New Rules

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Using analogies from geological tectonic plate theory, Daniel Yankelovich suggests that society and culture in the United States are undergoing vast transformations, especially with respect to personal ethics, and that there is “evidence of startling cultural changes.” His contention is that what is taking shape is nothing less than the search for a new American ethic. To support his contentions concerning “new rules,” he employs a multifaceted methodology: he draws upon life histories, a number of national surveys, census data, and one national survey of fifteen hundred persons done especially for New Rules.

New Rules is arranged in four sections which are well-served by a fine-print fourteen-page index. Part One deals with what Yankelovich regards as the search for self-fulfillment. Part Two deals with characteristics of that search and how it finds itself in “violent” collision with traditional rules of an older ethic. Part Three deals with new economic patterns which must be dealt with in any consideration of ethics. The final part deals with what Yankelovich thinks is the newly emerging ethic of commitment.

Yankelovich, who is himself in the opinion survey business, has, he thinks, detected in his working materials evidence of vast contemporary cultural changes: the “typical” American family of breadwinning husband and housewife with one or more children is no longer typical (in fact, they constitute only fifteen percent of all American households); millions of women no longer regard having children as self-fulfilling; more women than men are enrolled in institutions of higher learning; and there is a decline of competitiveness, a decline in the importance given to status as defined by wealth, and an increase in the number of younger persons who lack life-goals. With such a ferment, it is not surprising that Yankelovich can claim that there is a decisive break with the past, a break that, moreover, will affect not only cultural lifestyles but also the political and economic systems in America. Most prominent in this contemporary cultural mix is the so-called “search for self-fulfillment.”

The search for self-fulfillment abandons many of the rules of the ethic that predominated in American life since the 1700’s, particularly the older norm of self-denial and deferred gratification. Yankelovich’s tables show (if correct) that only twenty percent of the American adult working population still follow the ethics of self-denial. Many fewer people are willing to work at a job merely because it is a job and many have taken jobs with lower pay and less responsibility or monotony instead of higher-paying jobs for which they are well qualified. Yankelovich identifies that fraction of the American adult population who are involved in the search for self-fulfillment (however defined) as constituting some eighty percent of the total. If this is true, then he is perhaps correct in claiming that this “search” is the leading edge of a “genuine cultural revolution,” confined to the young in the 1960’s but now spreading into the larger society, albeit not without modification (especially the rejection of the antimaterialism of the 1960’s). The immediate consequences of this ongoing cultural revolution, Yankelovich argues, are unrealistic demands on social institutions and a battle of moral norms as the search for self-fulfillment comes up against the older ethic of self-denial. His forecast is that from now to the turn of the century there will be turmoil in American culture—demands translated into political terms (and sometimes in single-issue politics) added to the resurgence of religion and the appearance of new religious movements. It is interesting to note that Yankelovich’s analysis is exactly opposite to that of Gerard K. O’Neill’s recent futurist book 2081 (1981). O’Neill thinks that any revolutionary change will be produced not in the realms of politics, culture, or religion but will be solely technological. Yankelovich has little to say of technology in New Rules.

Yankelovich found that the most fruitful survey question was “What are the people pursuing their self-fulfillment actually looking for, and how are they going about finding it?” He thinks that the searchers for self-fulfillment are seeking to elevate the “sacred/expressive” aspects of their lives and to downgrade the influence of impersonal, manipulative forces. “Sacred” as used here does not have the traditional religious connotations but rather is another name for “intrinsically valuable” or “valuable in its own right,” implying a distinction between “intrinsic” and “instrumental” values: self-fulfillers are attempting to maximize those aspects of their lives that are valuable in their own right and to de-emphasize the instrumental facets of their lives which are not intrinsically valuable but valuable only as a means to an end. If Yankelovich’s analysis is correct, then it can be understood why someone would take a low-paying but rewarding job instead of a high-paying job that would involve drudgery or danger. An earlier generation would not have morally approved of such a choice and, in fact, would have looked with disapproval upon someone who did not take the opportunity to gain money and status.

The “expressive” side of the search for self-fulfillment is opposed to instrumentalism as well. Expressive aspects of a person’s life are the locus of creativity and are valuable in their own right. Yankelovich thinks that for seekers of self-fulfillment there is a “moral intuition” that the sacred/expressive aspects of life are life’s root meaning. In turn, life’s root meaning as self-fulfilled is realized in the search for community, community which an otherwise affluent industrial society has failed to provide. Yankelovich, while not using the terminology, is making use of the old Gesellschaft/Gemeinschaft distinction. The implication is that at an earlier time human life was on a human scale and that there then existed a warm feeling of community; this has been replaced by an industrial, high technology, impersonal, instrumental society. If Yankelovich is correct, it is not surprising that the search for self-fulfillment as currently conceived by the seekers has failed and landed the seekers in predicaments and contradictions.

Yankelovich believes that the strategies employed by the seekers are defective in both economic and psychological senses: economic, in the assumption that economic security is somehow a right; psychological, in that in attempting to expand the sacred/expressive aspects of their lives the seekers achieve instead a restriction of their lives. This paradox results from attempting to modify under incorrect assumptions the nature of the “giving/getting compact.” Nevertheless, Yankelovich sees millions of people trying the defective strategies of self-fulfillment. They are actually trying to replace the...

(The entire section is 2859 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Christian Century. XCVIII, October 14, 1981, p. 1036.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, August 26, 1981, p. 17.

Commentary. LXXII, October, 1981, p. 78.

Library Journal. CVI, July, 1981, p. 1403.

The New Republic. CLXXXV, September 9, 1981, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, July 12, 1981, p. 1.

Newsweek. XCVIII, August 10, 1981, p. 65.

Saturday Review. VIII, June, 1981, p. 59.

Time. CXVIII, August 3, 1981, p. 18.