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Individualism Goes Global: More Live Alone, Value Friends

Around the globe, individualistic values and practices are on the rise.

For a long time, Western nations have been moving away from values that emphasize family ties and fitting in, and toward more individualistic values such as independence, uniqueness, personal choice, and self-expression. But does the same march toward individualism and away from collectivism also characterize other nations around the globe? That’s the question Henri Santos, Michael Varnum, and Igor Grossman addressed in their just-published article in Psychological Science, “Global increases in individualism.”

The researchers were interested in individualistic practices (such as living alone) as well as individualistic values (such as valuing friends more than family, teaching children to be independent instead of obedient, and believing in freedom of speech). They found 51 years of data (1960 through 2011) from 78 countries. The countries were wide-ranging geographically, in their status as developed or developing nations, in their socioeconomic status, and much more. The social scientists’ short answer to the question of whether individualism is on the rise worldwide is “yes.”

Across all the countries in the study, individualistic practices and values increased about 12 percent between 1960 and 2011. Analyses of individualistic practices, such as living alone and divorcing, showed a substantial increase over time for 34 of the 41 countries with relevant data. Only four countries seemed headed away from individualism in their practices — Cameroon, Malawi, Malaysia, and Mali.

Analyses of individualistic values showed substantial increases over the five decades for 39 of the 53 nations with relevant data. Only five of the countries have been becoming notably less individualistic in their values — Armenia, China, Croatia, Ukraine, and Uruguay.

Professor Santos and his colleagues examined several factors that have been theorized as driving changes in individualism, such as socioeconomic development, frequency of disasters, presence of infectious diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis, and extremes in climate. By far, the most powerful factor was socioeconomic development. As education, income, and the proportion of white collar (compared to blue collar) jobs increased, so, too, did individualistic practices and values in subsequent years. As the authors noted, “most of the countries that did not show an increase in individualistic values were among the lowest in socioeconomic development.” China was an exception.

The global rise in living alone had already been documented and discussed in detail in Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo and Lynn Jamieson and Roona Simpson’s Living Alone. What is striking and new in the 78-nation study is the range of practices and values that were examined (see below), the statistical documentation of the increase of individualism over five decades, and the examination of the factors linked to the increase. The finding of a trend toward valuing friends over family is especially noteworthy, at a time when traditional ties such as marriage and family continue to be extravagantly celebrated and rewarded, even in some of the wealthiest nations.

What Are the Implications of the Rise of Individualism and Decline of Collectivism?

Is the rise of individualism something we should applaud or fear? How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century offers some perspective:

The rise of individualism has, for many, been exhilarating. People who never did feel comfortable with marrying or parenting or living in the suburbs or handing over their lifelong loyalty to a single employer, for instance, are liberated from soul-crushing strictures and expectations. People who once believed that no one in the world shared their quirks or maladies discover others like them everywhere and can share their lives online and off. Individuals of all stripes can design their own lives, filling them with the people and places and spaces and pursuits that they find most engaging, most authentic, and most meaningful.

For others, though, the new developments are ominous and even terrifying. People who prefer certainty, predictability, and commitments that are bolted in place by powerful institutions and revered traditions feel insecure and adrift in the brave new world of individualism…

The trade-off between the security of a set path through life with a small, dense set of enduring relationships and the freedom of an ever-growing cache of opportunities is one for the ages. It is not a unique dilemma of modern life. What is often lost in the debates is that opportunities are not obligations...just because you can live alone far away from the place where you were born does not mean that you can no longer choose to live with family and across the street from lifelong friends in the town where you grew up.

Details of the 78-Nation Study

Four individualistic practices were examined:

  1. Living alone: The percentage of households with only one member.
  2. Living alone among adults 60 and older: Important in showing that older people are more often living alone rather than with family.
  3. Household size: In individualistic societies, households are smaller.
  4. Divorce: The ratio of divorced and separated people to married and widowed people. Divorce is more characteristic of individualistic societies.

Three individualistic values were assessed:

  1. Valuing friends more than family. Participants rated the importance of their friends and the importance of their family; the ratings were compared. Valuing friends more than family is a way of valuing individualism over collectivism.
  2. Teaching children to be independent. Participants indicated whether it was important to teach the value of independence – an individualistic value – to their children. Collectivist values emphasize obedience instead.
  3. Valuing political self-expression. Participants were asked to choose among four goals for their country. Their values were categorized as individualistic if they chose at least one of the two goals describing self-expression: “Protecting freedom of speech” and “Giving people more say in important government decisions.”

The authors averaged over the four practices to come up with one measure of individualistic practices. They also averaged over the three values to create one measure of individualistic values. Separate analyses of the individual practices and values were not reported.

The 78 nations: The first dozen names on the alphabetical list of the 78 nations offer a sense of the range of countries included in the research: Albania, Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Canada, and Cameroon.

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