Something is going wrong in the United States.

Our public schools are failing. Our citizens are apathetic. Poverty rates are rising. Health-care costs are soaring. Businesses are going under by the thousands.The list of ills is long.

But why?

No one has been able to fully explain why things seem to have taken such a turn for the worse.

Everyone can cite what is wrong - divorce, crime, drug abuse, obsessive materialism, a lack of duty and commitment and an unwillingness to sacrifice for the public good.

Everyone also seems to know when things started to unravel - about three decades ago.

Newsweek calls our recent history the "30-year spree."

The Wall Street Journal even tries to date the first broken thread to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

It was then, according to the Journal, that "intellectuals" failed to condemn the illegal acts of anti-war protesters. And this started a revolution of rulebreaking that devalued self-restraint in society as a whole.

Yet this explanation falls short of describing the real cause of our social transformation.

The core reason for the upheaval in American society lies in the maturation of the enormous baby-boom generation.

It's more than a coincidence that America's social fabric began to tear just as the baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, came of age in the late '60s.

Boomers' attitudes and values are profoundly different from those of older Americans.

At the root of these differences is a strong sense of individualism instilled in baby boomers by their parents. Baby boomers' parents reared their children to think for and of themselves.

Studies of child-rearing practices show that parents of the 1950s and 1960s consistently ranked "to think for themselves" as the No. 1 trait they wanted to nurture in their children.

Postwar affluence also allowed parents to indulge their children as never before.

Parents invested in their offspring's skills by sending them to college. They encouraged kids to succeed in a job market that rewarded competitive drive more than cooperative spirit, and individual skills more than teamwork.

In turn, the sheer size of the generation encouraged businesses to promote the emerging individuality of baby boomers.

Even before the oldest boomers started earning their own living more than two decades ago, astute businesspeople saw there would be big profits in giving millions of young people what they wanted.

Businesses offered individualistic boomers a growing array of customized products and services.

And so the houses, cars, furniture, appliances, clothes, vacations, jobs, leisure time - and even beliefs - of boomers became increasingly unique.

Now some social observers decry this individualism. They blame young people for selfishness and demand that Americans show more concern for community needs.

But the individualistic perspective is not something baby boomers can turn on and off like a faucet. It is not a simple choice, such as buying a new pair of jeans. It is not even a conscious pursuit.

Instead, it is the way these men and women see and relate to the world. For better or for worse, individualism is here to stay.

It is the master trend of our time.

And furthermore, the master trend of individualism drives myriad smaller trends.

It is behind the rise in divorce and violent crime. It is the reason for soaring health-care costs, political gridlock and racial tensions.

Social scientists repeatedly analyze these lesser trends and the media report on them. But the common cause - individualism - is too often ignored.

Sociologists define individualism as the tendency to withdraw from social institutions and groups, including families, local communities, political parties, churches and the nation.

Individualists put their personal needs ahead of community needs. They make commitments for personal gain rather than moral reasons.

Indeed, as individualistic baby boomers came of age during the past 30 years, they withdrew from the institutions of society.

With the maturing of the baby boom, voting rates fell, a rising share of Americans said they had no religion, divorce became not just acceptable but the norm, materialism gained importance and Americans began to prefer leisure to work.

In essence, the baby boom is the first American generation of "free agents."

In the world of professional sports, free agents are players who negotiate their contracts as individuals rather than as part of a team.

Today, there are more free agents off the playing fields than on them.

Consider the evidence: In 1940 only 11 percent of women and 20 percent of men agreed with the statement, "I am an important person."

By 1990, 66 percent of women and 62 percent of men agreed.

This profound change in the American psyche serves an important purpose.

Americans need an individualistic perspective to succeed in today's highly competitive "personalized" economy. Those who sit back and wait for someone else to look out for them - be it a spouse, an employer or a government - will end up on the sidelines.

Only those who actively pursue their own interests by going to college, developing a specialty and marketing themselves to employers can hope to achieve prosperity.

As increasing numbers of people operate independently of one another, fashions come and go with ever-increasing speed.

The rise of free agents explains why the pace of life is increasing. It also explains why so many people always feel so rushed.

The differences between the personalized and industrial economies are more than superficial.

They are the differences between the microwave and old-fashioned oven, fast-food vs. family restaurant, telephone and fax machine vs. the mail, television vs. newspaper, computer network vs. library, video vs. book, credit card vs. savings account and 24-hour shopping vs. banker's hours.

Successful businesses in a personalized economy give customers what they want when they want it. To do this, they must know their customers extremely well.

In fact, the intimacy between producer and consumer is exactly what makes an economy personalized.

Just look at the television screen. Today dozens - soon to be hundreds - of cable channels with customized programming are challenging the networks.

At mid-century, the average grocery store carried fewer than 4,000 items. Today, the average supermarket carries more than 16,000 items as manufacturers target a multitude of consumer segments.

Now, as parents, baby boomers are bringing up a generation that is even more self-sufficient and independent-minded than they are.

Teaching children to think for themselves ranks even higher as a priority today than it did in the 1950s.

As a result, today's and tomorrow's young adults are bound to be even more individualistic than baby boomers. They will also be more materialistic, more career-oriented and less trusting of others.

Americans must find some way to encourage free agents to work together for the common good. But in the meantime, businesses and consumers alike must adapt to the master trend.

The bad news is that the competition has never been more fierce.

The good news is that the opportunities have never been so boundless.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

As students see it

Today's young adults are more individualistic than boomers were at the same age. This chart ranks attitudes of U.S. high school seniors in 1975 and 1988.

- "Having a job gives a wife more of a chance to develop herself as a person." In 1988, 86 percent of surveyed U.S. high school seniors agreed or mostly agreed; in 1975, 72 percent.

- "How important is it to have a job that provides you with a chance to earn a good deal of money?" In 1988, 62 percent said very important; in 1975, 48 percent.

- "How likely do you think it is that you would stay married to the same person for life?" In 1988, 58 percent said very likely; in 1975, 65 percent.

- "I enjoy the fast pace and changes of today's world." In 1988, 57 percent agreed or mostly agreed; in 1975, 41 percent.

- "Most people can be trusted." In 1988, 23 percent agreed; in 1975, 35 percent.

Source: Monitoring the Future project, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan