As a college sophomore, I never got around to decorating my living space. And for the next five years, I deliberately didn’t do it.

After all, I moved all the time. I lived in a new building every year in college and a new city every year thereafter, picking up new jobs at the drop of a hat. So I traded in comfort for mobility. I feared getting “stuck” somewhere. I met other adults who felt that a past job or relationship had left them stuck in a city for years, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.

When I was 24, I finally decided to fill out my furnishings in Chicago. But I felt trepidation about that trip to the thrift store. To me, this wasn’t just buying a dresser: it meant sacrificing the mobility that I had maintained for years as a coping mechanism against a tumultuous life.

I wasn’t paranoid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker stays at his or her job now for 4.5 years. That average includes all of our currently-employed parents who have worked at the same company for 15–30 years. So when that generation retires, the 4.5 number is going to plummet. I lost four jobs in two years — three of them for cash flow reasons dire enough that, in each case, it became clear weeks before the job disappeared that my bosses would be deluding themselves to keep their staffs. An industry problem, perhaps? Nope: those three jobs were all in completely different industries. That’s not just “a run of bad luck.” That’s the death of stability.

Also, the necessity to rapidly change location remains extremely real for people in big cities who don’t own their homes. The cost of living relative to median income has skyrocketed over the past ten years in several of the U.S.’s largest metropoli: Manhattan, SF, DC. It’s not that rent is going up, actually: adjusted for inflation, rent prices in Manhattan, for example, are the lowest they’ve been since 2004. However, incomes have stagnated, often lagging behind inflation, to make living in those metropoli practically impossible for many people. I think this partially explains why Manhattan looks like a finance monoculture much more than it did in, say, the ’70s. That’s who can live and work there. And for everyone else, things have to change. During the 2013 U.S. government shutdown, several of my friends lost their jobs on the spot and caravanned together to their hometowns to stay with their parents. NASA interns who had traveled thousands of miles to work at NASA responded to flyers pinned to the walls of bars in Adams Morgan: “NASA employee? Need a place to stay? Call (somebody’s home phone number).” One person I met there had met his girlfriend — a NASA test launch engineer — while she served him french fries at a dive bar on U Street. She probably didn’t picture herself serving fries at 27 while she slogged through those astrophysics courses at MIT.

I’m not lamenting the death of stability: I have no nostalgic memories to which to compare it and find it lacking. And for all I know, it’ll lead us to live much more interesting lives than we otherwise would have. That said, we must stay flexible to cope with it, and flexibility doesn’t play well with our desire, as a culture, to obtain and acquire and amass and aggregate and procure. So we’ve adapted. Services like RelayRides, Craigslist, and AirBNB succeed because we’d rather share something than own it: we know we won’t use it, or won’t need it, or our circumstances will more than likely change during the length of time in which we’d have to deal with owning whatever it is we are sharing. And if we do have to own it, then we’ll share it with others for a buck or two: our stuff has to earn its keep. We don’t just have it to look cool. Sometimes the media mentions that we’ll be the first generation to live less well than the previous one. I humbly disagree. Yes, perhaps we have fewer things than our parents did. But I’d argue that, on average, we want fewer things. The things, for all their advantages, can also be burdens, and we’re especially aware of that. And I suspect that wanting fewer things can be an advantage in living a good life — though I suppose I’m too young and green to know for sure.

Annoyingly, I’ve seen a number of people (usually Baby Boomers) attempt to impugn our behavior as an inability to commit and an obsession with convenience. This is like arguing that the U.S. military’s response to fourth-generation warfare represents an “obsession with convenience.” No. It represents an awareness of the need to change strategies with very little notice. Is it bad? I don’t know. But it is. And we’ve adapted. And I’m proud of us for adapting.

That said, I don’t know that we’ve applied our adaptive powers everywhere that they might be useful. I once read a Brett McKay article about growing up. It stated the following:

For most adults, the period of life they are most nostalgic for is high school and/or college. The longing for this period is usually chalked up to a desire to return to a time when they weren’t so freighted with life’s responsibilities. Surely that is part of it, but I think the real reason we miss our youth is often overlooked: it was the last time in our lives when we experienced a sense of “tribe.”

…Few adults see their friends on a daily basis; the lucky see each other weekly, and for most, scheduling times to get together isn’t easy. It is then no wonder we get nostalgic for our younger days; it represents the last time our lives resembled the primordial pattern.

In hunter-gatherer tribes, male gangs hunted and battled together. Female posses raised their kids together. Everyone lived and worked together each day with dozens of others. Burden and joys were shared. One’s whole identity was tied up in being part of this tribe.

Today, we have never been more isolated. Many folks don’t even live near their extended kin, and the nuclear family is increasingly marooned on the desert island of the suburbs. Men go off to work in a cubicle with a bunch of fellow employees they may feel no real kinship with. Women spend all day enclosed in the four walls of their home, cut off from all other humans, save their inarticulate toddler. Many people, male and female alike, are lonely and unhappy because they are without a tribe.

The heavy and undesirable weight of adulthood is often mistakenly chalked up to the burden of adult responsibilities alone. But the problem is not adulthood itself, but how it is currently being carried. The weight of earning a livelihood, and rearing one’s children, which was meant to be borne by numerous shoulders, is now supported by just a pair. Husband and wife rely on one another for all their emotional fulfillment and practical needs. The strain is more than an individual, or the nuclear family, was meant to bear.

I don’t lament how life has changed since we left the tribe lifestyle. I don’t think that the only way to cure our sense of isolation is to return to the tribe lifestyle lock, stock, and barrel. Instead, I want to know if we can adapt our concept of tribes to a reality that requires more flexibility than a lifelong commitment to a single community.

Having moved eleven times in the past six years (eight of those to different cities), I’d argue that it’s possible to have a sense of tribe even while living in large cities and while living among completely different people every eight to nine months. That said, the resultant sense of tribe differs from the one described in the above passage. It also takes some effort to create. But here’s what I propose as a set of practices that might help us satisfy our need for tribe in a high-turnover lifestyle:

  1. Live with others.
    On those occasions when I have completely changed cities, I have most quickly felt that I had a place in my community when I shared a house with several other people. I felt that way in DC while living in the Manor of the Slum Lord, and I felt that way when I first moved to Chicago. I felt that way after spending fewer than five months in both of those places. Compare this to Miami and Alexandria, LA: in Miami I had an apartment with one roommate, and in Alexandria I lived by my father. I never got to where I felt like a part of a community in either of those places, despite spending almost a year in Miami and a solid eight months with my dad. I’d hazard a guess that it helps to share the responsibilities of taking care of a house, as well as just to come home from work and basically always have someone to talk to.
  2. Reach out to people who do the same things you do. For me this is often programming, but it has been other stuff in the past: fire dancing, standup comedy, even rowing. Meetup.com makes this easy to start doing, but the best activity-based communities that I’ve joined I have always learned about by word of mouth, or have found by going to the places where those people hang out. I think that finding activity-based communities satisfies a need for diversity in our “tribes” that living together might not. Let’s face it: the people who move in together in a giant house don’t represent the demographics of the canonical tribe. They’re all young adults (In the U.S., anyway: I get that a house can contain several generations of a single family in many parts of the world, but it’s not anywhere near as common here). So, while being in the house might give someone a place in the community, there are no ancestors to learn from, no older people in whose footsteps we can follow, no younger people with whom we can share whatever it is we’re learning. But, say, a kayaking Meetup will more likely include people of all ages.
  3. Quickly grow close to people. How fast does someone go from zero to “best friend” in our lives? How quickly are we willing to share our troubles, triumphs, and personal histories? How readily can we address problems in a relationship, and how well can we confront people to hold them accountable for their actions? And how much contact do we have to have with someone to do any of this? I’d argue that, the better we become at carrying on a meaningful conversation, and the better we become at carrying on an uncomfortable conversation, the easier it becomes to develop a sense of tribe. I suspect we’ve all heard that we’re worse at this than other generations. Frankly, I’ve met people from every living generation who are utter shit at this. But that doesn’t excuse anybody. We’ve all got to work on having more meaningful conversations and having more of the uncomfortable conversations that we avoid.
  4. Don’t take it personally when people drop into and out of our lives. It’s not because everybody sucks: it’s part of life, and it’s especially part of life when everyone’s standing on shifting terrain.
  5. Develop resilience for when our confidants fail us, or betray us, or disappoint us. We have to be able to experience that and still open up quickly to the next person that comes along, knowing that it could happen again. This is difficult to do, I know. It’s tempting to build walls around ourselves when we experience relationship failures; we want to protect ourselves from feeling that pain again. But when we do that, we end up walling off the good ones: the kind people who recognize and respect our boundaries, and the people who have other friends so they don’t desperately need us. The people who stick around to “fight through our walls” are, by so doing, not respecting the boundaries we have created. And they’re not always the type of people others want to befriend.
  6. Maintain virtual connections. Yeah, OK, maybe it’s “not as good” as in-person connection. But it’s more reliable, frankly, in that it’s relatively impervious to changes in location. I’m not big into texting or chat rooms, and it makes me nervous to open up to people online who I have never met in person. That said, I find that e-mailing my friends helps me to maintain some sort of connection wherever I am. It’s a format where both of us can express a full thought.

Most of these practices fly in the face of what we have learned to associate with success and connection in adult life.And I’d encourage us to continue questioning the assumptions we make about what to want or how to act. As circumstances change, our understanding of how to be part of society also has to change. And I think we’re already doing it, and I’m proud of us.

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