Many of the past ways we’ve addressed our human need to belong are disappearing. Increased mobility means fewer people live long in one place. Extended families have largely disappeared. And the diversity and complexity of our globalized world, while rich, also serves to weaken traditional ethnic and national bonds.
Has our modern Age of the Individual become, as philosophers have warned, an age of alienation, an age defined most by our isolation one from another. Or perhaps worse, will the future be defined most by fragmentation, as people, fearful of how big the world has become, retreat to gated communities and chat-rooms of the like-minded.
I suspect neither of these will be our fate. The human need for belonging and community is just too much in our bones to be lost to history. And fragmentation, while it may temporarily address such needs, in the long run undermines their fulfillment.
But community in the future will often look very different from what we have known in the past. And it will require new abilities—again capacities new to us as a species.
For example, like with each of our previous questions, community in the future will require a new kind of human responsibility. Community in times past was a given. It was our birthright—and ever present, like water to a fish. By contrast, we will have community in the future just to the degree we choose to make it a priority and consciously create it.
In addition, it will require, again, that we expand who we are and how we understand. Use past images to guide us and we become vulnerable to advocating outcomes that we not only could not achieve, but that we would not want to achieve. For example, if our ideal for community is the close-knit neighborhoods of our great grandparents’ days, we’ve got real problems. The sense of community our forebearers experienced was a product not just of place and proximity, but of often inviolable blood bonds and narrowly prescribed notions of appropriate behavior. Even if we could go back, we would likely feel our freedom and individuality intolerably stifled. Community in the future will require greater appreciation for who we each are as unique, whole, beings.
Along with this, community in the future will require greater acceptance of diversity, complexity, and change—dimension of experience that in times past we would have view as enemies of community. Community in a globally interconnected world will more and more involve people of diverse beliefs and hues. We will likely meet our needs for belonging in a growing multiplicity of ways: from shared locale, to the workplace, to avenues—many barely imagined—that utilize emerging communications technologies. And few of tomorrow’s new forms of belonging will be as once-and-for-all as the community bonds of times past.
Garnering the maturity and perspective needed to address the future of belonging represents one of our time’s most important challenges. As with war and peace, love, progress, morality, and leadership, we are only beginning to grasp that the challenge is new, much less understand how to address it. In times ahead, it should be increasingly obvious not just that belonging and community ask new things of us, but that a world without them would be deeply impoverished. Indeed it would be simply unlivable.