New Rules:Searching for Self-Fulfillmentin a World Turned Upside Down
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.