Social media reveals ongoing American tension between the individual and community life

A cultural historian who examined differences in loneliness between the 19th century and today comments on a larger tension in social interaction:

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt…

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Seeking affirmation is not necessarily a bad thing. In a face-to-face social interaction, isn’t each participant hoping that the other people respond favorably? This involves the concept of the “generalized other” and “impression management” in sociology: we act in certain ways because we anticipate how others will respond to us.

2. This tension plays out in numerous ways in American history. Two examples come to mind. First, the desire for small town life yet wanting the excitement and opportunities of cities (so meeting in the suburbs). Second, the desire to not be compelled to act in certain ways yet supporting local government and voluntary associations.

3. Another angle to take regarding this issue is whether smartphones and social media are separate phenomena with unique consequences or whether they follow in the line of other mass media technologies and exacerbate existing issues.

Possible limits even as more Americans seek housing that accommodates multiple generations

If more Americans want to live in multigenerational households, can they find homes that make room for this arrangement?

But for complex reasons that still puzzle researchers, multigenerational households are now on the rise once more. As many as 41% of Americans buying a home are considering accommodating an elderly parent or an adult child, according to a survey conducted by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. Living with your parents (or your adult children) has plenty of potential benefits–everyone tends to save money, it can potentially benefit health outcomes, and you get to spend more time together.

Just one problem: American housing stock, dominated by single-family homes and connected by cars, isn’t really designed for it…

The advent of commercial air travel and the rapid expansion of American suburbia made inexpensive, single-family housing–and cross-country travel–attainable for more and more people. By 1950, just 21% of American households contained two or more generations. New funding for nursing homes from the Federal Housing Administration led to a boom in private nursing homes in 1950s and ’60s, and over time it became more and more normal to self-select into senior housing rather than living with your children. By 1980, the number of multigenerational homes had dropped to just 12%, according to Pew

But in any case, homes designed specifically for multigenerational living are still a small segment of the housing market. Far more common are families that have renovated their homes to suit aging parents or adult children, like the architect Cini, whose firm Mosaic Design specializes in senior design, particularly assisted living centers. Her personal experience with multigenerational life eventually led to a book, Hive, a practical how-to for other families who, either by necessity or choice, are moving in together. In large part, Hive addresses the unspoken taboos and tensions of living with your parents and grandparents.

No doubt there are complex social and cultural shifts behind this. The 20th century of mass American suburbanization may be an outlier in human history with the significant move to private single-family homes.

The larger issue that is reflected in this housing crunch may be that of increasing individualism and autonomy in recent centuries. Even the discussions of possible solutions to this housing issue betray this. The nursing home frees the family from obligations to care for elderly or infirm family members. Cohousing provides more community but residents still retreat to private units. Making alterations to a single-family home to accommodate family members can often lead to in-law suites or separate entrances.

Put another way, economic conditions and/or changing relationships between generations mean that more families want to live together but there are limits on how much autonomy or privacy family members are willing to give up. How a family arranges the space in its home could take many different forms. I don’t think anyone is recommending family members all sleep in just one or a few rooms, something common to much of human history. But, living together also does not necessarily mean that family members sharing an address actually see each other that much. A converted single-family home could be more like a duplex than a tight multigenerational setup. Family may be good to have close but perhaps not too close?

Or, to put it a third way, how many Americans would choose these multifamily or cohousing setups if the price of housing was not too high? The social benefits of a multigenerational family home could be high but Americans also value their autonomy.

 

1960s white religious leaders: God told us to love our neighbors but did not mean to pick our neighbors for us

My history colleague Karen Johnson recently delivered the first Faith and Learning lecture on the Wheaton College campus titled “Place Matters:  The vocation of where we live and how we live there.” See the talk here.

One quote from her talk (roughly 35:50 into the talk) stuck with me. In opposing open housing efforts in the 1960s through the Illinois Association of Real Estate Boards, white religious leaders said:

“We don’t doubt the words of Him who said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ but we do doubt, gentlemen, that He meant to disturb our American heritage and freedoms by picking these neighbors for us.”
Three features of this stand out:
1. I suspect this logic is still in use in many American communities today. Individual liberty about where to live is more prized than government intervention to help those who cannot move to certain places unless they have help (usually for reasons connected to social class and race and ethnicity). While it is couched in religious terms in this quote, I don’t think it needs religious backing to be widely supported by many suburbanites or wealthier residents.
2. Connected to the first point, few white and wealthier residents would today explicitly say that their opposition to affordable housing or government intervention to bring new people to communities is because of race and ethnicity (some government intervention in housing is more than acceptable as long as it helps the right people). They might talk in terms of social class or the character of the community. But, it still often comes down to race and who are desirable neighbors.
3. The mixing of American and religious values is strong. For American Christians, where do individual liberties end and Christian responsibilities begin? Which takes precedence? All religious groups have to think about which ideas and values to take on within particular contexts (whether nations, communities, or subgroups). A good portion of the critique of conservative Protestants often seems to involve the blurring of these lines: can these Christians see when their own stated religious commitments do not align with particular American commitments?

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.

“Minister of loneliness” will get to work

This may be a new governmental role in the 21st century: minister of loneliness.

On Wednesday, the U.K. made political history by creating an entirely new, untried political role: the world’s first “minister for loneliness.” The post is designed to combat what Prime Minister Theresa May called “the sad reality of modern life” for many people…

The scope and effects of loneliness are unquestionably devastating. Half a million British people over 60 only talk to another person once a week or less. People who self-report as lonely are more likely to experience dementia, heart disease, and depression. When it comes to life expectancy, the long-term health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day

So what could a minister do to ease this situation? The issues spread across a very wide range of policy areas—and that’s kind of the point. A minister for loneliness could potentially have a trans-governmental scope, pressing policy-makers, businesses, and individuals to look at a whole range of decisions through the lens of loneliness.

I was reminded of this recently by a book that suggested cities can contribute to profound social isolation for some. And pair this with the idea that social media can lead to isolation and you have much of the modern world: urbanized and Facebooked.

I would be interested to see if such a minister sticks to small changes across a range of social spheres or tackles some of the broader issues like the individualism and autonomy promoted through the last few centuries of Western life. Is there any chance a Western government would promote less individualism in order to help promote less loneliness? Or, put another way, what would be the tipping point to convince a public that they should give some individual liberty in order to together tackle social isolation?

Societal goals: avoiding society through online shopping

The comic Take It From the Tinkersons recently had a strip hinting at a major consequence of online shopping:

While this might be a bit of hyperbole, there is some truth to this. Is one of the appeals of online shopping the ability to avoid society and social interactions? Even shopping at your local big box store requires rubbing shoulders with other shoppers and a brief interaction with a cashier (even with self-checkout, you still have an overseer).

At the least, online shopping provides evidence of the significant shift that happened in Western societies in the last few hundred years. The earliest sociologists were very interested in the switch from tight-knit village or agrarian life to the less connected and varied urban life. Marx saw tremendous consequences for labor and the individual within an economic system rooted in burgeoning cities. Durkheim compared mechanical and organic solidarity, a shift toward a complex division of labor where individuals now depended on others to do essential tasks for their lives. Tonnies contrasted gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, more direct social interactions versus indirect social interactions.

Online shopping of the sorts we have today may only be possible in a highly complex and individualized society such as our own. The process of moving a product from its production point to a warehouse to your home or business through online clicks is quite complicated and amazing. Yet, it really does limit social interactions on the shopping end. As private individuals, we can now make choices and receive our products away from scrutiny. It would be an error to think that this private purchase is now removed from social influence – with the spread of media and influence of social media, we may be influenced by generalized social pressures more than ever – but the direct social experience is gone.

This could have big implications for social life. Will buying habits significantly change now that immediate social interactions and social pressure is removed? Will we become used to such social transactions not involving people that we will be willing to remove social interactions from other areas? There will certainly be consequences of increasing online shopping and public life – even if it is related to individuals consuming products in a capitalistic system – may just suffer for it.

 

Infographic: “Is Your McMansion Killing You?”

Put together a number of statistics about large American homes and an infographic can point the way towards death. These factors – everything from more TV watching, eating poorly, not getting much exercise, and paying more for space that isn’t necessarily needed – are not necessarily related to McMansions. You could do all of this and live in a more modest home or have a really large home that is more architecturally pleasing. For example, did growing up in a 1880s Victorian home or a 1950s ranch necessarily lead to better behavior or were these larger social issues? In this line of reasoning, McMansions may just be a symptom of larger issues such as increased consumerism and individualism.

All that said, I could imagine even more data that could be added to the infographic:

-How much extra infrastructure needs to be built to support suburban McMansions (as contrasted with denser apartment living in big cities)?

-What about the loss of aesthetic beauty in seeing or living in mass-produced, poorly designed McMansions? Can’t this decrease one’s enjoyment of life?

-What is the cost of all the driving often done to accommodate McMansions?

-How about the decrease in civic life encouraged by such large and well-furnished private spaces?

This infogrphic could keep going on and on and on…