The Bane of Hyper-Individualism

By K. Tymon Zhou | United States

Individualism is a cherished American virtue. It conjures images of self-reliance and freedom.  However, it has evolved into something sinister: hyper-individualism. Individualism, with its passionate dreams, recognizes certain boundaries.  These dreams were tempered by an equally powerful sense of community.  Far from hampering self-expression, communities empower individuals to live productive lives. Hyper-individualism has lost sight of this truth. In pursuit of self-expression, society has neglected religion and marriage with potentially disastrous results.

Religions, by their very nature, create communities. Dr. Raj Chetty, a leading expert on income inequality, argues that religions create social capital, a support structure.  He specifically cites Salt Lake City’s LDS community as an area with strong social capital and upward mobility.  Religions can provide networks of support for the disadvantaged. This provides greater opportunity for low-income families and individuals to become more self-reliant.

Hyper-individualism with its disdain for community has eroded such opportunities.  According to the Pew Research Center, about 36% of Americans attend religious services weekly.  This indicates a decline in religious communities. This decline has occurred across generations. 51% of the Silent Generation ( 1928-1945) attend religious services weekly.  This stands in sharp contrast to the 27% of young adults who do the same ( 1981-1989).  The social stability that religious communities provide is fading.

Alongside religion, marriage is declining.  Currently, 50% of adult Americans are married compared to the 72% who were in 1960. Similarly, less children are born to married couples. 40% of children are born out of wedlock. In earlier generation, couples in such situations, guided by a sense of responsibility , would marry. Today’s couples are less likely to do so.

The Institute for Family Studies reports that “43% of unwed pregnancies resulted in a shotgun marriage in the early 1960s; this is down to 9% today. ” From a purely sociological point of view, this is highly concerning.  Marriage provides critical social capital.  Without this capital, families suffer. The Heritage Foundation reports that 70.8% of poor families are unmarried. In debates over income inequality, many causes are cited. The breakdown of marriage is not typically one. Yet, it condemns far too many to heartbreaking poverty.

Religion and marriage are pillars of a community. Sadly, they are becoming increasingly marginalized. Outside of religion and marriage, there may be freedom from commitment. To pursue one’s own dreams is a noble thing.  What is forgotten is that it must be tempered by a sense of community. Through commitments, individuals can soar.  Without them, they can fall.

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