This story is part two of a two-part series.
Please consider reading part one: Drowning in Choice
At a local coffee shop, retirees often reminisce about the past, but there is no going back to a time without smartphones, Tinder, AirBNB, Uber, and Amazon.
A look at institutions
Yuval Levin’s book, A Time To Build, is a masterpiece that describes the deterioration of respect for institutions in the United States.
Institutions include corporations, political parties, universities, and religion. There’s much to be said for those who experience life inside an institution. Institutions force conformity on their members and provide common goals. Corporations exist to make money and to provide people with meaningful work. Universities exist to educate and advance the opportunities for its members. Religion helps people find meaning and purpose in their lives.
Traditionally, an institution places heavy limitations on its constituents to serve the ideals of the organization. Despite the freedoms given up by being part of a larger group, members gained tremendous values, opportunities, communities, and belonging. These collectives give individuals the opportunity to rise to the occasion — to give to others. Meanwhile, the community meets the needs of the individual. These desires include belonging, appreciation, and feeling that one’s deeds matter to others.
In the 21st century, fewer people belong to an institution. In the past people commonly participated in religion, universities, unions, social clubs, and political parties. People were driven to serve an institution, but now people are primarily interested in how the institution can serve them. Today, many people have only had institutional experience with schools, prisons, and corporations. With fewer easy outlets for human connection and belonging, it’s easy to see why many people invest fully into their jobs.
Institutions have given way to the pursuit of personal liberty. The institutions that constrained the individual’s decision making process have lost their trust and power. It’s doubtful that these institutions will regain their lost trust. In a world with minimal institutional participation, individuals must look elsewhere for a sense of belonging, contribution, and meaning.
“You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” — Heraclitus
With fewer than half of Americans belonging to a church, there is a desperate need for something new to fill the vacuum left behind. It’s doubtful that existing institutions will pivot and expand to reach out to the lost majority. For churches with traditional values, the legitimacy that they provide to their congregation stems from their rich history and traditional values. If they compromise on these traditional values, the institutions will collapse completely without attracting new members. A new kind of institution is needed for people who have a distaste for organized religion.
Organized religion is the perfect institution for many reasons. They have regular rituals, which simplify the process of coordinating events. Small churches are more successful than large ones because of the need for individual participation. From planning a barbecue, to moving tables, and mowing the lawn, every chore done by a congregant fills a desire to belong and matter. The magic comes from giving to others—whether it’s the church or a grieving member. It’s clear that regular churchgoers sense this and cast sidways glances at their megachurch bretheren.
Is it possible to create a community that has the features of religion without the belief component?
Any religious devotee will laugh at this idea, but the state of the United States is dire. Serious thinkers attribute political divisiveness and mass shootings to a lack of community and social support in our affluent society. A serious option needs to exist for the disillusioned majority of our country to reduce the separateness that is permeating our country. In the absence of traumatic unifying events similar to 9/11 or WW2, our country will tear itself apart if left in a time of continued peace and prosperity.
In-Person Social Groups
A potential game-changer could be a catalyst that enables and encourages people to form small communities. Forming a community is difficult, challenging, and unnatural for many people. Having a framework, backbone, and infrastructure could make this easier. It takes time, effort, and energy to maintain friendships. People could use help, reminders, and motivation to be connected. What if some service or body encouraged someone to plan a dinner for the group?
Our world is more dynamic than ever. People today are much more likely to migrate away from their hometown in the pursuit of education and careers. Moving is a drastic life change that is a shock to a person’s social life. Despite the ubiquitous use of social media and apps like Meetup, it is more challenging than ever to join new social groups and make friends. Technology is best positioned to assist us with making new, genuine, in-person friendships.
Proliferation of game nights at local coffee shops and bars are more likely to decrease the number of school shootings than any government program backed by millions of dollars. Technology can help connect us with our neighborhood.
Traditional dating is mostly gone…and online dating isn’t enough
Imagine that you are a 30 year-old professional who has spent the past decade of your life building your professional career. It would be nice to find a romantic partner, but it seems overwhelming — there’s a world of people out there and how do you meet them? You think, “It only takes one! This shouldn’t be so bad.”
Dating is exceedingly difficult for different people for different reasons. For a shy man, you see people everywhere, but there are few sanctioned places to meet new people and get to meet new people. Many men and women don’t have natural interaction with potential dates during their day-to-day life. Unlike car dealerships, there is no sanctioned place to go to meet prospective dates; the days of single’s bars and social clubs are gone.
Evidence: traditional life is not happening for a growing majority
The marriage rate today is approximately half of what it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s. People aren’t forming traditional households — single-parent households are at an all-time high.
People today are more individualistic and have greater personal freedom. The 2021 economy is much larger than in the past, and has more opportunities for both men and women. A large percentage of 21st century women want to be independent and to avoid becoming dependent on a man. People are free to choose their lifestyle, and there are many choices.
The decline in the marriage points to cultural shifts: people have accepted a single lifestyle, and today’s environment is not working for those single indivuals who want a partner. I have guy friends who are 30 years of age, earning six-figure income, living alone, and not dating. They don’t even try to date, and they don’t want to play the game. It has been a long time since they have met a new person, and they would struggle through the process if they did attempt it.
My friends are humans. They want to have a loving relationship, but the distance between them and a relationship is so vast that they don’t bother.
Online Dating Doesn’t Work for Most People
“But you should just try online dating” is the platitude that older couples offer to younger singles. An entire essay could be devoted to this topic, but I will be succinct:
People are complex and multifaceted. Each person is at a different part of their life journey. People’s capabilities vary greatly when it comes to intellect, social skills, preferences, and motivations. The best way to know someone is to spend time with them in conversation. The world needs more genuine conversations.
Dating is a difficult problem. It’s a learning and growing experience, but it is a number’s game: If you are compatible with 5% of the population, you should go on 20 dates and find 1 compatible person. Online dating greatly exacerbates dating by introducing seemingly endless choice. Instead of going on dates to find a good connection, people always feel like they could do better. “This guy has a funny nose. Next!”
Future Businesses Should have New Values
The past decade has been a time of vast economic and technological progress. Silicon Valley startups consider reducing friction to be an important part of a product’s success. Platforms have simplified and consolidated the tedious parts of doing commerce online. Thinking of Square, Toast, and Stripe — it is now easier than ever to sell physical and virtual products. Toast and Square made the COVID-19 transition of “ordering on your phone” much more seamless than anyone would have expected.
Authentic human moments are becoming scarce due to the challenges of the 21st century world. It can be challenging to have one’s needs for connectedness, love, and belonging to be met today. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, people feel the increased joy that comes from physically present with others.
Businesses chase after money; it’s their raison d’être. Certain companies have made human values at the core of their business model. Ironically, the multinational corporation Starbucks has a lofty mission statement that they work hard to fulfill:
Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.
Acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other.
Being present, connecting with transparency, dignity and respect.
Delivering our very best in all we do, holding ourselves accountable for results.
I am optimistic that the next wave of successful companies will integrate human needs beyond the material. People are social beings who have the need to belong, be seen, and feel like they matter. In a small way, each of us can choose a next job, house, or restaurant reservation that aligns with these values.
The postmodern renaissance is immanent: people are waiting to reinvent a world with more human interaction.
Platitudes are obnoxious at best and usually divisive. Our post-pandemic world needs fewer words and more in-person interaction that is meaningful and accessible.
The current cultural climate in the United States requires a full-court-press to ensure a healthy future for more adults. This change will require effort from the individual as well as incremental systemic changes to nudge the meaningful meter. People want to be loved and feel like they matter. Businesses and people will adapt to meet this need as the sheen of individuality wears off.
Technology has been the biggest cultural disruption—hopefully it will save us from the cultural difficulties that tech has helped create. By focusing on using tech to create non-transactional interactions in meatspace, we can course correct the ship from one of individualism to one of togetherness.