A way of living that was once very rare is now becoming increasingly popular. In 1950, only about 1 percent of all households were filled with people totally unrelated to each other. We still think of that as a young adult thing – groups of college students, maybe, living together mostly because they can’t afford anything else. And twenty-somethings do still live with friends, even more often than they did before.
What has changed in addition to the greater numbers of people sharing a home is the greater diversity of people living that way. Now people all across the age spectrum, from the youngest adults to the oldest, can be found living under the same roof with people who are not their spouse or kids or other relatives. Although many still do so for economic reasons (for example, to save money, or to be able to afford a nicer place or a better neighborhood than they could by living alone), people are also opting to live with friends for the companionship. That means that even some people who are well off choose to share a place with friends.
Oh, so we are living in communes! That’s the conclusion many are quick to jump to. For example, a Huffington Post article about Boomers choosing to live with friends in retirement was titled, “Why communes may be the new retirement home.” But sharing a place is not the same as living in a commune. Historically, the two trends are headed in opposite directions, with old-fashioned communes losing their appeal, while contemporary versions of house-sharing are becoming more and more popular.
In this excerpt from pp. 16-17 of my new book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I explain the differences:
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 as such 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 get the most press, but their quest for connection and community may have been even more important.
The commune from the counter-cultural era that has endured the longest without interruption is Twin Oaks, in Louisa, Virginia. That’s the one based on B. F. Skinner’s popular novel, Walden Two – required reading when I was in college, but not when I got to graduate school and Skinner was still walking the halls of Harvard. Today’s Twin Oaks members still try to sustain the community economically by making and selling products such as hammocks and tofu. Each resident works more than 40 hours a week; tasks such as caring for children, milking cows, and doing other domestic chores all count as work. In return, they receive food, housing, and healthcare, and a small sum of personal spending money. Many large group houses have been built over the years. 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. They 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 retain the reverence for community that was at the core of the communes of the 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 space, 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.
[Note. How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century has been discussed recently in the Boston Globe, the Toronto Star, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Realtor magazine, and in an essay I wrote for the Washington Post. An excerpt was published on the Sharing Housing site.]
People of different ages image available from Shutterstock