The Rise of "Me" Culture

Individualism is becoming one of the central themes of the 21st century.

Posted Aug 12, 2018

Almost half a century after the “Me Generation” made headlines with its focus on the self, individualism is well on the way to becoming one of the central themes of the 21st century. Baby boomers did indeed look out for #1 in the hedonistic, therapeutic 1970s, but now individualism—acting in one’s own interests versus those of an organized group or government—is arguably the guiding principle of our times. It’s important to remember that from a historical view the idea and practice of individualism is a radical concept. The Enlightenment ideals of the 18th century were in opposition to the all-encompassing power of church and state that had endured for a millennium, and laid the seeds for the continual ascent of individualism over the past few hundred years.

Today, expressions of individualism are everywhere you look, making the me-ness of the “Me Generation” look comparatively mild. Living alone is no longer seen as odd or peculiar, for example, and usage of the words “I” or “me” in both verbal and written communication is significantly higher than in the past. (It is the “selfie,” however, which serves as the poster child for contemporary individualism.) The rise of individualism has run on a parallel course with a loss of faith and trust in large institutions, with this way of seeing the world showing no signs of reversing.  In fact, there are clear signs that individualism is evolving into a global movement, as people all over the world rebuff external control in favor of sovereignty of the self. “Day by day, week by week, year by year we are experiencing a gradual but pervasive spread of individual autonomy and increasing confidence in personal judgment,” wrote Jay Ogilvy for stratfor.com, seeing this as “for the most part, a good thing.”

In the United States, the embrace of individualism certainly relates to the decline of political partisanship and correlative rise of self-declared independents. (Much is made of the alleged great divide between Republicans and Democrats but in fact the political landscape is more defined by citizens’ individual stance on issues.) Likewise, the falling off of organized religion and interest in exploring personalized forms of spirituality reflects the rejection of institutional authority and affirmation of the self. And as Moises Naim argues in his The End of Power, the middle-classing of many nations and a more mobile world are contributing to a pervasive ethos of individuality. “When people are living fuller lives, they become more difficult to regiment and control,” Naim wrote in the book, this erosion of official power and escalation of self-rule likely to accelerate in the future.

For the business world, the triumph of individualism represents the permanent retirement of the “mass market” that served corporations for so long. If individualism is really about freedom and having choices in life, it’s in the best interests of all kinds of organizations to view consumers or constituents as unique individuals rather than as belonging to a socially constructed group or really any form of “market.” “The increased respect for self-reliance, democracy and individual freedoms has developed a culture of ‘me first’,” the smart folks at UK-based Trend Monitor observed, “creating a more engaged, confident and vocal consumer and forcing companies and brands to re-assess the way they build relationships and interact with their customers.” Personalized products and services would be the most obvious strategic route to capitalize on individualism, but simply treating people as, well, people also makes a lot of sense in taking advantage of this trend.