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The Urban Tribe Is Overrated

Why twenty-somethings need to branch out.

For the past decade or so, there has been much talk about the urban tribe, or the makeshift family that has come to the fore as twentysomethings spend more years on their own. Sitcoms and movies tout the value of the tribe and, without a doubt, these friends play a crucial, supportive role. Essentially the college buddies of the twentysomething years, the urban tribe gives us rides to the airport and we vent about bad dates and breakups over burritos and beer.

But, with all the attention paid to the urban tribe, too many twentysomethings huddle together with like-minded peers. This limits who we know, what we know, where we work, and who we date (and, in my next post, I’ll explain why it limits how we speak and think). While the urban tribe helps us survive, it may not help us thrive.

In work that pre-dates Facebook by more than twenty-five years, sociologist Mark Granovetter conducted one of the first and most famous studies of social networks. Surveying workers in a Boston suburb who had recently changed jobs, Granovetter found it wasn’t close friends and family—presumably those most invested in helping—who were most valuable during the job hunt. Rather, more than three-quarters of new jobs had come from leads from contacts who were seen only “occasionally” or “rarely.” This finding led Granovetter to write a groundbreaking paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties” about the unique value of people we do not know well.

Weak ties are the people we have met, or are connected to somehow, but do not currently know well. They are the coworkers we rarely talk with or the neighbors we only say hi to. They are the friends we lost touch with years ago or our parents’ friends of friends. Because weak ties are not just figures in a small, ingrown cluster, they know things and people that we don’t know. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.

Here we get to what another sociologist, Rose Coser, termed the “weakness of strong ties,” or how our close friends hold us back. A century of research in sociology—and thousands of years of Western thought—show that birds of a feather flock together because of homophily, or “love of the same.” As a result, a cluster of strong ties—such as the urban tribe or even an online social network—is typically a homogeneous clique. Our strong ties feel comfortable and familiar but they are usually too similar—even too similarly stuck—to provide more than sympathy. They often don’t know any more about jobs or relationships than we do.

When I encourage twentysomethings to ask their weak ties for favors or coffee dates, there is often a fair amount of resistance: “I hate networking” or “I want to get a job on my own” or “That’s not my style.” I get it, but that doesn’t change the fact that new things almost always come from outside the inner circle. Twentysomethings who won’t use their weak ties fall behind those who will.

I once had a fortune cookie that read A WISE MAN MAKES HIS OWN LUCK. The single best thing we can do to make our own luck in our twenties—and in a tough economy—is to branch out and cultivate our weak ties. Research shows that our social networks narrow with age, as careers and families become busier and more defined. So this is the decade to be connecting, not just with the same people having the same conversations about how work is lame or how there are no good men out there, but with those who might see things a little differently. The urban tribe may bring us soup when we’re sick, but it’s the people we hardly know who will swiftly and dramatically change our lives for the better—in our 20s and in the years to come.

More from Meg Jay Ph.D.
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