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.
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.
The end? So what happens when tribe members, well, grow up? Konstantin Guericke, cofounder of LinkedIn, sees his tribe much less now that he's married and has a small child. But for others, the party never ends. Susan Mittmann, 33, first met her tribe as a single student at the California Institute of Technology. She later married a member of the group and now has two daughters. Because Mittmann often takes the organizer role, tribe activities shifted to her house.
Today, two other tribe families and a tribe singleton have bought houses on Mittmann's street in Palo Alto; members have lent one another money to make the purchases possible. The core group now includes three families, an unmarried couple, and two singles. "If you ask my 4-year-old to list her friends, her list is about half other 4-year-olds and half grown-ups," says Mittmann. "It's like having an extended family that lives close together--the best of both worlds."
This story appears in the October 13, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.