PARIS – From the Turkish protests in Istanbul to the French anti gay-marriage protests, and from euthanasia rights to fledgling forms of participatory democracy, it is difficult to ignore the growing aspirations of Europeans toward autonomy and freedom of choice. This new individualization dynamic is silently revolutionizing European values.
Individualization is the the power to decide for oneself what is good and what is bad. It is beginning to touch all major aspects of life. For example, the family model has greatly evolved, especially in Western Europe, where traditional marriage now co-exists more peacefully with freely chosen relationships between individuals. The relationship toward work has also evolved, by embracing meritocracy wherein qualitative and quantitative expectations are combined. And work is not just about earning a good salary but also about allowing people to fulfill themselves.
These days, sociability is more about affinity, with each person seeking to develop a network of relationships according to their preferences rather than out of social obligation. The same goes for political values: The big ideological divisions are weakening, but on the other hand political protests – such as petitions and demonstrations – are on the rise. Religion is less and less central in the structuring of values. Though religious beliefs have not disappeared, they are wavering and “a-la-carte.”
A recent comprehensive survey of European values asked Europeans from 47 countries and regions about family, work, religious, political and societal values.
The study showed that individual choice and control over their lives were considered essential for Europeans. But individualization has to be distinguished from individualism, which consists of prioritizing one’s personal interest and not caring about others. While levels of individualism appear stable, individualization is on the rise – in particular the desire of each person to become autonomous, free from the constraints imposed by politics and institutions as well as from the pressures of social and family environments. Hence, individualization is compatible with values of tolerance toward others and being open to the world.
Levels of individualization are not the same throughout Europe. It is very present in the Scandinavian countries, in the Netherlands and France. In general, it is also prevalent in Western Europe – with the exception of Italy, Ireland and Portugal. But it is much less important to Eastern and Southern Europeans.
Individualization is strongly linked to economic factors and corresponds to the level of wealth in each country. In other words, the desire for autonomy is stronger when quality of life is higher and when people can develop qualitative aspirations because they are not struggling merely to live. Individualization is also correlated with domestic social spending. Protection against social risks – favored by economic development – can also contribute to the construction of individual autonomy.
The acceptance of suicide and euthanasia
Even if economic development is necessary for individualization to thrive, it is not the only factor. Other factors play a determinant role, including religion and culture. It is in Protestant countries that this trend is increasing more rapidly. Muslim and Orthodox countries, on the other hand, lag well behind.
Beyond the traditionally dominant religion in a country, the average level of piety – measured by 10 indicators of religious practice and beliefs – plays a huge role in the level of individualization. The more faithful people are, the less they desire autonomy. It is in the most secularized geographical zones of Europe that social liberty has progressed the most in past few years.
Religious and cultural factors – with a Protestant Europe in the north, dominantly Catholic in the center and in the south, mostly Orthodox in the east and Muslim in the southeast – influence not only the levels of social choice, but also other phenomena that are more or less related: civic responsibility and interest in public affairs; participation in political and community life. Trust in others and institutions are all more present in the north than in the south. The division between a tolerant West and a more traditional East also helps to explain why there is a more open view of the family model in the West.
Acceptance of suicide, euthanasia and adultery is also progressing in Western countries, whereas acceptance of liberal lifestyles is stagnating and even sometimes regressing in the East. The support of new kinds of relationships and couples is far less common in the South and the East, where the traditional marriage model remains very influential.
In general, the value systems of Europeans have evolved, and their desire for autonomy has led them to demand and compare different ways of living together. But these evolutions are happening at different speeds in each country. According to the survey, European values have not grown closer between 1981 and 2008.
The cultures of each country, which are profoundly tied to history, are evolving very slowly. And even if individuals aspire to more freedom of choice, they remain influenced by their social environment.