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"How To Survive the Age of Egoism?" by Rene Cuperus

Young people have become increasingly obsessed by looks, status, comfort and money. Individualism and hedonism are gaining ground.  The youngsters of the new ’Selfish Generation’ are materialistic thrill seekers who have a declining interest in society at large.

In a Dutch research survey by Motivaction, 50 per cent of young people agree with the statement: ‘’Buying something new is one of the things I enjoy most in life.” A similar number (51 percent) feels they are “mostly happy when able to spend money.”

The analysts see their findings as part of a “growing tide of self-satisfaction”. Instant gratification of one’s own needs and a certain apathy towards those of others are typical of the youngest generation.

What is driving this trend? According to the researchers, no generation has ever grown up with so much freedom and independence. “School offers young people less and less structure. And exerting authority has become taboo for parents”.  Even worse: many of today’s parents embrace the mentality of the youth culture. They want to be seen as youthful themselves.

 In Dutch society we witness a gradual shift in the set of values. The baby boom generation of the 1960s changed their parents’ values – modesty, patience, soberness, and a sense of duty – for individualism and freedom. And they passed on those newfound values to their children.

Some flourish, others suffer.  A large group  of ambitious, enterprising, mostly highly educated young people are masters in networking and multitasking, and cope well with today’s high paced society, full of opportunity. But a big group of less privileged “outsiders” are less self-sufficient and have trouble dealing with today’s societal complexity.

Here again, we encounter the polarisation along lines of education and social and cultural capital, which is so typical of today’s society at large. The cleavage between higher and lower educated, between those who feel connected to the modern world, and those who feel threatened by the global world is gradually undermining the value system and solidary consensus of the European welfare societies.

Last week in Helsinki, Finland, the Kalevi Sorsa Foundation (the social-democratic think tank) and the Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), organised their Research and Policy Days under the title ‘’Culture and Politics in the Age of Egoism’’.    

Very refreshing that in Finland, a country characterised by its high quality of living, not economic issues, but cultural and moral issues were on top of the agenda. ‘’It’s not only the economy, stupid!’’ In contemporary affluent societies, indeed, the danger is not so much coming from economic insecurities, but from cultural, social and moral anxieties and trends. (See the European Revolt of Populism.)  

The Helsinki debate came up with some original causes for the age of egoism and the crisis of societal involvement. Fingers were pointed at the loss of historical memory, the decline of social and historical awareness. What is the relevance of historical and cultural knowledge in contemporary European societies? Is our historical and cultural knowledge declining as a result of a more hectic and market oriented environment which has penetrated into the fields of politics and culture? Is there still time for critical thinking and for contemplating the ‘bigger picture’, in a culture characterised by trends such as short-term perspectives, immediacy and discontinuity?

To what extent are the short-sightedness in culture, politics and economy related to the age of egoism, of which the Selfish Generation of the contemporary youngsters are such an unhappy symbol? These existential questions raised in Helsinki are worth a debate within the European progressive family at large.

                                                                                                    (Source: Motivaction & NRC Handelsblad)

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