Group versus Individual societies – which work best?
The squeaky wheel may get the grease but the nail that stands up gets hammered down.
The unifying power of the group or the freedom of individualism, which works better?
In short – both.
Each style of society has its shortcomings, plus some considerable advantages.
“I’ll do it my way” versus “one in, all in”.
The most cohesive societies seem to find the right balance between a community-minded selflessness combined with the freedom to pursue individual choices.
Not surprisingly, societies with strong individualist cultures are typically in North America, Europe and Oceania.
Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede carried out several studies of over thirty countries to analyze how societies were organized. Countries with the highest individualist rankings include the United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.
Such societies have well-developed economies and a strong culture of innovation. Personal achievement is encouraged and financial incentives reward accomplishment.
This leads to greater risk taking than in more group-oriented societies and a high level of entrepreneurship.
Respecting the free spirit of the individual lends itself to a greater tolerance of differing cultural or religious beliefs within such societies, which tend to be highly multicultural.
People change jobs or careers more often than in other cultures and in many places it’s encouraged. To stay too long in one place can be seen as being stagnant and lacking ambition.
Also known as collectivist, these societies are prevalent throughout Africa, South America and Asia, to varying degrees.
Countries such as South Korea, Japan, India and Peru all place tremendous importance on the smooth functioning of the group.
The power of the group begins with the extended family. Grandparents live with their children and grandchildren in networks where everyone relies on each other.
In Costa Rica, young adults remain living with their families even after graduating from college and starting their careers. This is natural for such societies – the family network is the closest unit in someone’s life.
Whether in the family, the community or at school and work, the group’s needs are seen as more important than that of any individual.
This is learned from a very early age. In Japan, children are divided into groups when they enter kindergarten. In groups they eat, clean and work on projects together, all the way through their school life.
In these cultures, people tend to put the group ahead of themselves and are wary of not disrupting the harmony of the group, whether at home, work or the community.
Letting down the group or bringing it unwanted attention is avoided whenever possible which can discourage overly extroverted or eccentric behavior.
Personal problems may not be as easily divulged, and workers may be reluctant to take time off from work. Taking paid leave can be seen as putting yourself first and leaves your co-workers having to take up the slack.
While the consideration for others is admirable, it’s hardly an ideal work-life balance.
However, a society bound together by community and work groups can provide more stable and guaranteed employment, with a greater feeling of belonging than in other cultures.
So far, so good. But which offers the better quality of life? It depends on who you’re talking to.
Individualist societies clearly have thriving economies and are exciting places to live. At times too exciting. Higher crime rates with no group bonds or support to rein them in.
They’re full of creative, innovative go-getters – many of whom are saints and many of whom couldn’t care less about those around them.
Group-dominated societies offer closer ties within the family and community and a sense of unity and self-worth. They tend to work together cohesively and efficiently towards the common goal. This was demonstrated with countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore responding swiftly and effectively during the early stages of the pandemic.
Harmonious and yet full of frustrated extroverts who’d love nothing more than to quit their job, dye their hair blue and start their own dive bar. Anything to be different.
A balance of both is surely the way to go.
Countries such as Finland, Switzerland, South Korea and Hong Kong have given us a clue.
All have highly-developed and modernized economies that encourage creativity to drive innovation – classic individualist qualities.
However these countries also recognize the right to provide equal opportunites for all their citizens in terms of access to education, employment and healthcare.
There are obvious differences from country to country however there appears to be a common theme of stepping back and looking at the big picture.
Yes, we need a sturdy economy to provide for future generations, but let’s make sure we take everyone with us…
In other words, we’re all in this together.