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Communal Living Conspiracy Theory

Some vague rambling about the concept of communal living, particularly in economic terms. Written over about two weeks now, so excuse disjointedness.

So, in times past, there were several sorts of communes. I don't mean the hippy communes of the 60s and early 70s (and in some places in Ireland, right into the 80s). I mean places like monasteries, convents, and multi-generational families. Places where you have multiple sources of income, and single flows of outgoings. All these groups became, over time, more prosperous, as long as they stayed intact. Monastic communities were repeatedly broken down by secular authorities over time because they became so rich, and it wasn't until the modern "family unit" of parents-and-kids-under-18 that the multi-generational family stopped.

Let's look at some of the particulars of living in the modern world. Let's say you're a family of two adults, two children. Ignore pets for now, let's make this pretty utilitarian. Both parents probably have to work, unless one has a very high income. This means that when the kids are not in school, childcare of some kind is necessary, which is a cost against the benefits of working. There's some maths to be done there, and as far as I can see, it usually works out that if there are one or two kids, working is a net benefit, and if there are three or more, it ends up costing more than you get from working. But still, you're not getting the benefit of the work you're doing, because a chunk of the earnings go on childcare.

So what else are the earnings going on? The mortgage or rent. Food. Utilities. Insurance. The car(s). They are spending €X per month on all of these, plus possibly house maintenance, before they buy anything else, go on holidays, etc.

Now, let us postulate that our hypothetical couple have relatives or good friends in a similar situation. They too have jobs, childcare, mortgage or rent, food, utilities, car(s), etc. At the moment, these two families are spending €2X.

What if they get hold of a larger house and move in together? Now they're spending 2€X and they have no privacy or time to themselves, right? Well, no.

For a start, the rent or mortgage on a house that can accommodate 8 people is rarely twice that of a house that can accommodate 4. The utilities are definitely less, because you're not paying the "account charge" on two sets of bills, only one, and the costs of electricity, heating, etc, for one large house are not 2x that of one, they're more like 1.5x, sometimes as low as 1.25x. While you may need two cars for one family, you don't need four for two. There's only one set of house maintenance. And if one person does the childcare work, you've got three incomes left, not one.

If you go into this intentionally, and build, buy or rent a house whose layout allows for some privacy for each couple or family unit, then I think the costs of living will probably drop by about 30% per person.

Now the question: why doesn't this happen all the time?

It does happen. I know a number of people who are sharing houses with friends, relatives or parents. Most of them are in this situation only because they have to; they'll get out of it as quickly as they can, even though it will cost them a lot more.

But it seems to me that the pure economic sense of it is massively in favour of communal living.

The first argument against is one of privacy, having one's own space, and so on. I am very suspicious of this one, to be honest. I have shared houses with other people for most of my life - I've never lived on my own. My grandfather lived with us when I was a kid, and pretty nearly every family I knew had a grandparent living with them. Besides, privacy is a one- or two-person thing. People don't generally avoid having kids because they fear the loss of privacy by having another person in the house. Doors close, and an intentionally built house can give plenty of private space.

Here's my theory: we've been brainwashed into the single-family-unit by media and advertising. The more we're divided up into small units, the more we can be sold to, the more they can charge the nonsense "account fee" on utilities, the more cars and houses we have to buy, and so forth. So we're shown the nuclear family, or individuals, in media, in advertising, in films and magazines and books, in all manner of things. We're never shown larger groups living in one place without them being made out to be strange, temporary, or outright wrong.

Houses are built for the nuclear family by builders because the builder can, for the same materials and costs, get a lot more for two small houses than for one big one. And then we're treated to the bizarre sight of large houses - inherited from a time when families were bigger - which are either divided into apartments and sold off individually, or have parts of them closed up and left unused because the single family occupying them can't afford the heating.

This has all happened in the late 20th century. I'm wondering if it's a blip in the numbers in domestic history, or if it's something that will now take hold and stay in place.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2010 04:05 pm (UTC)
a few disparate ideas around the topic
I know people from the polyamorous community who have done this - moved several adults (some of whom are in relationships with each other) into a larger house to live together and raise children.

The main problem seems to be getting a mortgage company and a solicitor to take you seriously when you say you want to have a four-person mortgage (or whatever). Unlike in a marriage, where even if the mortgage is in one person's name the other partner has a right to a share of the home if they split up, if it's a group of unrelated people living together they need to draw up a contract that makes them jointly and severally liable. It's not a massive obstacle, but it does incur additional legal costs and obviously time and stress for all concerned. Certainly in the UK, the legal system just isn't designed to cope easily with non-standard domestic setups.

I'd love to see more intentionally-built houses for communal living, but as you say, property developers aren't incentivised to do so - they will make more profit from several small units than from one large one.

A further note is that in terms of extended families living together, greater social and geographical mobility creates obstacles. Most people don't even live in the same town as their parents any more, having moved away for work or study in their late teens or twenties, and the high-earning professional isn't necessarily going to want the poor cousin moving in and sponging, either.
Dec. 14th, 2010 04:31 pm (UTC)
Here's my theory: we've been brainwashed into the single-family-unit by media and advertising.

Not exactly.

If you read some social history, what we'd today consider to be excessive overcrowding was the norm until the 1940s. Orwell, in "The Road to Wigan Pier", talks of rooming houses with seven men sleeping in a single room -- and that was an improvement over the Victorian slums and rookeries.

Even the relatively well-to-do had large households. Pre-demographic transition, families with 6-12 children weren't uncommon -- and anyone in what today would be the middle class would have one or more servants living with them. Hence the big old houses you mention. (The servants didn't generally get a room of their own unless the house was rather posh; if they did, they'd probably end up sharing. In poorer households, the maids would bed down in the kitchen.)

Today we expect to have a room of our own, even if we're sharing a flat. Hell, we have a legal system in the UK that requires children over 8, and adults, to have a bedroom of their own. This is a reaction to the prior situation. Having to live collectively was a symptom of poverty -- and not merely one that resulted in less privacy: tuberculosis loves unheated, damp, overcrowded dwellings. Add the demographic transition (whereby women seldom have more than two children) and you've got a recipe for smaller households.

Here in the UK our housing stock is, on average, 75 years old. It doesn't reflect current family demographics. But it's noteworthy that the majority of new-build accomodation is in the shape of small blocks of one and two bedroom apartments.
Dec. 14th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
What was my main issue with communal living while I lived in England with four housemates (or five if count the boyfriend who practically lived there too) was that we all had different living habits that oftentimes got on each other's nerves. Or well, they certainly got on mine. Dirty dishes in the sink, groceries sitting on the countertops not only taking up space but left for someone else to clean away when they started to grow moldy three weeks later, people taking dishes up to their rooms with them and neglecting to bring them back, your orange juice mysteriously vanishing from the fridge, people using ridiculous amounts of toilet paper and not buying more... Not to even mention people being generally loud or stumbling home from a bar with a crowd late at night when you are trying to sleep. And we had made agreements about all of these things, but they happened anyway. Granted, we were all practically strangers to each other when we moved in together, so things would probably be better with close friends or family.
Dec. 14th, 2010 05:23 pm (UTC)
The last shared house I lived in had some of these problems, though not all. It helped that we did our food shopping in common, and all worked together to do the online order and put it away. So we didn't have the 'you took my food' issue, or the problem of groceries being left lying around to go off.

Living in shared houses is not necessarily communal living in the strictest sense - having some shared investment in the running and wellbeing of the household as a whole makes a lot of difference.
Dec. 14th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC)
I am not well suited to living with other adults.
Dec. 14th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
this is a useful website for people interested in communal living in the UK:

dunno if there's something similar for Ireland.
Dec. 14th, 2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
Great post. You know, there's a whole body of Marxist social theory that says exactly this, except it has it beginning to happen earlier - starting when industrialists began to build whole estates of two-up-two-down terraced houses for their workers in the Industrial Revolution. The idea is that nuclear families are in the interests of capitalism for two reasons - compared to an extended family, an isolated nuclear family consumes more, but also it fragments communities so that workers are less willing to stand up for themselves in bad working conditions.

Say you work in a shit factory and come home in a foul mood; if you're coming home to a house where several other factory workers live, you can put your heads together and discuss it and realise that it's not just you, the working conditions are bad everywhere and things need to change. Whereas if you're just coming home to an empty house or a partner who doesn't work, that won't happen. (There are also theories about the traditional stay-at-home housewife being useful to capitalism in the same way - the expectation is that she'll recharge the worker's battery so he goes back and takes more shit the next day, not talk to him about the wider implications of it all.)

More recently, I think the breakup of traditional working-class communities and the move to isolated nuclear families in the UK in the 80s was very useful to Thatcherites and big business in general.
Dec. 14th, 2010 08:01 pm (UTC)
I was flipping through a Victorian utopian novel (courtesy of Gutenberg) recently that, through the miracle of some kind of drug administered by a kindly physician, a middle-aged lady who was mortally ill was sent forward a hundred years into the future to visit with her great-grandchildren for a weeek or two. The novel per se was a thinly-veiled tract for some kind of communal living movement of the time it was written, with well-to-do middle-class folks leasing a suite of rooms in what appeared to be a residential hotel, eating communally and sharing servants (the genteel Victorian equivalent of your fewer cars scenario, I suppose). Salt-of-the-earth working folks had lesser-quality accomodations but of a similar style. MEGO after a bit and I put the book down (metaphorically speaking) with some relief.
Dec. 14th, 2010 08:40 pm (UTC)
I think that economics does have alot to do with the current situation. The bottom line is that we can afford privacy where you couldn't 100 years ago. Our expectations have shifed but we are very wealthy relative to our predecessors. And the fact that people will go to such lengths and spend such an enormous percentage of their income to gain independence from others is a testament to how important it is to us.

I put forward another theory aswell. Our lives are alot more liberal now than they used to be. And our willingness to accept limits and rules placed on us by others has diminished and as a result we are less willing to endure the retrictions of communal living.

I also reject the notion that capitalism is a well thought out evil and that we are being brain washed systematically. Whilst marketing and lobbying by businesses can affect consumer purchasing, it is by its nature short term, disorganised and completely selfish. Any long term benefit to a business is just luck. Capitalism exists in the form it is today because there is space in the economy for it. We, in the western world, are ridiculously indolent and well off. We may not always feel it, but we essentially live in a time of great decadence. But also a time of great civil power, though we would often rather play computer games than think or do anything with that :).
Dec. 14th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
Oh, I don't think it's deliberate, by any manner of means.
Dec. 14th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
Is it still comspiracy if there is no conspiring?? :)
Dec. 19th, 2010 12:43 am (UTC)
If the effects are indistinguishable from an intentional conspiracy, how important is the difference?
Dec. 19th, 2010 07:44 am (UTC)
Motivation. If society is moving in that direction through group think that is a very different scenario than evil people in smokey back rooms attempting to direct matters to their benefit. People having foresight and taking gambles on the basis of such precognition are ok with me.
Dec. 20th, 2010 12:50 am (UTC)
But- HOW is it different? Does it mean that there are different ways to address it?

I'm not convinced it matters, in a practical sense; I think the main purpose of debating about "conspiracy" is to deflect attention TO debating whether or not it's intentional, and deflecting it FROM what to do about the results.

Unless the differences in causality mean that there is a difference in how to approach fighting it- I don't see how the causality is all that important in a practical sense (except as a distraction from effective opposition).
Dec. 20th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
The comment you are querying was down the chain from the original argument, and is basically a symantic argument. If you want to argue the actual counter argument made, reply to points I made there with specific questions. My main argument is about expectations about freedoms, and the economics of the current situation. The final point of my argument was addressing the OPs assertion of conspiracy, but that was not the only argument presented (in either case).
Dec. 16th, 2010 01:34 am (UTC)
How decadent is the nuclear family of Ireland with one average industrial wage income?

How decadent are the 90% of Americans who don't control the 90% of the wealth? They are living in the wealthiest country in the world but in a lot of cases their home is a trailer park or a slum in one of the cities.

It's all relative. I'm sure the slumdogs of Calcutta would love to have a trailer....

Dec. 14th, 2010 11:25 pm (UTC)
For the last six months or so I've lived in a 5br house with six other people. I love it, I've never been happier -- admittedly these are all my very close friends. My "office" is either in the kitchen or at the dining room table, and I'm very surprised to find I don't miss the privacy. Also, yes, it is incredibly cheap.

I'm going to have to move out because one of my partners just doesn't get along with the other inhabitants. I really, really don't want to go. I seriously endangered a ten-year relationship in my efforts to avoid having to move out, and I think what I have here was _worth_ endangering that relationship.
Dec. 16th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
We've actually considered this quite a lot. My partner and I have frequently said that if we came into a certain amount of money (ok so we're mainly talking lottery win here, but still...) we'd buy one of those massive houses that get turned into multiple apartments, and have some of our friends move into it with us. Maybe keep the semblance of separate flats so we can all have privacy, but have communal garden and veggie patches etc, and it would definitely make for easier babysitting for those with kids.

I don't know what exactly you had in mind for larger houses designed with privacy in mind, but I know for certain that if you have a place that's divided up and has locks on the doors, that's considered to be separate flats, and if they have their own bathrooms, in the UK you have to pay council tax on each of them.
Dec. 19th, 2010 12:52 am (UTC)
J and I have been intrigued by the "cohousing" and/or "intentional community" movements around here. In many of these, each "family" has its own house (or apartment), but there is also communal land/areas, often at least some communal meals, etc.

At this point (thank the gods) I don't need childcare... but such an arrangement would have been SO helpful when I did! And since it seems unlikely that J and I will have actual grandchildren- or, at least, not ones we see often- having contact with the kids of other people would be great.

We're concerned, though, that our artistic work is not necessarily compatible with the goals of many of these communities; like, metalwork (whether blacksmithing or jewelry) is not especially eco-friendly, and we're not keen on giving that up.

We're probably being a bit too cautious here; if we could find an arrangement that both let us do what we love, AND encouraged/forced us to be more sociable and integrated into the community... well, that'd be a great thing, for everyone (potentially).
Dec. 19th, 2010 09:29 am (UTC)
Yes, privacy is an important factor in our decision-making here, but personal freedom is a huge factor too - freedom to do what we want when we want. The more people we cohabit with, the more restrictions there will naturally be. I might not cite privacy as a reason to put off having kids, but I'd certainly cite personal freedom. Where each of us draws our line in the sand on this issue (own room / own bathroom / own kitchen / own garden / whatever) will be different. Again, the more people you bring into the equation the harder it would be to meet the needs of everyone involved. That said, of course it's not impossible.

As for the economic argument for living together - I think that decisions made for economic reasons rarely work out as well in terms of personal happiness as decisions made for other reasons.

The BYO community idea is not something I would go for personally, but I can see some benefits - take control of your neighbourhood, avoid the neighbour-from-hell scenario. I just think that it means that you'd miss out on the potential to meet new friends and grow into a new community if you had this ready-built community at home. Becoming part of the local community is something of the past now, and I feel that loss. I think having communal living arrangements fulfill this on one short-sighted level, but I think it would move us even further from the good old ways of getting to know and contributing to our wider communities.
Dec. 19th, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone living in a house with three generations, I don't agree completely with your theory. Our situation it very hard on my parents physically because having to helping tiny children is wearing them out. It's hard on my relationship with my husband. The situation drove two of my siblings to another country because they were not comfortable in a house with tiny children's toys taking up all the space. We are here out of necessity because my health is poor and my husband is unemployed. We did not plan to be here this long. Don't get me wrong I am very grateful to have family this generous but it does come with a price and with consequences.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )