A curious thing happened in the Beltway last week: for the 48 hours surrounding two landmark gay marriage Supreme Court oral arguments, the millennial political class’ collective Facebook feed blushed bright red. Obama-handshake profile pictures gave way to a sharp crimson square designed by the Human Rights Campaign’s marketing department.
Between torrents of memes and legal commentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s skim milk analogy, Samuel Alito’s rusting Burkeanism, and Elena Kagan’s “batting average,” another item, a report about adults turning to cooperative households to save money, passed without remark in liberal circles.
Two million Americans over the age of 30 now live with a housemate or roommate, and shared households make up 18 percent of U.S. households – a 17 percent increase since 2007.
One group of women sold their homes and bought a house together in Mount Lebanon, Pa., after they all got divorced.
“It made amazing economic sense,” said one of the women, Jean McQuillin. McQuillin, Louise Machinist and Karen Bush call their home a “cooperative household.” Each woman has her own bedroom and bathroom, and they share the common areas of the house, chores and expenses.
The suspicion of a generation of queer leftists is at last confirmed: the lifestyle upending Western Civilization’s social cornerstone looks less like committed gay and lesbian families and more like the Golden Girls.
Tellingly, the piece went viral on the Drudge Report. Just one reason to think that petit bourgeois paranoiacs have better eyes for social decline than the average Tumblring anthropology major.
Reactionary as it is, reading the original article is a useful exercise. It emphasizes the women’s dire financial straits, ensuring us that they are normal, monogamous schoolteacher-types who’ve just happened upon bad times — and not, God forbid, the sort of Wiccan lesbian coven that keeps a herd of cats in common. We’re told that they are “really busy,” “hardly ever [at home] at the same time” and that they, “share values in order to make things work.” The single advocate cited makes her argument in language that wouldn’t be out of place in a Family Research Council pamphlet: “Taking the stress off of parents in having to do everything for their kids and not sharing the load is really to me the heart of the American dream.”
As one might expect from a CBS news affiliate, the overall impression is hardly one of imminent social catastrophe,but this is a matter of framing. By emphasizing continuities with nuclear family life, the story undersells the subtle, progressive breaks with traditional home life that become possible in group living. And by focusing on baby boomers making tough domestic choices late in their careers, it eschews a much more interesting and potentially unsettling pattern: young, recession-wracked twenty-somethings, fresh into the labor force, foregoing solitary living completely.
And this is a trend borne out more by empirical fact than Williamsburg-based sociological speculation. The US Census tracks the numbers and ages of those “living in non-family groups,” including both “householders” and “non-householders” (The terms have nothing to do with property-owning; an all-rental grouphouse would have exactly one “householder,” designated at the time of the census, even if she had nothing to do with the mortgage.)
In 2010, the 20 to 29 cohort living in non-spouse, non-kin shared living situations numbered 8,742,000: more than four times the number cited by the CBS piece for all adults over 30 last year, and nearly a 33 percent increase over the year 2000. Granted these numbers don’t resolve finely enough to tell us much about the size, shape, and endurance of group living arrangements. They do, however, give us some impression of how a generation with especially bleak fiscal horizons is managing its day-to-day material reproduction — by socializing part of it.
Of course there’s nothing new to this stuff. Shaker colonies, hippie communes, and other variants of group living have occupied a special place in the American left’s imagination for some time. But we twenty-first-century socialists should be less interested in “intentional communities” — those Fourierist bastions dotting the fringes of our Greenpoints and Petworths — and more interested in the unintentional ones.
A dozen ultraleft voluntarists arguing about shower schedules is a noise complaint; 120,000 downwardly mobile yuppies doing it out of necessity is a substratum. The material realities of declining wages, ballooning debt, and skyrocketing rents at the core of the neoliberal city have conspired to herd young people into unprecedentedly dense, poor, and precarious kinds of living arrangements. In renovated townhouses built for the Victorian and Edwardian elite they eat, drink, fight, love, party, and (sometimes) clean, improvising social structures and moral economies some distance outside the white picket fence of postwar consumer individualism. It’s enough to make the average Gen-X condo owner wrinkle her nose, to say nothing of the midcentury Levittown company man.
Of course, there’s nothing about Americans living poorly and in close quarters that’s inherently progressive. No amount of communal toilet paper buying, however rigorously documented in Googledocs, will usher in global participatory planning. But it is worth noting how the cozy spaces where we brush our teeth and cook our meals are themselves conditioned by the macroeconomic forces from which we seek refuge. We do even better to imagine ways in which the new forms of living and relating into which we find ourselves thrown might, in turn, undermine those very forces.
The Mietskaserne of industrial Berlin were by all accounts drearier places than the average Prussian cottage, but it was exactly their crushing density that made mass German proletarian organization first possible. The post-1968 subdivision of DC’s rowhouse stock forever walled off the high-ceilinged grandeur of the Talented Tenth’s drawing rooms, just as it reconfigured working class black social infrastructure to produce new, radical forms of analysis and mutual aid.
Group living could well be pinned down in the language of capitalist realism: just one more generational bump on the way to white collar job security, or a long logistical hangover from the increasingly quaint custom of undergraduate education. But a number of things make the site especially ripe for antagonism.
First: it’s a way of life that puts lie to the bourgeois private-public distinction, forcing people to be mindful about the kinds of labor and resource distribution traditionally swept under the domestic carpet. Non-family group living compels people to work out rational arrangements for cleaning, cooking, and paying bills that can’t piggyback on old gendered or filiated divisions of labor. In the common space of a group house, legal strangers confront one another as formal equals off the slanted field of civil society. Tactically speaking, five or six legally distinct twentysomethings are harder to litigate and evict than one.
The lace bonds of bourgeois matrimony — that hallowed relationship between one man, one woman, and one mortgage — continue to yellow and fray. But we don’t need the acid bath of homosexual libido to dissolve them altogether and free up space for something new; austerity seems to be doing that just fine.