'Me decade' bows to 'commitment'

The "me decade" is over. With the 1980s, the American public is shifting from '70s-style self-absorption to more commitment to others -- neighbors, community, co-workers -- in the '80s.

This at least is the reading of Daniel Yankelovich, the New York pollster and analyst of social and political trends.

True to the evolutionary dynamic of American culture, the self-fulfillment obsession of the 1970s is not so much disappearing outright as becoming absorbed in the larger fabric of life styles and choices in society.

American society in the 1980s is searching again for a balance. Inflation has washed out the hope of sheer material gratification for many. Others have found a heavy personal cost in leaving all options open -- a casualness about marriage, job- hopping. Self-emphasis has often left them isolated and lonely, instead of fulfilled.

Politically, the shift from "me-ism" to "commitment" will be fought out bitterly, said Mr. Yankelovich, author of a new cultural study, "New Rules" (Random House); in a Monitor interview.

"What surprises me is the Moral Majority didn't come sooner as a reaction to fundamental moral damages," Yankelovich says.

"But you don't have a basis for going back to a single authoritarian style," he concludes. "What is going to happen is that women, people, who want to choose the traditional way -- a family, family life -- are going to feel freer to do so. The effect is going to be to reinforce pluralism. People like the idea of choosing their own commitment."

As evidence of a shift to commitment, Yankelovich cites a 50 percent growth in the number of Americans engaged in activities "to create closer bonds with neighbors, coreligionists, co-workers, or others who form a community." Preoccupation with status symbols (big homes, diamond rings, fur coats) and self-comparison with neighbors has declined. Youths talk more openly of religious beliefs and concerns for the future.

"The 'me decade' ended, though not in an abrupt way," Yankelovich says. "We've begun to reverse the direction -- to concern about the family, society, institutions."

"Their inner journey didn't get people where they wanted to go," Yankelovich says. "For the people who tried it -- the notion that you could, in rebellion against the old self-denial ethic, do without rules, hold yourself open at any time, be casual about anything that interfered with pleasure or satisfaction of a 'need' -- it didn't work."

Despite reports of a 1950s-ish, get ahead seriousness on campuses, the work ethic is not what it was. Yankelovich's survey firm finds that 75 percent of Americans no longer are willing to work at a boring job "as long as the pay is good"; 65 percent feel an employee has a right to refuse a move to another city if his company asks him to; and 78 percent say they wouldn't leave a job they like for one that pays more.

Behind these numbers, American men apparently find they no longer feel as compelled to maximize their earnings for the sake of their family.

The rights of individuals for self-progress also is seen in parent-child attitudes. Two-thirds majorities of Americans say parents now have a reduced commitment to their children and their children to them, and long for the "old days" of stable families.

But on specifics, only 1 in 5 Americans say they want a return to traditional housekeeping norms, sexual relations, or the male monopoly on working outside the home.

Some social commentators have criticized the recent meism largely as a moral flaw.

But Yankelovich and others see it in more neutral, or positive, terms -- a trying out, or experimenting with, the freedoms made possible by affluence, educational opportunity, and options for men and women.

"Tremendous amounts of discretion are open to huge numbers in a society that is wealthy -- involving people in all kinds of choices," says Everett Ladd, University of Connecticut political scientist. "Constantly they're playing what was, historically, an elite ga me. But they're playing at a mass level."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.