Words By Reihan Salam
"Adultescents," "kidults," "the boomerang generation"--they all mean essentially the same thing: Something has gone terribly wrong with today's 20-somethings. They are--or, I should say--we are something less than fully adult. Piled into group houses and shared apartments, we are part of the Friends generation. Whether by choice or by circumstance, we've built lives around our friendships instead of creating new nuclear families. The numbers bear this out. According to the latest census stats, the median age of first marriage for an American woman is almost 26, up from nearly 23 a quarter-century ago. The percentage of Americans who've never been married is climbing fast.
So what's the cause of this alleged retreat from adulthood? For some, the culprit is the economy: This generation, "Generation Debt," is simply financially strapped. For others, the culprit runs deeper. Somehow this generation isn't prepared for the rigors of real adulthood defined by the holy trinity of the American Dream: a family, a career, and a house in the suburbs. And so the gentrified precincts of our brightest and biggest cities are full of recent college grads packed tenement-tight in "multifamily" buildings that include hardly any families at all.
But the problem isn't that we kids--the kidults--are rejecting adulthood. We're just delaying the holy trinity. So the Friends years are not an alternative to nuclear-family life. They're just a slow transitional period. ("It's only a phase, dear.") Eventually, we are still partnering up and settling the crabgrass frontier. We're still retreating into our private spaces. The difference is that while the size of the average American home has grown--from 1,500 square feet in 1970 to an insane 2,300 in 2005--average family size is down over the same period. The number of households with five or more people, full of the clamor of children, has halved, from 21 percent to 10 percent.
It's worth remembering that the small handful of would-be radicals who rejected "bourgeois marriage" in favor of friendship never thought of this choice as "transitional." In the essay "Lives of the Bohemians," from his book The Disappointment Artist, the novelist Jonathan Lethem recalls the Brooklyn, New York home of his youth: "Our home was soon a stopping-off point for former colleagues and students of my father's who'd arrived in New York and needed a place to stay, as well as for old friends from Greenwich Village." Lethem's mother, the kind of woman others orbit and buzz around, "made our kitchen table a site of meetings, transformations, flirtations, arguments." Slowly, the Lethem family brownstone became a quasi-commune, with all the attendant complications.
For all the failures of that time, it's clear to me that the Lethems were grasping in the direction of something noble. Far from rejecting the rigors of adulthood, they were seeking a more rigorous and rewarding way of life. The best of these homes were full of adults and children jumbled together always, learning and sharing as a matter of course.
If it sounds as if I'm calling for a return of the commune, that's because I am--or at least for some alternative to the arid emotional deserts that are our oversized, empty homes. Imagine friends and families living around a courtyard, occasionally sharing meals and keeping an eye on the kids. Cohousing--a movement that's taken off among boomer retirees--aims to do just that. It should go without saying that this way of life has massive environmental benefits. But the case is strong enough if we stick to the question of our cultural and emotional environment.
Real estate developers, always quick to spot a cultural shift, are carrying the ball further. In Manhattan, the latest ritzy condominiums come complete with common areas and are hiring "activity coordinators" to plan movie nights and mixers. There's some irony in this--if the prosperous folks who bought these condos weren't workaholics, they might make friends the old-fashioned way. Nevertheless, it's a start.
Let this be the generation that really does refuse to "grow up," and that holds fast to the friendships and communities that sustain us without retreating, tails between our legs, into private life.
Salam is an associate editor at The Atlantic. He is the author, with Ross Douthat, of Grand New Party.
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