Single but not alone, these urbanites are redefining the `adultescent' years
And for the generation that grew up with divorce, decisions about marriage are not made lightly. "The idea that you would have one mate that would fulfill all your needs is unrealistic," says Sasha Cagen, a 30-year-old member of a San Francisco tribe. "We need to give credence to the nonsexual relationships in our lives, the idea of having significant others instead of a significant other." Cagen, whose book in praise of the single life titled Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics will be out in January, argues for the social acceptance and indeed celebration of this new stage in life.
Growing up. It's not the first time the line dividing the kids from the grown-ups has shifted. Prior to the Depression, people were either children or adults. Teenagers didn't become a distinct social and psychological group, argues Thomas Hine in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, until well into the 20th century. More recently, the division has been redefined again with the "tween" group--the 8-to-12 set that gets most attention for its marketing potential for both childish products like supersweet sodas and more-adult items like thong underwear.
University of Maryland Prof. Jeffrey Arnett identifies a new group in his upcoming book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. "There's a lot of tolerance and even encouragement in American society for using that 18-to-29 period for exploration," says Arnett. "We would worry about someone who at the age of 20 says, `Mom, I've decided to get married and work for IBM.' " Many singles seem intent on pushing adult-onset adolescence even further. In July, for example, the New York Times published an article proclaiming the 30th birthday, once considered the end of everything youthful, as the new 21. Single, 30-year-old New Yorkers are apparently no longer hiding in shame; they are throwing elaborate birthday bashes that rival traditional coming-of-age fetes like bar mitzvahs or even weddings, and they're doing it on their own dime.
Indeed, the buying power of tribe members should not be underestimated. But neither should the power of their social capital, the friend-of-a-friend interpersonal connections that grease your way through life, helping you locate a good doctor, get an interview for that higher-paying job, or find someone to adopt your cat when you move. Some of that schmoozing has moved onto the Internet. New networking sites allow tribe members to mobilize larger groups by taking advantage of social connections. Friendster.com, which signed up over 1 million members in its first six months, uses social networking as a dating tool, while sites like Ryze.com and LinkedIn emphasize business. "Social networking is really a cocktail party online," says Mark Pincus, 37, a San Francisco tribe member and founder of Tribe.net, a new site that combines the commercial aspects of the online community Craigslist, the social connections of Friendster, and the public discourse of weblogs.
Watters says that tribes can even spur large social movements. Grass-roots happenings like Burning Man, a now 25,000-strong festival in the Nevada desert with outpost events around the country, and Critical Mass, a multicity event where hundreds of bicyclists parade through the streets, have grown without benefit of advertising or strong central planning. News of the events first spreads along weak ties between tribes, and then strong intratribe ties spur clusters to participate. Even the spontaneous protests that brought down the Berlin Wall have been attributed to such patterns of weak and strong social ties.