Ever since the financial meltdown last year I’ve seen a lot of down-on-their-luck stories on various news websites. Not surprisingly, one of the stories that keeps coming up describes people who have lost their homes and are forced to move in with family members. While I don’t doubt the difficulty of this situation or the heartbreak of losing a home, I’ve also begun to wonder if concentrating a large, extended family in one location is such a bad thing after all.
Most people I know in the U.S. eventually strike out on their own. For example, I left home when I was eighteen and though I didn’t become financially independent for a number of years, I also never moved back. In fact the idea of moving back home and living with my parents is a little bit disturbing to me. This pattern and mentality seem fairly typical. Not only that, they seem to represent the desirable norm; its not hard to think of people (fictional or not) who live with their parents and are thusly looked down on.
Even if this is the standard pattern in the U.S. today, it isn’t as common in other parts of the world or in the past. My first hand experiences in Brazil and Great Briton, as well as my understanding of history, lead me to believe that a more common worldwide (and historical) pattern is for people to live with or near their parents for generation after generation. If that fact doesn’t necessarily change what we contemporary Americans want to do, it at least indicates that people can lead happy, fulfilling lives whether they strike out on their own or live close to home.
The question as I see it then, is if adults are better off living in larger family units or only with their partners (and children). In my case, after having been conditioned all my life to look down on living with my family, I imagine it would be difficult to ever return home. However, if we as a society began to look more critically at this idea and see its possible advantages I think we might find that those advantages may outweigh any sacrifices. Obviously living in larger numbers means less privacy, personal freedom, and personal space. On the other hand it may also mean less loneliness, greater division of labor, and a stronger family culture. It may just be possible that the pros of living with family outweigh the cons.
Ultimately Americans seem to conceive of themselves in highly individualistic terms. As long as we continue to think that way, any loss of individuality will seem like a disaster. Having to give up the freedom of financial prosperity (and the homes that prosperity provides) will be a dehumanizing experience that robs people of their identity and makes them a burden on those around them. (It’s no surprise, then, that many of the stories about the economic crisis have focused on the disruption that adult offspring cause in the lives of their parents, as well as the tendency to revert back to adolescent behavior once at home.)
However, I think that it’s possible to see ourselves not as detached individuals but as members of larger communities and/or families. This probably won’t make losing a job or a home less painful, but it may mitigate the impact on people’s self-perception and the difficulty of living with family. In other words, if we conceive of ourselves as members of a family or community first, and homeowners or professionals second, our identity will no longer be based on the caprice of the capitalist economy. What’s more, if we start to think of ourselves in this way living with our families starts to seem like less of a set back and more of a return to our homelands and our heritage.