If you remember, I said that people increasingly live alone (not necessarily in isolation) because they are reluctant to take on obligations. They want to be free to come and go in relationships on their own terms and their own timing. When you live with someone—even a roommate who has his own shelf in the refrigerator—you have to do some negotiating.
As a general matter, individualism doesn’t foster character or morality. Community does. We’re trending toward individualism.
Brooks’ take is that the primary force behind this trend is “maximizing talent.” People who are skilled and smart can manage their lives in a flexible, shifting world, getting what they want and advancing their careers. “Fast, flexible and diverse networks allow the ambitious and the gifted to surf through amazing possibilities.” They don’t want or need to be tied down. On the other hand, people without such social capital may fall through the cracks and become victims. They need the dedicated bonds of marriage, church, community and family to help them along. In a world where those ties are weaker, they end up losers. Brooks appears to advocate celebrating the freedom of the ubermensch, while providing as much safety net as possible for the rest. (Not government programs, so much as strong community.)
Brooks’ analysis doesn’t quite work, though, in that the people with the most social capital—measured in income and education—are far and away the most likely to make the ultimate commitment to marriage, and stick to it. If you graduated from college, you are extremely likely to marry and extremely unlikely to divorce. Not so, everybody else. Apparently, “maximizing talent” takes one away from the fast and fluent networks of modern urban society, and leaves you pottering in the garden on Saturday and driving your children to soccer games. As Brooks himself wrote in a recent blog, “People in the educated class talk like social progressives and behave like traditionalists. People in the less educated classes talk like social conservatives and behave like libertines. “
Still, there’s a long history of people with talent choosing to live as outliers, if not outlaws. Steve Jobs is a good example of how this works. I gather he was a miserable human being who created a great company that made great products. (I’m a believer, as someone who has been wedded to Apple since the Apple IIe.) Which would you choose: great products and miserable human relations? Or the opposite?
I don’t think there are any simple answers. We human beings are an uncanny mix. Our committed relations (marriage and family, particularly) can be exquisitely worthwhile or miserably oppressive. Our “creative talents” can be forged in extraordinary inhumanity (Jobs’ cruelty) or in care (“the HP way”). But if there is no blueprint for the ideal society, there is certainly, in Jesus’ teachings, a clear instruction about priorities: love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s a particular way of maximizing talent, and it does not leave you free.