When I was growing up in Birmingham in the Sixties and Seventies, my parents and I lived with my paternal grandparents — or did they live with us? I actually don’t know quite how to put it, and that is a telling fact.
By the time I was old enough to notice, my grandfather had been forced into retirement after suffering a stroke while driving. In those days nobody wore seat belts, so when, unconscious, he smashed his car he also smashed his body. I do not understand how he survived, but his rehabilitation lasted months and months and he never walked again.
A series of events then occurred in an order that I cannot confidently recall today. My father spent several years in prison, as did his younger brother — for unrelated reasons, I believe, though I know little about either circumstance; my grandfather, as if he didn’t have enough troubles, was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and, after holding on for longer than anyone thought possible, thanks largely to the devoted care of my grandmother, died. That same grandmother also cared for my younger sister and me, since my mother was working long hours to keep a roof over our heads and supper on the table.
Eventually my father got out of prison and got a job as dispatcher for a trucking company. He worked the night shift: when I left for school in the morning he was still at work, and when I returned in the afternoon he was sleeping, and on the weekends he tended to be drunk, so I didn’t see much of him. (His temper was sufficiently unpredictable that I was just fine with that.) But by this time I would have said that my grandmother lived with us, because it was obvious that my father, for all his shortcomings, was the head of the household.
And yet we were all living in the same house that my father had grown up in, and at some point, after spending ten years in the Navy and marrying and divorcing and marrying again, had returned to. Presumably, had I been fully aware in those earlier days, I would have said that we were all living in my grandfather’s house, and he would have been the head of the household.
I found myself thinking about my history after reading this thoughtful and moving meditation by Navneet Alang. His essay is, among other things, a meditation on getting what feels like a late, an impossibly late, start in life: “How do you start to actually live your life when you’re already an old man?”
There’s much in this essay worthy of discussion, but this is the passage that set my memory working: “Now, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I have roundly and thoroughly f*ed up my life. After all, though it’s true I started and then cultivated a writing career while completing the dissertation, I am still living out that most obvious North American symbol of a life gone wrong: I’m single, nearly 40, and typing this in my parents’ home, where I have lived for the past four years.”
I think Alang is right to say that his experience is an “obvious North American symbol of a life gone wrong” — Failure to Launch and all that — but as I read his words I realized that it never would have occurred to my father to be embarrassed about living with his parents. It was too common in that era. Other families in our neighborhood were structured like ours, and our own extended family contained several similar groupings.
And of course if you move further back in time, or look elsewhere in the world today, you’ll find that multi-generational families sharing living quarters is, if anything, the norm. And it’s a norm that, though it certainly has its shortcomings, works well in various dimensions of “home economics”: if one wants to looks at it in the most grossly utilitarian terms, through living as an extended family my parents got free child care, my grandparents got free rent, and I grew up surrounded by family members who loved me, even when my father was in prison. How did living this way become an image of “a life gone wrong”?
Well, for one thing, the separation of the extended family is good for many industries, especially those that are housing-related and, of course, restaurants. (Few of those young adults who move out of the house learn to cook right away.) The more atomized people are, the more they need to buy — which also means: the more they need to work outside the home, in order to make the money to do the buying.
But it seems to me that the single most important contributing factor here — the most important by far — is the sexual revolution. Young adults need to live apart from their parents in order to be free to hook up without interference, explanation, or embarrassment. This is why we’re seeing increasing interest in “co-living” arrangements, especially in megalopolises — here’s a London example, and here’s one in Manhattan: the benefits of sharing at least some resources coupled with sexual freedom, which sounds like a great trade-off except that you’re basically living in a college dorm.
Some people like living in dorms, I guess, and de gustibus non est disputandum; but another way to interpret all this is to see it as an indication of the significant sacrifices in general quality of life that people are willing to make in order to insure maximal sexual freedom and avoid the “failure to launch” stigma — which, again, is largely a stigma because it suggests an insufficiently high valuation of sexual freedom. In the social world most younger adults inhabit, it’s simply unthinkable to change the hierarchy of values in such a way that erotic opportunity drops down the list.
But for other people, in other times and places, it was and is thinkable — which is worth remembering, however you explain it. The place of sex in current hierarchies of value is not a given of human nature; it’s an artifact of a particular socio-economic era, a particular ideology, a particular set of “hidden persuaders.” You may genuinely like your Controllers, but it’s always good to know who they are and what they want you to do.