Individualism and neoliberalism

Individualism: Concept and historical background

This notion of ‘individual responsibility’ and ‘choice’ is embodied in another significant influence that affects our ideas about aging and fuels ageism – the ideology of individualism that is rooted in 19th century America (Hooyman and Gonyea, 1995). The belief inindividualism, which is also embedded in media and popular culture, provides the foundation for capitalism and the subsequent development of neoliberalism in the late 1970s – early 1980s. Emphasizing self-reliance, independence, and productivity, individualism negatively characterizes any form of weakness or dependence (Harvey, 2005; Hooyman & Gonyea, 1995). Building onthe ideology of individualism, neoliberalism contributes to the belief that to have value as an older person in our society, you must continue to be healthy and productive and/or have enough wealth to maintain complete independence. And two of the primary tenets of neoliberal ideology – ‘choice’ and ‘personal responsibility’ – provide the method to maintain independence in old age. But if you should instead become a frail and dependent older person any value you might have is removed, translating into the ultimate form of ageism.

Neoliberalism: Concept and historical background

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families…Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.” (Margaret Thatcher, 1981, 1987)

In the late 1980s-early 1990s a subtle change started to take place in Canadian society as a creeping ideological rhetoric entered the public domain. The mantra of “individual (or personal) responsibility” and “choice” could be found over and over again in everything from academic publications to the mainstream press. This rhetoric was accompanied by a political-economic shift that included the privatization and profitization of many of Canada’s social welfare programs – neoliberalism was on the rise.

The term ‘neoliberalism’ can be traced to the late 1800s in France (néolibéralisme), but it’s Its contemporary usage is usually attributed to Milton Friedman and Fredrich von Hayek, who in 1974-75, proposed ideas for a major new economic system based on deregulation and privatization of public services and assets designed to combat the threats to capitalism advanced by the social democratic policies of the left (Harvey, 2004: 8-9). Chile provided the stage for the first experiment with neoliberal policies following Pinochet’s coup in 1973. The main effect of this experiment reflected an inequitable outcome: Chilean elites and foreign investors did very well financially while the standard of living for the general population decreased, while neoliberalism also helped to restore the class position of the elites (Harvey 2005, pp. 8-9).

The economic policies that were put forward by Friedman, von Hayek and Paul Volcker, the newly appointed Chairman of the US Federal Reserve in July 1979, came to be known as neoliberalism. This system was quickly embraced by a number of other world leaders including China’s Deng Xiaoping, who began China’s ascent into the world of market capitalism in 1978; Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK as of 1979; and Ronald Reagan whose US presidency began in 1980 (Harvey, 2005).The neoliberal polices put into place by Thatcher and Reagan rapidly became the new orthodoxy of economics that has dominated the political-economic structure of western nations since the mid 1980s.

Neoliberalism holds that state involvement in public affairs inflicts a negative impact on the social and economic development of its citizens; and proposed that by reducing the power of the state, power would be transferred to the individual, a supposedly ideal situation embraced by nations with a strong belief in individualism (Navarro, 2002b). According to neoliberal thought “all forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility and family values” (Harvey, 2005: 23). The purpose of government is thus transformed from a system that protects the interests of its citizens, to one that protects the interests of the market. But although neoliberalism promises less government intervention in public affairs, neoliberal governments in fact remain involved in the administration of public institutions (Williams, et al., 2001). However, rather than provide government support of public services, an economic market model of industry has been imposed on public institutions, (education, health, etc.). In this way, the purpose of government is thus transformed from a system that protects the interests of its citizens, to one that protects the interests of the market.

With the assistance of ‘effective’ government and corporate media support, neoliberalism and its underlying ideology, individualism, are now deeply embedded in government policies that emphasize individual responsibility, which in turn have affected polices and attitudes around older adults. As this ideological rhetoric is internalized and normalized, citizens have been transformed into consumers – customers readily available for the emerging markets provided by the profitization of social welfare programs (Ungerson, 1997, Williams et al, 2001). This remarkably successful transformation has affected all aspects of Canadian life.

Interconnection with ‘successful aging’

Aging is not simply an individual activity. It takes place within a number of sociopolitical and economic variables, as well as health influences, which may often be beyond the ability of the individual to control (Bowling, 1993). Consequently, research has shown that income and social status, two of the determinants of health, are among the primary factors affecting individual health, with the greater the disparity of income, the greater the differences in health (WHO, 2013). Carol Estes (2000), Steven Wallace (2000) and others have applied the political economy approach to an analysis of health and aging to show that through government regulations, combined with social and health policies, capitalist societies influence the different life choices of the individual, ultimately affecting the health of older persons. In addition, a number of scholars over the last 15-20 years, have argued that the concept of successful aging has actually fostered ageism, and has enabled governments to rationalize decisions to cutback health and social welfare policies to older adults. Calasanti, et al. (2012) agree emphasizing that:

As we have combined the belief that we should control aging (‘disease’) with promises of slowing or altering the ageing process, the pressure to not ‘appear old’ (that is, have visible markers of ageing) has increased. Again, the idea that individuals can control this process through lifestyle and consumer choices justifies the ageism heaped upon those of us who do not ‘choose’ to stem their ageing (Calasanti, Sorensen, & King (p. 21).