Somewhere lost in the cyclical kerfuffle about whether marrying young is good or bad are the socio-economic realities that conspire against it for most young people. Most of these are material, not strictly cultural: penurious wages, massive debt. But the peculiarly American stigma against living with one’s parents, the weighty and formal rite of living on one’s own for a prescribed number of years (after which, presumably, one has demonstrated something about one’s adult functionality) certainly militate against it.
The rite so necessary for proving one’s adulthood, paradoxically, suspends it. Single people who have reached their majority are neither fish nor fowl–severed from their natal families, not yet having taken on new obligations, set up for ephemerality and transience. They are discouraged from any movements towards permanence, as their real lives do not start until they marry–once they spend their requisite or allowed (depending on how close to thirty they stand) five to nine wandering years.
Much is made of marriage’s supposed transition from a “cornerstone” institution to a “capstone” one–from the institution on which you build your adult life to the final crowning achievement of said life. In fact, I think we’re stuck with the opposite problem. Marriage (including common law), except perhaps for a lucky and vanishingly few who immediately rise in living-wage, vocationally meaningful* jobs, is the only plausible legitimating adult institution–the only structure in which one can find one’s place rather than oneself. For young single people, the available cultural narrative about maturity is entirely abstract and necessarily contradictory–it demands economic independence, without which one cannot get married, but offers no stability or communal life. Those things are for married people.
Young people are expected to come into flourishing maturity in an artificial context that resembles no other part of their lives and removes them the economic and personal support life in common provides. For all intents and purposes, we force them to transition from infantile dependents to parents and heads of households with only a sort of non-sequitur ellipsis in between.
Given the muddle, it’s hardly surprising if many punt on such a leap into the void. And for those for whom marriage or childrearing is not in the cards, or not on the normal timeline, their most visible models oscillate between sad-sack isolation and self-indulgent entitlement.
I hope for and anticipate the rise of many creative solutions to this problem, from communes to beguinages, but one relatively easy improvement would be changing the story about living with one’s parents. The current story goes roughly as follows:
Once upon a time, there was a lame dude who couldn’t hack the challenges of adult life, so he moved back in with his parents. He loafed around, become more and more confirmed in his abject parasitism, and never got a date again. This didn’t matter to him so much though, because he preferred collecting action figurines to interacting with women. He also had a weird beard. THE END.
Full disclosure: I have spent a significant amount of my time out of school living with my family, and absolutely loved sharing bunk and bread with the nine other inmates of our little domestic asylum. Were anyone in Philadelphia to hire me, I’d be back there in a heartbeat.
Obviously, not everyone will have the same experience, but there are ways to shift the expectation and narrative from extended dependence to adult communal life. Based on my own observations, here’s what I’ve come up with**.
1. Don’t have kids do chores for money, unless you want to raise little domestic wage slaves. Growing up, there was never any direct proportion between chores done and money to spend–we did chores because we were a family and shared the work; if we wanted something we asked for it, and if possible, got it, because we were a family and shared the resources. A regular allowance for anyone was always fiscally laughable in my house, but if it had been possible, it wouldn’t have been connected to chores.
2. If your adult children live with you, don’t make them pay rent. Landlord-renter is an alienated, oppositional relationship–everyone dreams of a house of their own eventually. Instead, try sitting down with the returning prodigal or conquering hero and assessing both their income and household expenses. What can they realistically contribute to the common weal? Can they take over the light bill, the grocery bill? What kind of domestic labor will they take on? The starting point for discussion shouldn’t be “here’s the market price of the room,” but “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
3. Avoid enforcing with “You live under my roof, you’ll follow my rules.” This is a really weird reduction of parental authority to property ownership. Children don’t need to obey you because a deed in your name lets you play the little tyrant, they need to obey you because you are their parent entrusted with rearing them. And if you want to someday be able to live together as adults bound by fillial love and piety rather than direct parental authority, it’s a really bad habit to get into.
4. Let adult children order their own affairs. I never actually had a curfew, but as I got older, the “where are you going who’s going to be there will there be parents” litany stopped entirely. If I were damaging the common life by, say, bringing home drugs or lovers, obviously there would be a ruckus–but otherwise, if I want to spend my spare time smoking opium and eating frosting from the jar in a leather bikini on the courthouse steps, that’s that.
But of course I wouldn’t, because my parents would grieve and worry, and I highly value their judgement and happiness.
5. Let things get weird. A sea change like the difference between a parent’s life with a minor and a parent’s life with adult progeny is going to shake things up and make things weird. In many cases it’s going to demand the slow apprehension of entirely new ways of relating to one another. This is normal, and necessary. A family community doesn’t mean perpetual smiling photo-ops, it means working through the weird.
*By “vocationally meaningful,” for lack of a better phrase, I mean a non-precarious, presumptively permanent, living wage job which exposes one to validation and acceptance by adult peers. So, for the purposes of this discussion, a plumber with a strong union would have a more vocationally meaningful job than a Goldman Sach’s analyst or entry-level journalist.
**This is obviously not parenting advice in any kind of general sense. It’s advice on how to lay the groundwork for a certain kind of family community, on the basis of what has worked for me and my family.