree of trust in strangers—trust enough to have them drive them to the airport, to pick up their dog from the vet, to recommend what to eat for dinner, even to stay in their house while they’re away. But of course when millennials avail themselves of these services, they don’t see each other as strangers. Not really. Rather, there is an expectation of fair play and even a basic store of camaraderie that sustains these sharing services.
The most obvious demonstration of this effect is in Uber’s ranking and feedback system, where riders are being judged at the same time that they judge. The sharing economy is reciprocal, and precisely depends on a type of self-interested affection for the other that Tocqueville saw at the heart of nineteenth-century America.
Perhaps, then, the sharing economy represents something of a renaissance of American civil-society—an opening up to the idea that, yes, we need each other.