The selfish generation: anxiety and belonging in a digital world
What does local mean when the shop window of an eBay trader is closer to you on your laptop than the independent clothes store down your high street? Who has a more multicultural experience, the kid going to school in Brick Lane or the Shropshire gamer learning Minecraft with children from across the world?
Globalisation isn’t a new phenomenon, but today its impact is critical. The internet has accelerated the trend towards total, immersive connectedness, influencing every aspect of our daily lives. This form of digital globalisation is breaking down geographic, cultural and economic borders; as more of us spend time online, our affinities towards others become more complicated. This has its plus points, shifting our generation’s norms, attitudes, and beliefs about how we should organise and display solidarity. We may feel more connected towards online friends in other countries than the people we physically live with. At the same time, the breakdown in familiar or traditional borders means that anxiety proliferates. We need belonging that global connectedness can’t satisfy.
This kind of connectedness has pros and cons. It provides the means to crowdsource data to help cancer research, but on the other hand, we offshore production to “digital sweatshops”, where people are paid a few pennies for tasks as menial as comparing different web pages. Technology isn’t just automating jobs, it is also making the need for many professions redundant — from assembly line workers to secretaries. At the same time, the internet provides us with infrastructure to market, distribute and manufacture goods and services for next to nothing, and creates new jobs, from data scientists to digital makers.
While young people are faced with the challenges and opportunities of digital globalisation, the expectations our parents brought us up within a New Labour era — being able to get a degree, a well-paid job, and a house we can call our own — are unreachable for most of us. 50 years ago over two-thirds of 30-year-olds had attained these markers of adulthood. Nowadays, those numbers have almost halved.
Meanwhile, the welfare state — the social institution that played such a big role in helping our parents’ generation achieve their aspirations — isn’t helping people cope, let alone shape the changes we’re experiencing. Our schools are forced to focus on trying to get us into a university we can’t afford or help us become employable to get jobs that are dying out. The housing benefit or equity loans the state offers barely help us pay the increases on our rent or mortgage. The job centre is more focused on keeping people off benefits than getting people into work.
Its principles of solidarity don’t fit in with the current economic system of digital globalisation — which favours transactional reciprocity — “I will (only) help you if you help me (first)” -, exemplified by online systems where you build up points for doing good that you can then redeem for prizes.
Because these systems have just adapted the functionality available to them, like online currency exchange, they are now turning acts of solidarity which we wouldn’t have thought twice about into transactions that make us frustrated when we don’t get the equivalent value of the exchange back in return.
However, by thinking that if they apply the same methods that technology companies like Facebook use to connect people, they can create ex nihilo communities to get people to share.
Recent research by Ipsos Mori shows that our generation is the least supportive of any redistribution by the welfare state. Perhaps the reason that institutionalised solidarity no longer seems possible, is that our needs are expressed in such an individual way that it’s difficult to connect them via an interface like the welfare state, originally designed to bind people together around common “social evils”.
What’s the point of a job centre, when you’re competing in real-time for a zero-hours contract? What’s the point of the benefits system when it rips off your last shreds of dignity, versus payday lenders who give you money with no questions asked? What’s the point of social housing when you’re unlikely to stay in the area for more than a few years?
With all of this, why would our generation invest their emotional commitment in the welfare state, a concept that they didn’t even help shape nor which makes them more autonomous or equal?
Even the idea of solidarity could even be seen to impinge on people’s concept of individual freedom, not just the “right to be forgotten” but the “right to be indifferent”. We’ve grown up in a society that gives everyone “human rights” to pursue their personal preferences. The flip side is that we see others as individually responsible for anything that happens to them.
These trends create brittleness in our levels of interpersonal trust, with less than half of our generation trusting people they don’t know. This means we are dependent on weak ties, creating a risk of increased social tension, as we are more likely to perceive a lack of reciprocity with whom we live or work. Such insecurity can give rise to fear. The more we feel threatened by our social position, the more we become “welfare chauvinists” — wanting to restrict the support given to those less well off. Like Agata Pyzik argues in “Poor but Sexy”, we can even end up believing that “if you don’t exploit, you’ll be exploited.”
Now that we can see what people around the globe are achieving, constantly, in real-time, digital globalisation increases our fear of falling off the social ladder, of the “other” that we suppose to be pushing us off it. By checking our updates on Facebook, we may be getting the collective wisdom of our friends on how the world works. But actually, the algorithms that drive the way Facebook and other platforms work mainly serve up content that already matches our tastes and our opinions. This tendency towards homogeneity creates ‘safe bubbles’, which is their lack of diversity narrow down our outlook on the world. In Liquid Modernity, theorist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the more people inhabit a safe bubble, free from divergent opinion, the “more difficult it is to feel at home in the face of strangers, the more threatening the difference appears and the deeper and more intense is the anxiety it breeds.”
Despite this, the fragmentation of our social contract into individual transactions is breeding community-based forms of dissent. Whether it’s “lifestyle hackers” self-organising at the edges of the economy or “reluctant radicals” moving to the edges of the political spectrum or even of “otherkin communities reinventing their identities as mystical creatures, we share a need for belonging which the fluidity of digital globalisation doesn’t offer.
Political parties used to provide this tribal sense of belonging. But it seems they no longer feel they have the influence to tackle people’s economic insecurities, Both because they often have less of an influence on government policy than a big business — be it on public health or the environment — and behaviours of citizens, from how they eat to going out to vote. So instead, they try and respond to their cultural insecurities, like immigration and identity. If they were able to understand the complexities of digital globalisation, politicians would be able to start a conversation with people in a way that surfaced its contradictions. Let’s take unemployment as an example. We prefer shopping online because it’s more convenient and often cheaper than going to an independent clothes shop. But in doing so, we’re indirectly investing in a system which at best treats its workers in the UK so bad they’d prefer to be homeless and at worst, stitches up developing countries into diluting their workers’ rights in exchange for being part of the global supply chain. And you’ve also put the independent fashion shop out of business and its own local supply chain. Without really getting under the skin of the insecurities that people experience as part of the digital era, people will no longer believe in the social contract and may look for more extreme ways to reclaim control over the world they live in.
As Catherine Fieschi et al. argues; “Much as nationalism needed print capitalism, and socialism needed full industrial capitalism, so populism will thrive under digital capitalism and the twin movements of uncertainty and the spread of radical anxiety.”
There are people, however, who are creating new forms of belonging and solidarity, while helping free people from the shackles of both big businesses and the benefits system. What’s called the “collaborative economy” blends modern digital tools with pre-capitalist practices like bartering to enable people from across the world to exchange goods, services and even skills, be it borrowing someone’s drill, somewhere to sleep or learning Mandarin. By exchanging resources, they also build solidarity and even a sense of being part of a movement, whether that’s with people in other countries, like the “couch surfing community” or with people on their doorstep they didn’t know had the same needs or interests, like with “batch cooking” or “bulk-buying” groups. What these initiatives haven’t yet been able to achieve is how to tackle the systemic issues causing people’s economic insecurities. You might be able to stay on someone’s couch, but what happens if that person’s house is repossessed? You might be able to grow your own food, but what happens when your allotment patch gets sold by the council for housing?
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the “sharing economy” cannot be co-opted to reinforce the very trends highlighted earlier in this article. In their description of the four scenarios of the collaborative economy, Vasilis Kotakis and Michel Bauwens describe how some of the most well-known examples of the sharing economy like Kickstarter or Bitcoin, can actually reinforce one of the main inequalities driving economic insecurity — asset inequality. Kickstarter for example, allows companies to crowdfund the development of services, but the people doing the crowdfunding don’t have any share in it. By limiting the number of coins, Bitcoin induces behaviours that lead early bitcoin owners to hoard what they’ve accumulated.
If those actors of the “collaborative economy” co-opt our creative civic behaviours, then we need to build our own infrastructure which stewards the assets being shared. Sharing control of the projects we develop with those that take part in them, sharing any surplus resources accumulated, and sharing the algorithms, business models and data that power these services. From the P2P Foundation to Edgeryders, there are already people showing us the way.
The future of our society will be between an economy where our assets are co-opted, privatised and monopolised and an economy where people co-create, co-invest and co-own common goods. As Buckminster Fuller has argued; “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”