I spent much of the past few years traveling around the country asking people to let me into their homes and their lives. So much has changed about the way we live in the US. Did you know that fewer than 20 percent of all households are comprised of nuclear families? Family sizes are shrinking, lots of people are having no kids at all, and Americans now spend more years of their adult lives not married than married. Growing numbers of adults never do marry.
If we are not living in nuclear families, how are we living? How do we find or go about creating our “lifespaces” – the places, spaces, and people who make our lives meaningful and fulfilling? Those are some of the questions I sought to answer for my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. The in-depth interviews with the people who let me see their homes and who told me their stories are at the heart of the book. Also included is the relevant social science research, some historical and cross-cultural context, and accounts of what I learned from other stories and reports in the media.
I had so much I wanted to say after I completed my research that the first draft of How We Live Now was tens of thousands of words longer than it was supposed to be. So many thousands of words got cut. In this new occasional series, I will share some of my favorite stories that did not make it into the book.
One of the themes that emerged from my interviews and other research is that everyone wants some mixture of time alone and time with other people, but the ideal proportion varies wildly from one person to the next. If there is one overall trend, though, I think it is that on the average, people today want more time and space to themselves than they wanted in the past. A great example is the story of Bill Gates. I wish I could say that I interviewed him personally, but alas, this account comes from what I found in other articles.
The Richest Person in the World and His Special Space
The richest person in the world lives in a 66,000 square-foot mansion. Bill Gates could probably find some space to claim as his alone anytime he so wishes. Still, his house does not seem to afford him all the solitude his heart desires. Twice a year, he boards a seaplane or helicopter to a modest lakeside cottage for Think Week. (The specific location is kept secret.) His wife, his kids, the Microsoft people, and all other humans are banned from the cottage. The person who delivers meals is the sole exception. At his private retreat, Gates reads, works, walks the beach, stays up as long as he wants, and sleeps whenever he feels like it.
Is the legendary Think Week just some random anecdote? Or is it part of a more sweeping trend in which people who can afford to buy anything in the world choose solitude? And many others with far less money use what they do have to lay claim to a place that is theirs alone? And even those who live with others stake out a bedroom or a bathroom or a shed as their own private space? If we could map relative preferences for sociability vs. solitude over the years, I think we would find that the American psyche is tipping toward solitude.