It's not all that rare that people in urban places end up living with roommates, for at least a while. Traditionally, the course goes from having a roommate or roommates to living alone, at least for a while, to coupling and moving in together, possibly before and in almost all cases after marrying. But there's been a lot of discussion about shifts in these traditional paths. Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociology professor and author of the book Going Solo, has written about the new wave in singles living alone, possibly throughout their adult lives. His argument is that people may even be happier, more social, and more successful that way. On the other side of the coin are roommates who decide to live together for as long as possible. Hilary Howard discussed four such men who've lived together for nearly two decades in her New York Times piece over the weekend.
Howard writes of the guys—Danaher Dempsey, Luke Crane, Rick Brown, and Shyaporn Theerakulstit—"They have no children, no linear career histories, no readily disposable savings. The four men, all heterosexual, approaching 40 and never married, have lived together for 18 years, give or take a revolving guest roommate, cohabitating in spaces like an East Village walk-up, a Chelsea loft and, now, a converted office space in Queens." They call it the "Fortress Astoria." By the accounts of all four of them, this living situation has been beneficial, providing a community and support system, allowing them to pursue their dreams at the same time that they have individual bedrooms, a garden, lots of great shared kitchen appliances, and pretty much whatever freedoms they like, beyond paying the bills of course.
So what's not to like? Anytime a piece is written about a group of middle-aged people who are persisting in doing something "childish," people react. In this case, the four men have not "settled down" and gotten married and gotten everyday jobs with health insurance; instead they've insisted on pursuing dreams, however far flung or unrealistic. But at the same time, they made adult choices in order to do that: "Splitting the rent four ways gave the roommates the economic freedom they needed to pursue their dreams," writes Howard. They've achieved varying levels of success. All this pursuit of dreams and figuring themselves out means, however, that they haven't spent a lot of time pursuing women, at least not seriously: They're on what New Yorkers might call the slow track, they're "Peter Pans," or, as Theerakulstit describes the group, "man-children."
Except are they, really? That depends how you define "man" and how you define "children." As Howard writes,
“None of us has invested in a career, or property, or family. And I think about this, obviously,” Mr. Crane said, adding that, in the past, he had had two serious girlfriends who wanted him to move in with them. Both times he chose to stay put.
But he is all right with that choice. Many of his friends, Mr. Crane said, got married in their 20s and early 30s, and now many of them are unhappy and divorcing. He said he was confident that he and his roommates had avoided “that first unhappy marriage.”
It might best be put that he just wasn't ready at that time. But people do grow up, or at least, their dreams and their desires change. One of the roommates, Rick Brown, has been dating someone for 8 months now and, Howard writes, "has been voted 'most likely to leave Fortress Astoria first.'”
So is the case of these four guys living together a matter of suspended adulthood, just living together because they haven't buckled down and decided what they want next, the kind of situation in which Kay Hymowitz might say our four bachelors simply need to "man up"? Or is it more what Theerakulstit says—“Our definition of adulthood and what we want to get out of life are different from many people’s"? A fair point; we should all have the opportunity to determine our own "what we want to get out of life," no? Certainly, the four men don't seem to be complaining.
As Crane says, "I think the secret to our success is that we don’t think too much about the future,” which might fit the Hymowitz argument. At the same time, there's something to be said about being happy where you are as a measure of your own success—if you don't care enough about the traditional trappings of "growing up" to do them, that may well be your answer. And perhaps this is also a sign that we're growing more accepting of the myriad ways in which people can be adults, at least in places like New York City where, if anywhere, you should be able to choose how you want to live your life. In support of that argument, for every negative comment in the Times about the "failure to grow up" evidenced by this living situation, there are more than a few positive ones.
Klinenberg told us that the Times article resonated with him given interviews he'd done for Going Solo; many of the people he'd talked to for the book said "they were actively seeking a collective living arrangement with friends that would allow them to maintain privacy and independence while also being close to companionship and support." He adds that the case of the bachelors in Fortress Astoria is unusual, though, given the life stage of the men: "They're not coming out of divorces or the loss of a spouse. They started living together when they were young and not one of them has peeled off to get married or move in with a romantic partner." Most Americans still do ultimately marry or move in with a partner, he says, but marriages have gone down while the first age of marriage has gone up...meaning "there will be more and more people like the guys in the New York Times story, creating new ways to be single, together."
The old milestones of "adulthood" were pretty standard, and to some, pretty oppressive: graduate from high school or maybe college, get a stable job, meet someone and settle down, get married, buy a car, buy a house. But things are different now, and whether or not we all want to still be living with roommates at the time of our 40th birthday, one thing is clear: The milestones, they are a'changing. I'd just say to Theerakulstit, don't undermine the progress by calling yourself a "man-child."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.