Society has us conditioned to think of various milestones and socializing in relation to age pretty oddly, particularly if you’re American.
The pandemic has had us rethinking countless aspects of society as it is, housing is definitely one of them. Quarantine has been hell on those of us who live in small spaces because the lifestyle aspects we traded space for have suddenly vanished. Densely-populated apartment buildings with common elements like mailboxes and elevator buttons smeared with your neighbors’ and countless delivery folks’ pathogens now present more risk than your average single-family home.
But despite these risks, there’s this hunger for more communal living.
This piece I did on repurposed abandoned malls and the opportunities they present for socialization under the same roof as your living space wound up really resonating with people.Shit is lonely. Not just in suburbia which is often less attractive than cities to single 20 and 30 somethings without kids, but in cities too as things like gentrification and rising rents send our friends packing if career changes didn’t. Scientific American reports that 47% of Americans regardless of age feel extremely lonely.
While we’re going to have reasonable cautiousness in how we navigate public spaces and our homes in the ensuing months and years post-COVID, about half the population wants to never return from working at home while the other half is dying to go back to a day job just to be able to leave work at work. People are also simply starving for community with enough privacy, as the fervent discussion around the repurposed abandoned malls has shown.
So while we’re already exploring how to reshape society after a vaccine gets distributed, including the challenge we were already facing with Boomers looking to age in place, it just hit me that it begs the question why we wait until we’re old to live in or close to a community?
The Age Disparity of Present Forms of Communal Living
I remember reading this blog post by James Altucher a while back that was a fun take on how the real world differs from college. Something that stuck out to me was that he said college would probably be the only time you’re ever going to live around people your own age, because your life and friend circle will have more age diversity as your new living situation and career take you places.
It was an excellent point, although this wasn’t my experience. I only did the traditional college dorm thing for a year, dropped out and took time off of school, then I went to a commuter college upon going back. Had a rent-stabilized pre-war dump near school which I held onto til I bought a condo. Wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world on account of both the lack of student debt and the fact that an overwhelming majority of my classmates already had jobs and families. My social life was also not tethered to school, since it primarily laid in the punk scene which I kept up with regardless of whatever I was doing in terms of education or income and there was plenty of age diversity. I was already in the real world, not your average collegiate bubble.
But under the good faith assumption that most young Americans have this universal college experience where their social lives and environments are dictated by a bunch of peers who are there for the same purpose, it begs the question why we have it to begin with.
Sure, there’s plenty of fun to be had when you’re 18 and leaving your parents’ house for the first time. For most young people, choosing which college to attend and what housing arrangements to make are often some of the first major decisions that you get to make by yourself. But must your social circle and friend group be curated so? Restrictive dorm life when you’re now old enough to vote, work, and get tried as an adult in court?
The whole idea around dormitory living is that you have time and headspace to focus on your studies full time. Now that I’m in my thirties, have done the whole living by myself in NYC thing forfuckingever, and have to either cook every damn meal or order it from Grubhub, I’d love a cafeteria in the same building as my apartment or perhaps adjacent to it where I could just waltz into and pick a variety of healthy and delicious meals or get them made to order while I sit at a table full of other weirdos and professional shitposters! Even before COVID-19, restaurants just couldn’t match this. There is nothing more annoying than playing musical chairs at the nearest Starbucks if you don’t have other coffee shops and places with wifi nearby. Ask a total stranger to watch your laptop? Sure, Karen.
And that’s all without considering living around a whole bunch of other people who are there for the same purpose, which can be a blessing and a curse. It’s difficult to find this type of setting outside of education in your late twenties and beyond unless you qualify for an artist residency, which is both insanely difficult and usually doesn’t last too long.
It’s why the misery dorm model has been pushed in cities where it’s difficult to find an apartment unless you have a lot of money. You’re not just paying out the ass to sleep in a bunk bed and share a toilet with strangers, it’s also supposedly for the socialization aspects such as WeWork’s “WeLive” spaces for intrepid tech entrepreneurs. Call me when I can keep my private apartment but have communal elements like workspace downstairs.
Still, these two models are aberrations in the grand scheme of things. Most people can’t live in artist residencies and a vast majority would only opt for a misery dorm if they needed short-term housing that works out cheaper than a hotel. After college, most people only get to live in a home that has communal elements in old age. It’s like how this piece on “toddler grandma style” puts it: when do we get to actually have fun with fashion, but also be comfortable? Surrendering your prime years to suits and Ann Taylor separates blows rocks, it’s why I got out when I did. But while personal style at the workplace is a tad more relaxed these days and probably will stay that way for the foreseeable future (who else wants to abolish bras after things go back to normal?!), fashion can be easily changed and adapted. Housing and urban planning….far less so.
But come on, it’s a raw deal that just like how we have to “outgrow” fun materials like tulle after kindergarten and then not wear comfortable shoes until well after menopause comes a-knocking, it’s the same for our communal living types. If it’s so common now for 30-somethings to room together in expensive cities while single households and home buyers are rising in more affordable areas, why NOT build more communal type living setups that go beyond college dorms and assisted living, and overpriced bunk beds that get touted as affordable housing?
The Obsession with the Nuclear Family
Well, a big reason why living with friends well into your fifties was laughed at and derided is because of persistent social engineering. Namely, pushing the isolationist nuclear family ideal on everyone.
Extended families were more common in both the United States and other countries until the post-war era. Some of these extra household members were due to bloodlines, but running farms and small businesses took several extra hands and living where you worked was just what you did. While the Victorian Era elevated the concept of home and family, it was ultimately bolstered decades later by the socially engineered postwar prosperity that accompanied the baby boom.
Suburbs were formed, often to exclude certain groups and heavily subsidized by various levels of government to do just that. And just like how we’re dealing with a pandemic today, there was an influenza pandemic 100 years ago as well that informed peoples’ worldviews. Living in crowded tenements where disease could spread in ordinary times held little appeal to the growing middle class that could now afford a clean and quiet freestanding house where you didn’t have things like upstairs neighbors.
These two hyper-isolationist forces convened to make sure that people depended on random corporations instead of their communities, and the innocence of that suburban reverie eroded in the ensuing decades with the Manson family murders and the McMartin Preschool incident. It was definitely these two points in history that made people feel unsafe in their homes and more wary of strangers, and helped pave the way for the bland McMansion hellscape that would become de riguer.
So, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in a single family home with a nuclear family. But it became such a vaunted ideal that actually weakened family bonds and happiness by making it seem like other types of families and homes were inferior. After all, people looked down upon apartments and condos for years because the real estate lobby has spent untold amounts of money on the “a man’s home is his castle” mantra that elevated single family homes above other types.
Somewhere down the line, people associated living with roommates well into your thirties was a sign that you failed as an adult. That if you chose an apartment over a house, it meant you made poor anti-American choices.
Finding a partner and having kids are the enormous shifts in one’s life and often cause someone to shift away from communal living, with the thought that your family is who takes care of you and that you don’t need a community. This type of thinking is detrimental to society and the 21st century needs to turn around from it: the nuclear family isn’t the be-all end-all and if you start one, get more involved with your community rather than shift towards isolationism as a default.
What Could Communal Living Look Like?
When this topic gets broached, it either conjures up images of those shitty and miserable gentrified bunk beds or perhaps some Midsommar type of farm life where you live in the middle of nowhere with 20 other people and get a private bedroom.
If imagining a post-COVID society has taught us anything, it’s that if you don’t want to think big then you need to think about ways to make what you currently have more workable.
But imagine if you lived in a suburban subdivision that looked like any run of the mill one you’ve seen before. Except that now you have one of your close friends and their family living in the house three doors down, and one of the houses at the end of the block has been converted into large apartments for your single friends and the block’s caretaker. Because one of those houses has a university or tech startup type cafeteria, everyone gets ultra high speed Internet with a military-grade VPN, and there’s a community garden and other shared facilities.
Communal living doesn’t have to be a dorm-type setup, or confined to one building or something like a farm. Or if you’re more interested in apartment living, imagine having a communal kitchen with a voluntary opt-in so that you can toss out fewer leftovers which is no lofty matter given that Americans alone toss 27 million tons of leftover waste every year. Think of the type of household labor you don’t have to do when living in an artist residency so you can focus solely on art: “co-living” spaces make housekeeping a major perk of living there, but imagine the support you’d have from pooled accounts with errand and cleaning services or perhaps a co-op setup where everyone contributes hours to the property. After all, this is what groups of older people are starting to do nowadays with paid caregivers in co-housing arrangements.
Or even if it’s nothing like this at all, how about we normalize groups of friends splitting on the purchase price of a house or small apartment complex together instead of driving home this idea that it’s only for married couples or affluent singles waiting to start a family or a dinosaur puppy farm?
Why wait until you’re old to get to be around people your age who can provide anything from someone to talk to when you’re having a bad day to making a meal for your kids if you have to work late?
If anything, I more strongly need a college cafeteria and on-campus bar with bands to play where I can see my friends often at 35 with a full-blown digital media career than I did at 19 when I had no money and was able to stay up all night without feeling like garbage the next day.
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.