The latest report on cultural trends—another “benchmark of our changing consciousness,” as Daniel Bell generously describes it on the jacket—comes from the founder and president of Yankelovich, Skelly & White, Inc. The polls conducted by his firm over the last twenty years, according to Daniel Yankelovich, indicate that Americans have rejected the old “ethic of self-denial” in favor of an “ethic of self-fulfillment.” They no longer believe in the virtue of scrimping and saving to get ahead. Surfeited with material goods, they seek deeper satisfactions—“meaningful” work, meaningful human relationships. They are more concerned with the quality of life than with piling up possessions. Having come to understand the psychic costs of competitive status-seeking, they wish to set their own goals, design their own “alternative life-styles.” They seek intangibles—“creativity, leisure, autonomy, pleasure, participation, community, adventure, vitality, stimulation, tender loving care.”

The values once championed by the counterculture have, according to Yankelovich, been adopted in milder form by a majority of educated, affluent Americans. And this is only the beginning, he believes—the first stage of a “cultural revolution.” The search for self-fulfillment, in which other observers have seen only self-absorption, hedonism, and “narcissism,” is already giving way to a new “ethic of commitment.” The present phase is “transitional.” The initial euphoria of economic growth and expanding personal choices, Yankelovich thinks, will soon be replaced by a more realistic, healthy, and “adaptive” set of attitudes.

Yankelovich admits that too many Americans still cling to the illusion that they can have the best of both worlds—a higher standard of living and escape from the rat race, unlimited economic expansion and clean air, social programs and lower taxes. But economic contraction, he believes, will impose hard choices on the nation. The combination of rising costs and declining productivity will lead to a “short-term reduction” in standards of living. The “psychology of affluence” and the “me-first mentality” associated with the new morality in its early stages will drop away. “Commitment” will replace selfishness. Already people are “turning the inner journey outward.” They begin to see the “root fallacy” of the search for self-fulfillment in its present form—the “assumption that the human self can be wholly autonomous, solitary, contained, and ‘self-created.’ ” Interdependence is the law of life, and economic “realities” will soon make it impossible for people to avoid facing up to it. “We now need a new social ethic,” Yankelovich writes, and every indication points to the conclusion that it is already beginning to emerge.

The last part of this argument rests entirely on wishful thinking, as far as I can see. The claim that people are turning from “self-fulfillment” to “commitment” remains almost completely unsupported. Yankelovich simply assumes that cultural expectations will sooner or later have to catch up with economic “realities.”

The first part of his argument, on the other hand—which seeks to chart a movement from self-denial to self-expression—rests on the usual polls, questionnaires, interviews, and case histories. But this evidence is open to objection in its own right. As always, polling techniques elicit a range of replies narrowly circumscribed by the pollsters’ formulation of the issues. Yankelovich’s interpretation of this data, moreover, reflects certain commonplace preconceptions, most of them highly misleading, about the direction of cultural change. It also reflects a desire to put the best face on things. When Yankelovich finds that only 40 percent of college students in the early Seventies believed that “hard work always pays off” (as compared with 72 percent in the mid-Sixties), he draws the conclusion, not that educated people have become cynical about success, but that they have rejected the work ethic. Again, he reports that people have “more freedom of choice” than their parents did, when his evidence suggests merely that they don’t labor under the same economic constraints. As one of his informants says, “I have it easier than they did, and I appreciate it.” The hard times ahead make it unlikely that future generations will be able to make the same statement.

Yankelovich has a curious idea of choice, shared no doubt by many of his subjects. He assumes, for example, that women today have more choices than their mothers did, since they can find work outside the household. In fact, most women seek outside work as a matter of economic necessity, and even those who see their work as a means of “self-fulfillment” often find it almost impossible to balance the demands of the workplace against the demands of family life. In effect, our society still forces women to choose between a family and a job. Indeed it imposes this choice on everyone. It enforces a rigorous separation between the workplace and the home, turns work into a routine, and reduces the home itself to a mere appendage of the job. Parents, stripped of their exemplary status as authorities, become breadwinners and babysitters; children grow up without much moral guidance; and social scientists, public pulse-takers, culture-watchers, and cultural revolutionaries join in celebrating a new “pluralism” and “freedom of choice.”


The choices people confront in their daily lives resemble the choices offered to them by public opinion polls—prefabricated choices they have no share in designing. Political polls hold up to a passive electorate an array of issues and candidates preselected by the mass media and the public opinion industry. The same objection applies to the attempt to ascertain cultural trends by asking people to choose among crudely formulated positions that rest on received sociological wisdom about the difference between the “traditional” morality of repression and self-denial and the modern morality of self-expression. Yankelovich measures cultural change against unexamined impressions about life in the recent pas and about the “traditional” code of conduct that survived intact, he thinks, right up until the day before yesterday, when

success meant being married, having children, making a good living and having everyone know about it…. Husband and wife functioned as a unit, he on the job, she at home…. A divorce meant failure, even shame.

These are the values, according to Yankelovich, that are “under siege” today; but even a casual glance backward would have shown him that they have been under siege for a long time. Martha Wolfenstein, David Riesman, and others noticed the emergence of a new “fun morality” in the Forties and Fifties. Much of what they described had already been described in the Twenties by commentators on the “revolution in manners and morals.” On the eve of World War I, Walter Lippmann wrote without regret of the demise of an older system of values based on “the sanctity of property, the patriarchal family, hereditary caste, the dogma of sin, obedience to authority.” The “foundations of the older order,” he insisted, “survive only as habits or by default.” Almost ten years earlier, Simon Patten announced the end of the work ethic in The New Basis for Civilization. The “philosophy of deficit,” he declared, was giving way to the “buoyancy and zest for the new that follow prosperity.” The new civilization would be based on “self-expression” rather than “self-denial.”

It would not be hard to find even earlier observations to the same effect. The point is not that nothing has changed in recent years but that crude polarities like self-expression and self-denial provide no reliable index of change. Their imprecision makes it possible for social scientists to propose wildly contradictory accounts of the timing of cultural change. Edward Shorter places the modern sexual revolution in the eighteenth century; Yankelovich thinks it began just the other day. “The process of questioning self-denial started on the nation’s campuses in the Sixties but spread to the rest of the population in the Seventies.” Of course he lacks any hint of historical sense; only a man suffering from advanced amnesia could write such a sentence. But the deeper source of his difficulties lies in the inherent imprecision of his analytical instruments. His categories, which derive from the folklore of positivistic social science, are by their very nature ahistorical—even though they have come to be widely used by historians. They rest on an abstract and schematic opposition between the traditional and the modern that has no value at all for investigations of historical change—the direction of which Yankelovich’s survey claims to illuminate.

Unfortunately, this kind of sociological thinking about cultural change has become more and more prevalent. Sociology has moved out of the academy into general public discourse, in part because it offers a reassuringly familiar picture of the world we live in, in part because it obscures the political dimension of recent changes. The clichés of humanistic psychology, Parsonian sociology, and modernization theory have become the common coin of middle-brow journalism. They serve to give ephemeral commentary on “trends in the culture” a spurious air of pedantic learning. More and more, investigations into the state of “the culture” are replacing political commentary as the stock-in-trade of the more reflective journalists. Political commentary meanwhile retreats from the attempt to generalize about social and cultural issues and occupies itself with high-level Washington gossip.

Sociologists and anthropologists have expanded the concept of culture to cover practically every human activity, and journalists now follow their lead. The measurement of cultural trends occupies much of the attention formerly given to the kind of political analysis that tries to look beneath the surface of public events and to chart long-term shifts in the distribution of power, the composition of the electorate, and the subjects up for public debate. As politics becomes more and more unmistakably an occupation of elites, the ordinary citizen can make his influence count, it appears, only be designing his own “alternative lifestyle.”


For this reason, and also because political discussion has become trivial and boring, the more enterprising journalists now spend more of their time on the coverage of “lifestyles” than on political analysis. When half the eligible voters do not even bother to vote, students of public opinion—journalists and academics alike—turn to “culture” as the only field in which individual preferences still seem to matter. By redirecting their attention from public policy to consumer tastes, however, they unavoidably help to sustain the illusion that people’ can initiate sweeping changes without resort to politics, merely by exercising their right to make individual decisions as consumers of goods, services, and ideologies.

The sociology of culture, popularized in the form of opinion surveys that seek to measure shifts in attitudes and values, represents one of the last strongholds of liberal pluralism, according to which the pursuit of self-interest adds up to the general good. Increasingly unconvincing as a theory of politics, this dogma puts in a final appearance as a theory of culture. Thus Yankelovich maintains that growing numbers of educated Americans are conducting “life experiments” that will solve most of the country’s problems, not, to be sure, without certain “strains,” but without social conflict or an unseemly struggle for power. In doing so, these pioneers of cultural change naturally have their own emotional needs principally in mind; but “the sum of millions of life experiments,” Yankelovich believes, “transform [sic] public life as well.”

A more sober view of the “cultural revolution” would see it, not as the harbinger of a general shift of values, but as itself a movement of elites—like the political processes to which it hopes to offer some sort of alternative—that will soon have to abandon those of its democratic pretensions that still remain. Until recently, advocates of “experimental lifestyles” have been able to argue that economic expansion will make generally available a range of choices hitherto confined only to the few. Our leaders, no longer able to govern a sprawling, heterogeneous society by articulating a moral and political consensus, by disseminating the heritage of Western culture among all classes of people, or by admitting all classes to political participation, have at least held out the hope that everyone will soon share in the pleasures of leisure and consumption.

Economic decline now makes even this expectation excessively optimistic. Some of the energy behind the rise of the Moral Majority may derive from the dawning perception not merely that cultural pluralism—the official ideology of liberal societies—encourages a low standard of public morality but that pluralism in any case benefits only the affluent. It is the members of the professional and managerial elite—whether they read Playboy or The New Yorker—who proclaim the right to self-fulfillment, profess to value “creativity” more highly than money, eat natural food, bake their own bread, join self-discovery groups, and believe that “people should be free to look, dress and live the way they want, whether others like it or not.” Yankelovich thinks that although the working class still adheres to “traditional values,” the new morality will eventually trickle down from the educated elite to the majority. “Private conceptions of fulfillment hitherto confined to the upper crust have become democratized and now find their way into all social classes.”

The economic decline of the Seventies and Eighties makes it more likely that corporate managers, without renouncing their own right to self-fulfillment, will begin to urge others to return to the work ethic, revive the spirit of sacrifice, and repudiate demands based on a false sense of “entitlement.” Such a program of moral retrenchment is already being advocated under the name of reindustrialization. In the new atmosphere of the Reagan White House, Yankelovich’s survey reads like an updated version of Charles Reich’s Greening of America—another announcement of the imminent triumph of forces already in retreat.

Of course the rhetorical attack on “narcissistic” self-indulgence—whether it comes from popular forces seeking to defend localism and family values against a cosmopolitan elite or from managers hoping to persuade Americans to accept a lower standard of living—does not alter any of the underlying conditions that make it impossible, in the long run, to revive a political consensus based on patriotism, hard work, and a willingness to make sacrifices for the common good. An analysis of contemporary culture that confines itself to “lifestyles” misses the point about the culture of narcissism. When authority becomes impersonal and bureaucratic, people can no longer be governed by appeals to conscience, love of homeland, or even loyalty to the organization. Nineteenth-century liberals hoped to substitute internalized restraints for external compulsion, but their own policies undermined the nurturing and educative institutions that contribute to the internalization of authority and thus created a situation in which authority became synonymous with authoritarianism. The liberal state has not only weakened the schools and other popular agencies of cultural transmission, it has reduced popular participation in government and thus has made it more and more difficult to base government on consent or consensus.

It is too late to call for sacrifices or for a new “ethic of commitment.” This is why the Moral Majority has already proved an embarrassment to the Reagan administration, which prefers to rely on the kind of managerial solutions that promise military and industrial strength without popular sacrifice—automation of industry, air power, “limited” nuclear war. If these measures fail to keep the domestic peace—and they are bound to fail in the long run—our leaders will have to govern increasingly through force.

On the one hand, the electorate can no longer be mobilized by the patriotic appeals necessary to fight a war on the scale of Vietnam or to accept a lower standard of living. On the other hand, a declining economy can no longer pacify the public with an ever-increasing supply of goods. The resulting dilemma defines the impending crisis of American politics.

The new political and economic imperatives are bound to escape the attention of those who believe that even inflation, as Yankelovich maintains, has “psychocultural roots.”* But it is precisely this inattention to politics that will commend New Rules to many readers. The future of American politics cannot be contemplated without grave misgivings. Hence the market for books like this, which turn with relief from “economics or technology or political action,” as Yankelovich puts it, to investigation of the “genuine cultural revolution” allegedly in progress. Yankelovich recommends his approach, quite explicitly and deliberately, as an antidote to gloom. “I want to show that while a prognosis of our future based solely on our political/economic prospects may leave us pessimistic, even desperate, one based on our cultural prospects—our shared social values—may, rather unexpectedly, point the way toward a brighter future.”

By ignoring the underlying dynamics of liberal society and confining himself to ephemeral shifts in public rhetoric and taste, Yankelovich has attempted to answer the “pessimists” and “doomsayers” who believe that our country has no future unless it undertakes radical changes in its political life. According to Yankelovich, “commitment” is just around the corner. Unsupported by evidence, his conclusions have to be taken on faith. But they are upbeat and “relatively hopeful,” in his own words; and this alone will recommend them to opinion-makers, foundation heads, organizers of conferences, liberal theologians, liberal sociologists, and other credulous folk.

This Issue

December 3, 1981