In many ways, the story of contemporary American society – and others as well – is one of an astonishing proliferation of options. I don’t mean just the small stuff, such as the mindboggling choices for our playlists and Netflix queues, or the supermarket aisles that now require yards of real estate just for that one product we used to get for free by turning on our kitchen tap.
No, I’m talking about big, sweeping life paths. How We Live Now. Those choices are multiplying, too. We now have more opportunities to claim the life that is most meaningful to us. In some domains, the stigma of being different is dissipating. To the extent that it lingers, sometimes we can find others to stand with us and against those who would try to put us down.
The social movement that is getting the most ink is the LGBT quest for marriage equality. I don’t think marriage of any sort should be the basis for privilege, but that’s not the point. Advocating for same-sex marriage presupposes a much more fundamental accomplishment – the possibility of living openly as someone who is not just a garden-variety heterosexual.
The march of history does not always widen our array of options. As I wrote in Singled Out, the celebration of sex, and lots of it, in recent times has narrowed the comfort zone for those who are just not that into it. Even that trend is showing some signs of change. Asexuals have a well-respected website, AVEN (Asexual Visibility and Education Network), and founder Dave Jay has shown up on MTV and on The View, and was profiled in an Atlantic magazine article, “Life without sex.”
What I talk about most, of course, is single life – especially as lived by those who are embracing it and not just passing through. I like to mock those who practice singlism, and poke holes at all of those supposedly scientific studies purporting to condemn single people to lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. Typically, those studies are massively flawed.
I have been writing this “Living Single” blog since March of 2008, and over the course of those 4+ years, there has been progress. Not nearly as much as I would like, but progress all the same. For some exemplary nuggets, check out Singles Rule! The Surprising Media Phenomenon of 2012.
The publication of Eric Klinenberg’s Going Solo earlier this year let loose a bolt of realization that Living Solo Rules, too. We already knew that young adults often have a place of their own. People my age know that things have changed for the elderly. When those in my cohort were growing up, the norm was for the widowed and any other solo elders to move in with family, often their grown children. Now many prefer instead to live on their own, aging in place when at all possible.
A different trend is, to me, much more surprising: Many young adults are heading home to live with their parents. I get the economics of it – that’s not the stunner. What was amazing to me, when I first learned about this, is that so many of the young adults actually like living with their parents. Their relationships with their parents, when they are all under the same roof again, are mostly fine. When I was in college, nothing would seem more alien than returning home to live with mom and dad, because you wanted to!
I loved my parents – it wasn’t that. There was a great big generation gap. No matter how deep their love, parents and their grown children just didn’t see the world the same way. My college classmates and I (Vassar, 1975) were all just so thrilled to be heading out on our own.
Now in the media, stories about the new living arrangements are all the rage. Katherine Newman documented The Accordion Family in detail, in her book by that name. (I discussed the themes of the book here and here). Just yesterday in the Washington Post, historian Steve Mintz made the economic case for the trend of moving back in with parents and accepting help from parents well beyond college graduation:
“…it turns out that this type of path is the best preparation for success in an economy that rewards ambition, risk-taking, entrepreneurship, and adaptability.”
The title of his essay is “The kids are moving back in after college? Smart career move.” (Yes, he does acknowledge that not all young adults have the enormous advantage of parents who are financially able to support them through college, much less beyond. He has some ideas for solutions, too.)
Even more intriguing, I think, is what he said about the college students in his Columbia University classes: “…my students consider their parents friends.”
Over at the New York Times, Karen Fingerman and Frank Furstenberg, writing that “You can go home again,” caution us not to bemoan the close ties between parents and their grown kids. This does not add up to dependency on the young adults’ part, nor over-involvement on the parents’ part, they argue:
“Our research shows that the closer bonds between young adults and their parents should be celebrated, and do not necessarily compromise the independence of the next generation.”
About the help that parents continue to give to their grown children, Fingerman and Furstenberg add,
“The problem isn’t with the help, per se, but with viewing that support as abnormal and worrying that it could cause harm.”
Their conclusion is striking. Remember that generation gap we used to hear so much about? The authors declare it over. It’s history. “Let’s be grateful that we’ve finally solved that problem.”
[Note: Young adults living with their parents, as well as many other "lifespaces" and creative ways of living are discussed in How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. For the book, I traveled around the country asking people to let me into their homes and tell me about how they live. It also incorporates social science research and places our current ways of living in the US in historical and cross-cultural perspective.]