Communal living is hardly a departure from tradition—it’s a return to how humans have been making their homes for thousands of years.
Belonging to a relatively small household has become the norm even though it can make daily life more difficult in many ways. Privacy may be nice, but cooking and doing chores become much less time-consuming when shared with an additional person, or even several people. Water, electric, and internet bills also become more bearable when divided among multiple residents. There are social downsides to living alone, too. Many elderly people, young professionals, stay-at-home parents, and single people routinely spend long stretches of time at home alone, no matter how lonely they may feel; more distressingly, many single parents face the catch-22 of working and paying for childcare. Living in smaller numbers can be a drain on money, time, and feelings of community, and the rise of the two-parent dual-earning household only compounds the problems of being time-poor.
Tens of thousands of years ago, all living was communal. Being a hunter-gatherer meant being free of many of the distinctions that govern life today. “There’s no division between your social life and your private life,” says Mark Dyble, a postdoctoral researcher at University College London who studies modern-day hunter-gatherers in the Philippines. “Your whole life is open to other people. There’s no way to be isolated.” The hunter-gatherer camps Dyble studied, whose members change week by week, consist of anywhere from five to 18 deeply interdependent “households,” each usually made up of parents, their children, and perhaps another relative or two. These households are involved in virtually every aspect of each others’ lives.
While relatives often stick together, these families are anything but self-sufficient. “A chimp mother is capable of feeding herself and her offspring. That’s not the case with humans,” Dyble says, pointing out that human children take a long time to mature and take care of themselves. “By our biology, we are obliged to have support from others. You couldn’t survive as a single-family household among hunter-gatherers.”
On top of that, people moved constantly among houses. “Home was the place that sheltered you at the moment, not the one special place associated with childhood or family of origin,” Gillis writes. Single people sometimes ran households, and marriage was not as narrowly defined as it is today. Most kids spent time living away from their families, especially as teenagers. Living with strangers was common, and locals would often treat houses like public property. “People entered without knocking, even without acknowledgement,” writes Gillis. “It was often difficult to tell which family belonged where … In big as well as little houses, the constant traffic of people precluded the cozy home life we imagine to have existed in the past.”
For all its popularity as a comforting idea, the godly household was hardly common 500 years ago. It was completely unrealistic for most people to find the time, money, and resources to run a household on their own. Even those who did usually had big households full of unrelated people; they relied on the larger community far too much to survive as a single-family unit.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that people began drawing a sharp distinction between family and friends when it came to who they lived with. So, during the latter half of the 19th century, the godly family started to take shape in reality. Industrialization made extended communities less vital for earning a living. When societies were mostly agricultural, production was centered near the home, and families needed all the labor they could get to run the farm during busy seasons. But as industrialization took hold, people started leaving home to go to work, commuting to factories and, later, offices. Something communal was lost, and by the early 20th century, industrial efficiency permitted a lifestyle of domestic privacy: Households shrank down to nuclear families, much more closed-off from relatives and neighbors than ever before.
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Homeownership is still viewed as a central component of living out the American dream, but the ways that many present-day Americans are pushing back on modern living arrangements closely resemble what came centuries, even millennia, before in other parts of the world. Family members, relatives, neighbors, and strangers are coming together to live in groups that work for them—a bit like medieval Europe. “Today, all across the nation, Americans are living the new happily ever after,” writes the social psychologist Bella DePaulo in her 2015 book How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. “The ‘new’ part is that people with whom they are sharing homes and lives are not just spouses or romantic partners.”
Instead of limiting their households to children, parents, and grandparents, plenty of people are going a step further, making homes with friends and even strangers. Cohousing, in which a large community lives together and shares household duties, is gaining popularity. In cohousing, individuals or families generally have their own houses, bedrooms, or apartments but share things like kitchens and community spaces. They’ll commonly trade off on responsibilities like cooking and chores. Milagro Housing, for instance, is a cohousing community located in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. There, families, couples, and single people live in 28 homes in a tight-knit community that shares a kitchen, laundry room, library, meeting room, playroom, and storage rooms.
Cohousing has shown itself to be a useful living arrangement for groups of people with all sorts of priorities. In Silicon Valley’s hacker houses, dozens of computer programmers, most of them very young, bunk together while they work at start-ups or on their own projects. The website CoAbode links single mothers who want to live and raise children together. In Los Angeles, about a dozen young adults live together in one large house called Synchronicity LA. There, they make art together, hold salons, divide up chores, and trade off cooking communal meals four days a week. “It really feels like living in a big family,” Grant Hoffner, a longtime Synchronicity resident, told me.
Cohousing models can get pretty creative. In Hope Meadows, a neighborhood near Chicago that DePaulo describes in her book, retired people live together with at-risk foster kids. There, retired folks, many of whom used to describe their lives as boring and lonely, raise the kids together. And in Deventer, a town in the eastern region of the Netherlands, that model is flipped: Some college students there live in nursing homes alongside elderly people, who they socialize with and assist with various chores.
Developers are starting to see how appealing cohousing is to some people. Commonspace, for instance, is a company that designs and runs apartments consisting of about 20 small units around a common area occupied mostly by young and single people, sort of like a dorm for adults. The first distinctive cohousing setup in the U.S. was built by developers 25 years ago, but the concept hasn’t gained much traction, as there are now only 160 American cohousing communities built from scratch. Perhaps that will change as developers court young people who envision a lifestyle different than the one they’ve inherited from the 20th century.
Among other things, many residents are drawn to the company that cohousing offers, which DePaulo says is the main reason people choose to live like this. Cohousing can feel a bit like summer camp, with people always around to talk to and spend time with. But it also provides deep support systems. “If someone is hospitalized, cohousing friends are there to visit,” writes DePaulo. “When a cohouser is ailing at home, neighbors show up with chicken soup and the latest news from the community.”
One anthropologist DePaulo interviewed decided to live with more people after being unhappy on her own, even though her boyfriend lived nearby and she had some friends in her building. “I would come home and cry,” Leanna Wolfe, the anthropologist, told DePaulo. “I was just so lonely.” She wasn’t the only one: Americans have fewer close friends than they used to. Since 1985, the number of Americans who have no friends to confide in has tripled, reported a 2006 American Sociological Review study.
In addition to the sense of community it builds, there’s an obvious upside to shared living: saving time and money. In a typical American house or apartment, individuals or small families are in charge of each meal themselves. But cohousing communities can divide up cooking schedules. Many residents only cook once a week and come home to cooked meals everyday.
DePaulo argues that it would be particularly helpful to integrate cohousing into public-housing policy. “People who work on housing for the poor have to deal with people’s whole lives,” she argues in her book. “They can’t just give them a place to live and forget about them.” Keeping rent affordable is the foremost concern for people in charge of managing public housing, but cohousing can fill in other difficulties of living without much money: Splitting cooking, childcare, and household expenses can save lots of time and money. For these reasons and others, Danish and Swedish governments have long supported cohousing. American governments (especially local ones) could do the same, perhaps by converting abandoned hotels into mixed-income cohousing, building affordable shared-living buildings, or even just by connecting interested locals and helping them refashion their neighborhoods into something that better fosters community.
Humans have never lived the same way for long, and many people are finding today’s urban and suburban neighborhoods, which are based on an idealized version of home that is by now hundreds of years old, to be lacking. Humans may never return to the days of having strangers and distant relatives dropping in to live for extended periods of time, but it’s clear that a group of people are tapping into the past that John Gillis wrote about: “Until well into the nineteenth century, heaven was represented not as a community of families but as one large community of friends.”