Books

4 Ways Americans Live Now That Totally Upend How We Define 'Home' and 'Family'

The traditional nuclear family is being replaced by lifetime roommates, single parents and contemporary villages.

Photo Credit: arka38 / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Way We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century by Bella DePaulo (Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2015): 

In the fall of 2012, an article in the “Great Homes and Destinations” section of the New York Times began like this:

In a slowly gentrifying section of Bushwick, Brooklyn, where gunshots are no longer heard and the local brothel has been turned into a family home, five friends made a 10-year commitment. The group—two architectural designers, two fashion designers and one advertising executive, all in their 20s—rented 2,700 square feet of raw space and agreed to fix it up and live there for a decade. Two years into that commitment, it seems to be going pretty well.

In just a few understated sentences, the Times captured a way of living that would have been nearly unthinkable not so very long ago. A confluence of cultural, demographic, and economic factors have turned the opening decades of the twenty-first century into a time of unprecedented innovation and experimentation as Americans search for their places, their spaces, and their people.

The choices of the five twentysomethings are remarkable in a number of ways:

Demographics and relationships:The five men and women in their twenties are making a ten-year commitment, and it is not to a spouse or even to the goal of finding a spouse, though that is not out of the question. It is a commitment to one another; as friends. In 1956, the median age at which Americans first married was as young as it has ever been—22.5 for men and 20.1 for women. By 2013, though, the respective ages had jumped to 29.0 and 26.6—and that’s just for those who do marry. Today, the twenties can be devoted to all manner of pursuits; marriage and children, while still an aspiration for many, no longer dominate.

Geography:They are staying in the city and not looking toward the suburbs. That’s new too. For the first time in at least two decades, cities and surrounding suburbs are growing faster than the regions beyond the suburbs.

Architecture and design:A century ago, many Americans were selecting houses from a Sears catalog. Now, adults can step into a big hunk of raw space that stretches beyond a space fit for a couple or a nuclear family, and envision a place they will call home.

The friends have separate bedrooms. They share showers, a bathroom, and space for entertaining. They are also sharing their lives; they consider themselves family. These five people could have followed a more familiar script. Instead, they dreamed. They designed their own lives, with their own place, their own space, and their own people.

Another group of young New Yorkers, all heterosexual single men, began living together just after they graduated from New York University. That was eighteen years before they were interviewed about their experiences by the New York Times.  When the rent for their loft in Chelsea doubled after fourteen years, they could have gone their separate ways. But they are close friends, and they chose to look for another place they could share instead.

The four men, all approaching forty, found two stories of a concrete building in Queens that they affectionately call Fortress Astoria. The men have their own rooms (more like tiny apartments) and share a kitchen, living room, and garden. None of the bedrooms are adjoining, so the men have privacy when they want to bring dates home.

“We are really close and care about each other deeply,” one of the men said. “And yet we give each other lots of space . . . We’ve got all the benefits of a family with very little of the craziness that normally comes along with them.”

Not one of the men is a parent, but that doesn’t make them all that unusual. In 2012, the birthrate in the United States fell to the lowest level since 1920, when reliable records first became available.

The ease and comfort they feel with one another is clearly one of the main attractions of the way the men live, but so is the money they save by splitting the rent and utilities four ways. Without the pressure of a pricier housing tab, the men can pursue circuitous, risky, and exhilarating career paths that the company men of eras past could not imagine. One of the friends tried an office job for a while. The health insurance was nice, but the work wasn’t. He is now a personal trainer. His roommates are in filmmaking, acting, and the design of role-playing fantasy games.

In a vibrant Seattle neighborhood, complete with markets, cultural venues, and convenient public transportation, a group of artists longed to find affordable housing. There wasn’t any. There was, though, an old hotel that captured the fancy of their dreamy minds. With help from the city, they converted the hotel into a cooperative home with twenty-one living spaces, including doubles, triples, and solo “Zen” units. The housemates—who range in age from nineteen to fifty—share kitchens, bathrooms, lounges, laundry facilities, and a roof deck. It is their responsibility to keep the building in good shape, but they throw work parties to get that done—so it doesn’t feel like a chore. They have potlucks at home and organize outings to local stomping grounds.

The Brooklyn, Queens, and Seattle stories are all examples of one of the newly fashionable ways of living in twenty-first-century America: under the same roof with people who are not your spouse or family. The bond that unites the housemates is not blood or marriage but friendship.

The trend, however, is not confined to urban areas, to young adults, or to “artistic types.” All across the nation, unrelated people who once went their separate ways (often with a spouse and kids in tow) are now living together.

Older people have proven themselves remarkable innovators. Americans are not just living longer than ever before, they are also staying healthy longer.8 They may need some help as they age, and the growing numbers who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single may want companionship, but most prefer to find those resources and people outside of institutional settings.

And so they fantasize and make things happen. After AARP surveyed twelve hundred women forty-five and older about how they would like to live, the published report highlighted this quote from a fifty-sevenyear-old: “I keep telling my friends that we all need to buy a big house with a common area downstairs and live together—not like a nursing home but truly a place where we have communal living.”

That’s just what three women from Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, did. They were all divorced, living on their own, working full-time, and in great shape. They were in their fifties and concerned that maintaining their independence may not always be so easy. So, they set out to find a place they could share. It has now been about a decade that they have been living happily ever after in a charming five-bedroom brick Colonial on a tree-shaded corner lot.

Just outside of Indianapolis, two single women, best friends for decades and accustomed to living on their own, also decided to live together. They were fifty-five and fifty-nine when they found a small three-bedroom home in a cozy community known as a pocket neighborhood. In Saratoga Springs, New York, another pair of longtime friends—one retired and the other on the cusp of retirement—sold the homes they owned and bought one together. In the single-level home, they each have their own bedroom, study, and bathroom down a long hallway from a big kitchen, dining room, and family room.

Here are a few of the most common modern family trends:

Grown Kids and Their Parents Staying Together

In 1980, hardly anyone in the twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-old demographic wanted to live with their parents, and only 11 percent actually did. That was the lowest percentage on record. By 2012, the rate had climbed to 23.6 percent. The recession of 2007 to 2009 provided part of the impetus for the homeward trek, but not all; the trendlines had been creeping up continuously since 1980.13 Some grown children, such as twenty-two-year-old Georgetown University graduate Aodhan Beirne, head back to their childhood bedrooms to sleep under their dinosaur blankets. Others find fresh ways to live at home while still maintaining a space of their own. Ella Jenkins, twenty-three, lives in her parents’ backyard in Frazier Park, California, in one of those undersize homes attracting outsize media attention. She built her mobile 130-square-foot house with the help of her stepfather. It may seem tiny to others, but it is welcoming and bright. “I just feel this wonderful feeling of peace,” she said. “I just walk in and feel it’s huge.” The sizeable number of young adults moving back in with their parents has caused a bit of a kerfuffle among the punditry. The kids are called the boomerang generation, the go-nowhere generation, and generation stuck. The moms and dads who take them in are called helicopter parents and worse. The critics, though, may be appraising this new trend through twentieth-century glasses. Today’s young adults and their parents are not the same as the ones from the generation-gap years of the 1960s and 1970s, when many parents just could not fathom what their kids were thinking. They have more in common now: “the invisible line between parent and child is dissolving.”

In a 2012 generations survey, the AARP asked young adults about their relationship with their parents, and they also asked boomers to describe their bonds with their parents when they were in their early twenties. In every way, the younger generation reported more connectedness with their parents than did the boomer generation. They said they talk with their parents more often and more deeply, see each other more often, and are more approving of young adults living with their parents.

There is little to suggest that young adults living at home are just mooching off their parents. About 90 percent help with household expenses and nearly 50 percent pay rent. They do build their savings by living at home instead of in a place of their own. And that, claimed family scholar Steven Mintz, is a good thing. Spending early-adult years with parents, he suggested, “is the best preparation for success in an economy that rewards ambition, risk taking, entrepreneurship, and adaptability.

Many Relatives and Ages, All Under One Roof

The boomer parents and their own parents may not have been very close during the boomers’ young adult years, but increasing numbers of them are living together now. As in the past, aging parents sometimes live in granny flats or mother-in-law apartments; but today’s multigenerational home-sharers are dreaming up new arrangements. In British Columbia, for example, Ann and Gord Baird and Ann’s parents built a place together that straddles the line between one home and two. Each residence has its own kitchen, but the two kitchens are connected with a pass-through. The two semi-independent houses share plumbing, heating, electricity, and the washing machine. In Port Orchard, Washington, Kathy Peck and her husband live separately from Kathy’s mother—but the two houses are right across the driveway from each other.

Dramatic increases in longevity over the past century have profound implications for the ways we live. A twenty-year-old in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandmother than a twenty-year-old in 1900 was to have a living mother. That makes it increasingly possible for three or more generations to live under the same roof. In the past decade or so, people have been doing just that. The first decade of the twenty-first century was also a time of increasing home-sharing by other combinations of family members. They included pairs of siblings, skipped generations (for example, grandparents and their grandchildren), and various assortments of cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and others.

The City Built to Cater to Single Parents

Among the Americans who may be especially open to creative ways of living are single parents. In the contemporary political landscape, single mothers are too often scapegoated as the cause of the nation’s ills. There was a time, though, when professionals thought deeply and creatively about how to seamlessly integrate places for living with ways of making a living, especially for single parents and working wives.

One model was a city built around a shipyard. Both housing and childcare were affordable, public transportation was convenient, and on-the-job training was readily available. The childcare centers were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (just like the shipyards), complete with infirmaries for sick children, child-sized bathtubs so that mothers [did] not need to bathe children at home, cooked food services so that mothers [could] pick up hot casseroles along with their children, and . . . large windows with views of the river, so that children [could] watch the launchings at the yards.

The place was Vanport City, Oregon, the real location of women represented by the celebrated icon Rosie the Riveter. Vanport City was designed to support the wartime productivity of adults who were not at war, including single people, single mothers, and wives whose husbands were overseas. When World War II was over, however, so was Vanport City. This is an example of the industrial model of housing that places a premium on efficiency. It was replaced by the model of home-as-haven, the one we have come to regard as traditional. Each nuclear family owned a home of its own—perhaps an iconic Cape Cod—on a lot of its own, out in the suburbs. Maybe men returning from the war welcomed the privacy and intimacy their havens afforded them after years of bunking with fellow soldiers. Not all of their wives were delighted to step away from their jobs as riveters and welders, but many of them did, staying home to raise the kids while their husbands went off to work.

The development of suburbs dotted with single-family homes continued apace, even as the number of single parents, singles without kids, and couples without kids continued to grow, and as more of the mothers in nuclear families worked outside of the home.

For the new demographics, the realities of suburban life did not match the idyllic images splashed across the pages of glossy magazines. Commutes were costly and time consuming. Daycare was expensive and inconveniently located. The adults who stayed home felt increasingly isolated, and they were not just imagining their disconnection. A national survey ongoing since 1974 has shown that Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbors as they are now. The lowest levels of neighborliness were recorded in the suburbs.

In earlier times, mothers could find people within their own homes to help with the children. The birthrate was higher, and extended-family living was more commonplace, so both young girls and grown women were available to pitch in. Demographers studying changes in households between 1880 and 2000 found that over that time period, fewer and fewer females were residing in each household, and more of those who were in the home were preoccupied with jobs or school.

Creating the Contemporary Village

For all the conveniences and efficiencies of the industrial model of living exemplified by Vanport City, it has not become an attractive alternative to the home-as-haven model. The stark housing structures had no aesthetic appeal. The teams of interchangeable childcare workers who fed and bathed the children and then handed them off to their mothers at the end of the work shift lacked the warmth and personal involvement that Americans prize. Now that fast-food restaurants, laundromats and dry cleaners, and 24/7 convenience stores are ubiquitous, there is less unique value to residents (and less potential profit for merchants) of the on-site services that Vanport City provided. The industrial model is also unlikely to foster a sense of community or neighborliness.

An alternative to both the industrial and the home-as-haven models of housing is the neighborhood strategy, in which people create a community that really is neighborly. When these intentional neighborhoods are successful, they are a boon not only to single parents but people of any marital or parental status—or any other characteristic, for that matter—who want to live in a real community.

Some groups try to create a community from a neighborhood that already exists. Cul-de-sacs, in which a relatively small number of houses are already arranged around a circumscribed space, may be particularly amenable to neighborliness. Interested participants can initiate regular neighborly events (such as potlucks or coffee klatches) or organize the sharing of resources (such as lawn equipment) or services (such as childcare).

In Boulder, Colorado, an architect and a builder with years of collaborative experience created a unique arrangement of three flat-roofed, modernist townhomes. Two of the townhomes are separated by just a narrow walkway. The third sits atop one of the other two. All three feature glass corners and showcase the spectacular mountain views. The builder and his wife live in one of the homes, the head of a graphic design studio and his spouse are in another, and a single woman, who is an internet entrepreneur, has the home on top. Both couples are in their sixties. The single woman is forty-six. The New York Times called the community a semicommune—the residents’ experience is not all about togetherness; they have ample privacy too.

People interested in recapturing the small-town neighborly ethos in modern American society no longer need to improvise. There is a model for doing so that has been implemented successfully across the United States. It is called cohousing. In 2012, I traveled to Oakland, California, to attend the annual Conference of the Cohousing Association of the United States to learn about the phenomenon firsthand.

I was especially eager to hear visionary architect Charles Durrett, who introduced the concept of cohousing to Americans and went on to design dozens of U.S. cohousing communities. In a darkened room illuminated only by his slides, he perched informally on a chair and told his stories.

In 1980, when he was attending the University of Copenhagen, he walked to and from the train station each day. On the way, he passed numerous sets of homes and apartment buildings devoid of any social interactions. One cluster of houses, though, was different:

I saw a lot of activity between the houses. People were stopping with their laundry basket in hand to talk to their neighbors. In the evening, there might be three or five people sitting around a table with a cup of tea or a beer. On the weekends, two or three people were in a parking area, looking under the hood of a car.

Durrett learned that the group had created their own neighborhood. They found the land and recruited architects and planners willing to let them take the lead in designing their neighborhood and residences. Each decision was designed to foster community. Houses were turned toward each other, around a courtyard, where children could play and adults could stop and chat. Cars were kept on the periphery, out of the way.

Once cohousing communities are built, the residents are still in charge; the communities are entirely self-governing. Residents attend regular meetings to make decisions and aim for consensus. They also do not pay others to maintain their neighborhood. Everyone pitches in, usually on designated workdays, which residents describe as adding to the camaraderie. In cohousing communities, everyone has a personal apartment or house and a second house that everyone shares. The common house always includes a kitchen and a dining area, and often other rooms too. The community members typically have dinner together several times a week, and people take turns cooking and cleaning up.

Each cohousing community incorporates elements that matter to the residents. The common house might include a library, a shop, a playroom for the kids, or a band room for the teens. Guest rooms and laundry facilities are often added too. That way, individual houses no longer need to dedicate space for those functions, homes can then be more compact, and both living expenses and individual footprints can be reduced.

On several days at the conference, attendees had the opportunity to board buses and visit various cohousing communities around Oakland and Berkeley. In each community, residents opened their homes to us, letting us walk through. One of the guides was a teenage boy. In the grassy areas at the center of the communities, kids ran around and so did their dogs. There were chicken coops and rabbit cages, gardens and barbecue pits. Photovoltaic panels on some of the buildings occasionally generated more power than the community used.

The Way We Used to Live

Experiments in living are not a new thing in the United States, however. The Shakers, for example, came to America in 1774, bringing with them the belief that all of the adults in their community were brothers and sisters. In the early years of the following century, one of the newly established communes was the Oneida Community in New Harmony, Indiana. Their ideology discouraged any special attachments between particular men and women because all of the adults were considered to be married to one another.

In the purest form of communal living, everything is shared—the land, the living spaces, the food, and even the clothes. Few such communities have survived into the twenty-first century. In Israel, even kibbutz life, now more than a century old, has adapted to contemporary mores and welcomes some privatization and privacy.

To modern-day Americans, the best-known experimental communities are the hippie communes that proliferated in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hippies’ countercultural ideology and love of sex, drugs, and rock and roll got the most press, but their quest for connection and community may have been even more important.

Many large group houses have been built over the years; and in a nod to the valuing of solitude, members now have private rooms (but no televisions) within the group houses. Twin Oaks boasts of no one central leader and no one religion practiced by all. The residents believe in egalitarianism, pacifism, and sharing, and strive for a small environmental footprint. Newly formed intentional communities often claim similar values. Many contemporary innovations in living still retain the reverence for community that was at the core of communes past. Now, however, an emphasis solely on community appeals to very few.

Americans—even those who want to live in a place that feels like a community—increasingly want their own spaces, whether that is a home of their own or a small apartment in a shared house. They prefer more autonomy, too, especially with regard to income. They do not want to be assigned jobs or told how much spending money they are allowed. Historically, communes were often located in remote areas. Their geographical withdrawal was an expression of their ideological critique of society. Today, Americans drawn to pocket neighborhoods and cohousing communities enjoy the “we” feeling that their spatial clustering inspires, but they also want to be a part of the larger society and not apart from it.

***

In so many domains of our lives, choice is more available and more valued than it ever was before. To the youngest generation of adults, it is taken for granted. Children who grew up choosing their own TV shows rather than gathering around the living room with Mom, Dad, and the sibs to watch the same show; who chose their own music and sometimes their own food; who often had rooms, and even phones, of their own, are not going to lead Stepford lives as adults.

Already, the millennials are making choices that were predicted by almost no one. That exuberant anticipation of becoming old enough to drive has morphed, for some, into a shrug. The proportion of teens with a driver’s license dropped 28 percent between 1998 and 2008. Adults under thirty-five own fewer cars and drive fewer miles. The “ownership society” is not their thing—not even home ownership. This rate for the under-thirty-five demographic fell by 12 percent between 2006 and 2011. The recession played a role, but so did preferences. Millennials are telling real-estate consultants that they like living in city centers and surrounding metropolitan areas, where residences are small and modes of transportation are accessible and plentiful.

Adults of all ages can now turn on the television and see a vast array of ways to arrange a life. Gone are the days when television brought us little more than the nuclear-family land of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. Twenty-first-century television has been a candy store of ways to live, some played for laughs and others utterly serious. Step onto the sets of shows such as Parenthood, Modern Family, Six Feet Under, Brothers and Sisters, and Blue Bloods, and you will find at least two generations sharing the same home. Big Love showcased an unapologetic portrayal of polygamist living. On Grey’s Anatomy, many of the high-powered interns of the fictitious Seattle Grace Hospital, who started out as strangers, lived together in one big house; nine seasons later, most are now surgeons, but some are still living together in the same home. The early years of Grey’s also featured a brain surgeon who savored his solitude in his old Airstream camper parked under the sky, apart from the rest of the world. On Private Practice, some of the doctors had places of their own, but two of them were right next door to one another.

Sweeping pronouncements about the state of society have long been topics of great fascination. Are we becoming a nation of loners, “bowling alone”? Or are we so hyperconnected that we have lost touch with our true selves and are now living in an age marred by “the end of solitude”? Such questions remain significant, but as psychologists step to the forefront of our cultural conversations, we are reminded of the uniqueness of each individual. Those who love their solitude are not troubled by the prospect of bowling alone or living alone, while those who relish their ties to other people may be cheering the demise of solitude.

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