by Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary
With over half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, it is increasingly important to consider how to live cooperatively and maximize the limited amount of resources available. In many cities around the world, the reality of scarce resources necessitates practices that are also more sustainable, such as living in one home or taking bucket showers instead of letting water run. In the United States, greater economic wealth and plentiful space have resulted in less of a need to pool resources and bred a culture of individualism. But as sustainability becomes a priority, perhaps we need to re-examine the consequences of living an individualistic lifestyle and consider the long-term benefits of collective living.
Julia with her host family in Dakar.
About a week after I returned to the United States from my study abroad trip in India, Senegal, and Argentina, with these reflections fresh in my mind, my mother excitedly told me that my cousin had just found a job.
“Emily can finally move out of her parent's house now that she has this advertising job in San Diego," my mother said. "She was getting so sick of living there, and I’m sure they didn’t mind, but they’re happy she can be on her own too.”
I thought of my own upcoming graduation and the unsettling potential of having to move back in with my parents if (cringe) I am unable to find a job. I couldn’t imagine the humiliation of relinquishing my autonomy to move back into a space owned by my parents, a prospect faced by many recent graduates in the uncertain economy.
Yet, I had frequently seen people living with parents during my semester abroad, especially in Delhi and Dakar. Why is it looked down on in the United States?
While I was studying abroad in Delhi this past February, two students in my program were staying with a man who, at the age of 30, was still living with his mother. "How could he still live with his mother?" many of us wondered. Not only had he never lived away from home, but he also supported her financially.
In India, the family is a primary consideration in most life choices. Taking care of elderly parents is a duty that would never be left to a nursing home or live-in nanny, as it often is in the United States. Parents often still decide on a suitable husband or wife for their children; if they don’t make the decision, they at least have to give approval. Once married, a woman becomes part of her husband’s family and cares not only for her children, but also for her husband’s parents.
An Indian wedding is a family affair.
Generations of cousins at a wedding in Delhi.
In Dakar, families also take a more central role than the individual. The host family I stayed with was a young couple in their thirties with a five-year-old daughter and son on the way. They had their own home, but lived just down the street from each of their parents. When I asked my host father, Tony, where he had grown up, his response was “right here.”
“No, what neighborhood?” I specified, thinking he was referring to Dakar in general.
“So you’ve lived here your whole life?”
“Yes, Caty (his wife) and I both. This is where I grew up, this is where I met her, and this is where I still live, close to my parents.”
“Do you like being close to your parents?” I pressed.
“Yes, we visit them a lot,” he responded, nodding and smiling.
Over the next five weeks that proved to be true. Most evenings, Tony would return home from work only to announce that he was going to visit his father or cousin, and Caty spent most afternoons either with her family or Tony’s. When visiting their parents, they would open the doors of their homes and walk in, fluidly moving about the space as if it were their own.
These aren’t merely cases of family sentimentality. These societies are family-centered partially due to financial necessity — it’s cheaper to keep families under one roof and share resources. The fact that individualism is more common in the United States is in part a testament to the country’s economic wealth and purported never-ending abundance of natural resources.
Although family is valued in the United States, owning a separate space is the ultimate goal. It is a mark of independence and financial prosperity: the American dream. A recent New York Times article
described how owning a home is central to most Americans' idea of success.
Conversely, the inability to purchase a place for oneself practically equates to failure. In the United States, the importance of individuality has become so ingrained that many forget to question what has allowed individualism to take precedence over collectivism. In an environment with diminishing resources, sharing provides the most gain for the greatest number. Collectivism evolved in part as a coping mechanism to deal with limited resources.
Today, it appears that the American reverence for individuality is a reverence for wealth and freedom, often interpreted as “every man for himself.” Pooling resources not only saves money and builds a sense of collective care and support, but is also less wasteful, reducing the amount of energy used per person. Shifting away from the centrality of individualism as a core value in the United States would likely lessen the country's enormous ecological footprint
and foster sustainability. Instead of thinking of living with parents as a temporary setback, it can be seen as an option that is economically wise and environmentally friendly. Maybe living with your parents isn’t so bad.
Julia Waterhous and Dylan Crary are Polis interns
Credits: Photos by Julia Waterhous.