The unintentional community

Sometimes it’s the strangest things that set me back toward one of the usual themes on this blog. (Please bear with me, as this has a bit of a long preamble.) Today it’s a somewhat huffy editorial in the NYT about generational bad behavior. The author of this editorial is outraged that “the teenage brain” is getting such bad press, when really it’s the people of Generation Whatever (35-54 years of age, which isn’t really “Baby Boomer” per se like the author implies) who are the badly-behaving wrecks. Lots of grim statistics are reeled off about drug abuse, suicide rates, traffic accidents, binge drinking, etc.

Somehow, these statistics make me not feel particularly sorry for the poor, insulted (or is that, insulated) younger generation and their maligned brain chemistry. It makes me feel sorry for… the older generation! And I wonder how much of that turmoil has to do with the pressures of adulthood in the era of the shrinking middle class, particularly since this generation didn’t grow up quite as catered to as today’s teens (and even college students). I also started to wonder how many of these obviously stressed-out adults are busy taking care of both their elders and their children – the so-called “sandwich generation.” It’s impossible to generalize, but some of them are… and I wonder how many people who are being squeezed in this trend have the energy to think about various utopian plans for new forms of communal living. That is, the “back-to-the-city” movement (like the “back-to-the-country” movement but in reverse), plans for artist colonies, and various forms of intentional community.

Communal living is a great idea, as long as you get to pick who you’re going to commune with. But many thousands of Americans are living right now in communal situations where they have had little choice in the matter. They may be taking care of an ill parent, or supporting a grown kid who is in between jobs, or even both. In a nation where there’s supposed to be room for an infinite amount of nuclear families, and an infinite amount of credit to pay for an infinite amount of building space for an infinite number of McMansions (with a theoretically infinite number of bathrooms in each), you could call these households “Unintentional Communities.” A multi-generational living arrangement may sound like The Waltons, but if only it were that simple. Take your typical home-caregiver situation, where all too often, pretty much one person (or one sibling in the family) is doing the heavy lifting on the caregiving. It isn’t fair, but unintentional communities are not always fair. It’s not Waltonesque, and it’s not uncommon. But it’s not something you see on TV in this country, not on the pop culture radar at all. Any time you see a family unit on TV where there’s a frail mother-in-law or an out-of-work adult kid living at home, it’s a comedy, not a drama. (Although these days, it’s reality TV, which is neither amusing nor instructive.)

Perhaps it’s why urban “intentional communities” seem to go hand-in-hand with more destructive tendencies like gentrification: it’s so easy to program out the rough edges of life and assume someone else will take care of them, or that perhaps “setting good examples” is enough. I have seen some speculation recently that McMansions left empty by the mortgage mess are going to turn into bohemian colonies, or perhaps Waltonesque multi-family, multi-generational dwellings. If that’s so, there’s going to have to be a huge and unprecedented shift in American cultural attitudes about individual goals vs. communal needs.

I also think there’s going to be actual leadership developing. There has to be. We will once again see the rise (for better or worse) of strong men and women who understand politics, understand strategy, and understand hardball. Some will have the fine moral consciousness of good leaders, some will be dictators in the making, but all of them will understand power on a more visceral level than I think most Americans do today. They will understand, as some caregivers do, that you can set a good example until you drop from exhaustion, but a mentally ill person living with you will not necessarily clean the bathroom, particularly if they refuse to take their meds that day. They will also feel, as never before — not even through parenting, which has an inherent expectation in it — the burden of leadership they didn’t ask for, making them do things they never thought they would have to do. (Ask a caregiver if they ever thought that they’d have to ponder, on any given day, the strategy of whether to be sweet to their dear uncle or to threaten to take his favorite snack away, in order to get him to take a shower.) Living in an unintentional community changes people that way. It becomes very clear eventually who is in charge, who has power, what power is made of in a particular situation, and how it is best wielded from day to day in the community.

Many Americans know this in the home, but this knowledge doesn’t seem to be in sync with the official line on what Americans need to know. Corporations have pretty much set everything up so that either they really make the decisions, or they manage to hide the advanced questions that community members need to be answering. I just don’t see where a corporately funded or even “Floridian” intentional community can ever produce leadership with teeth. Good things perhaps, but not tough leadership. Maybe this is a generalization. In the end, it can only tend to produce colonies of people who don’t ever have to produce any leaders or meet any (non-sponsored) goals. (For an interesting example of one such community, see the recent NY Times story on Arcosanti… a fascinating place which, despite having visited that part of Arizona several times a kid, I never heard of until this story. See this other story, too.)

The 35-to-54’ers who are struggling with various bad behaviors, are very likely going to be the ones that the current youth crop will be harboring in their large empty McDwellings in the future. If today’s teens and twentysomethings don’t consider that, I think they too will have a future as part of an unintentional community.

4 thoughts on “The unintentional community

  1. Gear Of Zanzibar

    Welcome to the 21st century, where people rediscover the household codes of antiquity. I’m not sure if Aristotle would be laughing or fuming that people are still reinventing his principles over two thousand years after his death, but if you file off the serial numbers and tone down the patriarchal submission you’ll find most of the rules for managing a community, intentional or otherwise, were put forth in the first book of “Politics”.

    If memory serves he even has a bit about the demands of caring for feeble elders and irresponsible, spoiled children at the same time.

    The more things change…yada, yada…

  2. Lucelu

    I’m not sure if the writer is trying to show that it is the baby boomer generation or the gen xers that are the problem “children”. I am 42, straight in the middle of their 35-45 year old and a gen xer. Perhaps being the first generation left home alone in broken homes babysat by the Brady Bunch has alienated this cohort to live lives with the overall feeling that we are in it alone, we have to do it ourselves. I think, like you, that the mountains to climb on our own are too high, many give up. Our parents and those coming up after them (the boomers) had that kind of support, family and government. The basic things in life like education, healthcare and housing were not pie in the sky break the bank dreams. My father went to college on the GI bill, then worked at a bank and made $75 a week for which he qualified for a mortgage on a 3 bedroom house. He was the sole earner of the family, and we had two cars, a newer company car and an old VW my mother had before they married.

    Of course the 1970’s happened–divorce rates went sky high. Then the dereguation and layoff years of the 1980’s, followed by globalization of the 90’s. Those of us in the cohort who are guilty of so much antisocial behavior are also in hock (many still paying off student loans–ask any 35 year old) –we are living in a world vastly different, where we can get fired for exercising free speech in public, expected to put in 60 hour work weeks and are too busy to find out if they are cutting more of our healthcare/home insurance benefits nevermind calling them on the phone and sit for an hour through menus and transfers through csr levels.

    Last Christmas my father died of lung cancer in my home. Today I still receive healthcare bills and he was on Medicare with supplemental insurance. My son faces college in 4 years with a price tag of approximately $60,000 in tuition costs alone–and that is today’s rates, not 2011’s. I am already considering enrolling him in trade school while he is in high school so that when he gets a job I won’t be apprenticing him to be a service worker. The retail service sector is pretty flat, like foot soldiers in the corporate army. Hopefully, he won’t have to graduate thousands of dollars in debt and we can help give him a running start.

    Luckily we didn’t buy into the message that “we deserve” anything so we were not tempted by any great mortgage deals and traded up to a custom McMansion. We are still in our 30 year old tract home in a low interest fixed 15 year fixed mortgage. Yes, our payment is a bit higher than many of our contemporaries with the same size mortage but there is light a the end of the tunnel and it isn’t $200G mile tunnel. My husband is almost never home, he travels for work since all the promised construction in the area is still likely 4 years away (or it has all gone to non union contractors).

    I worry for the future. I hope that we can stop buying into these “experts” who come and make assessments on our city to give their useless advice. It is a very simple thing to make the city of Syracuse a desirable rust belt city to live in.

    Education: Boost the schools, make them places were all the adults would like to be in and work in (repair them, make them beautiful)–the physical is important. Hold adult education at them in the evenings with everything from sewing, computer classes to home repair. Encourage public art and community gardens– get the local 4H office involved. Getting neighborhood centers together to provide a place for neighbors and for school children to go. There should be no tolerance for bad behavior from adults or children or even teenagers.

    Crime: Eliminate the gang activity and crime. Encourage neighborhood beatification programs. Provide enforcement for quality of life issues like noise ordinances and unsupervised children after 10pm.

    Healthcare: Start neighborhood public health programs starting with a traveling clinic.

    Community: Revive neighborhood watch programs and block parties. Promote studio spaces for artists. Get a neighborhood grocers group started with incentives for direct contracts with local farmers and gardeners. Better bike paths and bus schedules with frequent routes after 5 pm. We can be green without “Destiny”.

    All of this is hard to do with people working 2-3 jobs and waiting for the next ax to drop — is it New Process Gear next? — or Crous Hinds?

    The only thing keeping me in Liverpool is the school (and getting my house to sell in this market). I want to live in the city again but I have to balance that desire with the well being and needs of my son. I graduated from Henninger, we moved here from the near west side. I lived in Syracuse for a good part of my young adult life. But even in Liverpool, with the beautiful park that provides so much enjoyment to so many in the region– it’s 1st St. is depressing–I can’t believe the number of closed up shops. Maybe it’s the parking issue but with the park nearby and everyone walking and biking–I’m not sure why it is necessary.

    I would like to see less fingerpointing at the people of any age and instead look at the systems that shape them and consider how to change them.

    I have a new blog called 315 and will be posting to both the LuceLu in Liverpool and 315 on a more consistent basis.

  3. Ellen

    Gear, I’ll have to read that book!

    Lucelu, what is the address of your new blog?

    I’m not sure if the author of the op-ed was really pitting one generation against another either, but it seemed to me that he was missing the greater story. Those are awful statistics.

    I also find I have a generation gap in talking to my parents about the way life (and work) works now. I feel like a teenager when I say “You just don’t understand” about dwindling benefits and antipathy towards organizing and the very real possibility that one will be working long after the age that my parents are picking up their SS checks. And how they don’t comprehend that a bachelor’s degree almost isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on these days. (To their generation, it was a golden ticket. Heck, in their generation, even a grade school dropout could make a living wage and raise a family.)

    Well, all this is to say that I hear you; not to moan too much, but it’s tough because my parents’ generation doesn’t really believe this has all happened; while the younger generation seems *comfortable* with this reality of a very super-rich minority balanced atop a scuffling majority, and willing to accept it and play that game and all the incivility it implies, and it’s almost like people of my generation are baying at the moon. Not too old to give up, not young enough to have boundless energy.

    Hopefully not entirely true.

    Anyhow, your suggestion… “Eliminate the gang activity and crime. Encourage neighborhood beatification programs. ”

    I know you meant to type something else there, but I think neighborhood beatification programs would be great too! We need more neighborhood saints. :-)

  4. Lucelu

    yikes, typos abound athough I wouldn’t be adverse to a saint or two. groan… I really need to read these over, run a spell check and edit. My mother is the opposite of your parents. She’s convinced there is a corporate conspiracy going on. Perhaps its due to her being an immigrant from a facsist regime and seeing how much things have changed here.

    I don’t know that everyone is content with the state of affairs. It could be that obligations such as debt and family have many very preoccupied to really think about it and it is not until the ugly truth hits people in the face (like finding out their hospital stay is not covered or their credit card interest jumped to 27% because their power bill was late, and the prospect of $4/gallon gas) do they get upset at the state of things.

    Here is my “new” blog– a work in progress at this time, I am working on it.

    and my old blog that I still post on:

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