Single but not alone, these urbanites are redefining the `adultescent' years
Dawn Trautman was in bad shape. Run ragged by studying for the GREs, holding down a full-time job, and choreographing a high school musical, she had a nasty case of pneumonia that would land her in bed for over a month. But Trautman, 31, who was living alone in a St. Paul, Minn., condo, didn't miss a single meal while she was sick. Although her parents live nearby, it was her friends who kept her nourished, bringing orange juice, making chicken noodle soup, even feeding her in bed when she couldn't get up.
These aren't just friends--they're superfriends. Whether it's a leaky faucet, a broken-down car, a cross-country move, or just lunch, Trautman's group is there, blurring the line between friendship and kinship with gestures large and small. The core group--seven men and women all in their early 30s, including a doctor, a few teachers, and a scientist--volunteer together for political candidates, share gourmet meals, and even vacation as a gang every August. "We've become sort of an urban family," says Trautman.
Groups like Trautman's--less social circles than quasi-familial clans, with their own customs and rituals--are increasingly common, says San Francisco journalist Ethan Watters. They've grown out of well-documented societal change: Where once people got married after high school or college and began building families in their early 20s, men and women today are as likely to stay single for years. According to the 2002 census, the median age at first marriage has risen to 25.3 for women, the highest ever, and 26.9 for men.
In his new book, Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, Watters writes that men and women are now structuring the long stretch of single years by gathering in tight-knit clusters--the "urban tribes" of his title. More than casual groups of friends, these are entities that form over time, eventually taking on a life of their own. Often there are rituals, like weekly dinners, yearly group trips, and elaborate theme parties. Many members say there are enough events on the group calendar to fill seven nights a week. "As you get to know people better and get involved in other parts of their lives, you start acting as a group with an inherent organizational structure," says Charles Bradley, 32, who belongs to a 110-member clan in Denver.
Bradley is a chief organizer for his unusually large group, planning house parties and recruiting other organizers to head up white-water rafting trips or brunches. Watters describes several such roles common in tribes, including the advice giver/therapist, the comedian, the worrier, the chaperone, the bodyguard, the life of the party, and the cynic. Rarely is there a single leader; more often several members take on that role.
To be sure, these groups are not entirely unfamiliar: You can see fictional versions on Friends, Sex and the City, and Will & Grace. Critics have accused such characters and their real-life counterparts of being dilettantes or slackers, of driving up promiscuity and tearing down the social fabric of the American family. But Watters sees something different going on. "Most people did not choose to not get married," he says. "They were just caught in social currents." The cumulative effects of lengthier educations, feminism, and the sexual revolution have changed the ways singles live--and how they search for mates. According to a study conducted by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead at the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, 94 percent of never-married men and women in their 20s are looking for a soul mate--a big change from a 1965 study in which 3 out of 4 college women said they would marry a man they didn't love if he fit the bill in other ways.