The charged relationship between individual and society, between singular and collective, between ‘me’ and ‘we’ is as old as mankind itself. Even when Homo sapiens roamed the land as hunters and gatherers, constantly threatened by his own kind, by wild animals, by hunger and the rigors of nature, those who broke off from the group were doomed to die in the absence of the protection which the group provided.
That was a long time ago. Now, having reached the beginning of the 21 century, man finds himself confronted with completely different environmental conditions in the modern industrial nations. The saber-toothed tiger is extinct, most people’s fridges are fuller than they actually should be, the government takes looks out for us and we live in dry, heated buildings. Of course, life is still full of risks, but most of them are much less threatening to our existence than those faced in the Stone Age.

To 67% of the german people independency is of great value

This also means that today’s humans have more time and leisure to orient themselves and shape their place in the world. There’s a noticeably significant trend towards individualization in many areas of life. The highly technical, digitalized modern age offers us more free time than our ancestors could have ever possibly dreamed of, yet simultaneously these times are becoming more complex and confusing, spurning on the need of the individual to author his own unique concept for living.

© Marco Govel/Westend61

© Marco Govel/Westend61

Figures from studies by the German Zukunftsinstitut (Future Institute) document this trend. According to a survey carried out by the institute, 67% of Germans consider having control over their own lives, and thus their independence, as critically important. A European-wide ranking of singles revealed that 20% of Germans are living alone, which is approximately 16 million people, earning Germany second place in the ranking right behind Denmark, with 23% of the population classified as single.

© Giorgio Fochesato/Westend61

© Giorgio Fochesato/Westend61

Even for those who don’t live alone, the yearning for individuality is affecting how people live with others. The traditional ‘normal family’ is up against steadily growing competition from unmarried couples, single parents, patchwork families, multi-generational homes and other  alternatives to traditional living arrangements.

© Sandra Bielmeier/Westend61

© Sandra Bielmeier/Westend61

This development seems to demonstrate that a certain sense of community, albeit customized to one’s own needs, is still important for most people. Even at a time where the focus on individualization is expanding, man is and remains a social creature.

The nonconformism of the rebel

From this perspective, it is misguided and insufficient to write off the trend towards self-actualization as reckless egoism, as a phenomenon arising from an ‘unfeeling society’. However, this is often the case, even though the figures from the Zukunftsinstitut only tell half of the story. In that same study, in addition to an independent and self-determined life, those who were polled cited a good relationship (76%), involvement with their family (80%), and having good friends and close relationships with other people (85%) as significantly important and desirable.

© Josep Rovirosa/Westend61

© Josep Rovirosa/Westend61

Individuality takes on many forms.  There’s the unconventional manner of a rebel, who revolts against the traditional norms, and by doing so meets with disapproval from some while being seen by others as a pioneer for a new way of life. There’s also the playful sense of non-conformity we can experience in others – those people who march to the beat of a different drum, who attract attention due to their way of dress, their behavior or even their unusual suggestions for solving a problem. Conflicts between generations are often created because the younger generation, among other things, has its ‘own mind’, and wants to follow its own path. Creativity and the spirit of innovation are often very strong traits in people who are marked individualists. Individuality can be displayed in the courage to think beyond boundaries, explore new possibilities, and try new things – at any stage or in any area of life.

© Marco Govel/Westend61

© Marco Govel/Westend61

Regardless of what one does with it, personal freedom is only worth what you make out of it. The immense variety of options that we have today in many areas of our lives is not a luxury which should be taken for granted, but rather an obligation to use the time we’ve been given to live meaningfully. To put down one small, unique foot print in human history, while also considering one’s self as part of a greater whole.