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.