50 million of us, for example, live in intergenerational households. This number exploded with the Great Recession, but it turns out people actually like living this way.
Two-thirds of those who are living with multiple generations under one roof say it’s improved their relationships. Some people are choosing to share homes not with family, but with other people who understand the health and economic benefits of daily community.
CoAbode, an online platform for single moms looking to share homes with other single moms, has 50,000 users. And people over 65 are especially prone to be looking for these alternative living arrangements.
They understand that their quality of life depends on a mix of solitude and solidarity. Which is true of all of us when you think about it, young and old alike.
For too long, we’ve pretended that happiness is a king in his castle. But all the research proves otherwise. It shows that the healthiest, happiest and even safest — in terms of both climate change disaster, in terms of crime, all of that — are Americans who live lives intertwined with their neighbors.
Now, I’ve experienced this firsthand. For the last few years, I’ve been living in a cohousing community. It’s 1.5 acres of persimmon trees, this prolific blackberry bush that snakes around a community garden, all smack-dab, by the way, in the middle of urban Oakland. The nine units are all built to be different, different sizes, different shapes, but they’re meant to be as green as possible.
So big, shiny black solar cells on our roof mean our electricity bill rarely exceeds more than five bucks in a month. The 25 of us who live there are all different ages and political persuasions and professions, and we live in homes that have everything a typical home would have.
But additionally, we share an industrial-sized kitchen and eating area, where we have common meals twice a week. Now, people, when I tell them I live like this, often have one of two extreme reactions. Either they say, “Why doesn’t everyone live like this?” Or they say, “That sounds totally horrifying. I would never want to do that.”
So let me reassure you: there is a sacred respect for privacy among us, but also a commitment to what we call “radical hospitality” — not the kind advertised by the Four Seasons, but the kind that says that every single person is worthy of kindness, full stop, end of sentence.
The biggest surprise for me of living in a community like this? You share all the domestic labor — the repairing, the cooking, the weeding — but you also share the emotional labor. Rather than depending only on the idealized family unit to get all of your emotional needs met, you have two dozen other people that you can go to, to talk about a hard day at work or troubleshoot how to handle an abusive teacher.
Teenagers in our community will often go to an adult that is not their parent to ask for advice. It’s what bell hooks called “revolutionary parenting,” this humble acknowledgment that kids are healthier when they have a wider range of adults to emulate and count on.
Turns out, adults are healthier, too. It’s a lot of pressure, trying to be that perfect family behind that white picket fence. The “new better off,” as I’ve come to call it, is less about investing in the perfect family and more about investing in the imperfect village, whether that’s relatives living under one roof, a cohousing community like mine, or just a bunch of neighbors who pledge to really know and look out for one another.
It’s good common sense, right? And yet, money has often made us dumb about reaching out. The most reliable wealth is found in relationship. The new better off is not an individual prospect at all.
In fact, if you’re a failure or you think you’re a failure, I’ve got some good news for you: you might be a success by standards you have not yet honored. Maybe you’re a mediocre earner but a masterful father. Maybe you can’t afford your dream home, but you throw legendary neighborhood parties.
If you’re a textbook success, the implications of what I’m saying could be more grim for you. You might be a failure by standards you hold dear but that the world doesn’t reward. Only you can know.
I know that I am not a tribute to my great-grandmother, who lived such a short and brutish life, if I earn enough money to afford every creature comfort. You can’t buy your way out of suffering or into meaning. There is no home big enough to erase the pain that she must have endured.
I am a tribute to her if I live a life as connected and courageous as possible. In the midst of such widespread uncertainty, we may, in fact, be insecure. But we can let that insecurity make us brittle or supple.