Casaubon's Book

Many Hands

Over the last 50 years, the average American has seen their private space more than triple. In the 1950s, the average American, according to Pat Murphy’s excellent book _Plan C_, had 250 square feet per person. By 2005, the average American had 850 square feet of space in their home per person. And we want more – even bigger houses proliferated during the boom, with more amenities to allow people to be away from each other – private studies and bathrooms, media rooms so you don’t have to watch tv with anyone else…

Now some of this may have been good and welcome – there is a case to be made, as Virginia Woolf did, for a room of her (or his) own. But that doesn’t necessarily mean close to a thousand square feet. The costs of this – in energy used for heating, cooling and powering, the cost in mortgage dollars and debt both good and bad, the cost in hours worked to maintain lifestyle, the cost in commutes and soil as these increasingly huge houses were built out at increasingly large distances on good farmland – all of these were extremely high.

Along with them came the outsourcing and fossil fueling of the labor needed to keep up these houses. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes in _Nickled and Dimed_, many of these houses required low paid household help in order to maintain them. The large lawns require lawn services, again, with low paid labor. The household work of maintaining and financially supporting these houses precluded things like cooking dinner or having one parent stay home, which in turn raised costs further, and raised energy usage further as Dad made his 45 minute commute with a 20 minute diversion to drop the baby at daycare.

Even with enormous quantities of fossil fuels, which, as Jim Kunstler has observed have provided the equivalent of a huge quantity of slave labor for us, we still haven’t been able to keep up with the houses by ourselves. We still can’t support the family and the house and also have time to mow the lawn and clean the toilets. We still are bringing poorer people, who themselves are then burdened with the costs of further outsourcing – ie, they work long hours cleaning houses, so they buy their children fast food and leave them in crappy daycare, and move aging parents into barely passable nursing homes – into the mix. We still find that we cannot fully maintain even the very limited domestic obligations of a single nuclear household. We need to go no further than this to realize that the nuclear family is failing us. We’re exhausted, and hiring out for our domestic responsibilities – and we’ve got a lot of cheap energy and money to subsidize them.

Imagine a world of energy constraint and less money, and the struggle gets a lot harder. What happens when Dad’s carefully invested savings are no longer worth as much from the next bubble pop and the one after, when Medicare begins to crash, and when state subsidies for the elderly and disbled begin to crash even more than they have? What happens when our gas prices go up and we can’t afford our enormous homes? What happens if we have to add to our work homeschooling our kids (because our local school systems are now so underfunded we can’t in conscience send our kids there, or because they no longer provide transport to a now-centralized district 8 miles away), growing some of our food to balance rising costs, or any one of many other obligations? What happens when we can’t pay the cost of our fossil fueled slaves?

Some of what happens is that life gets harder and changes – millions of people have already seen their homes subside into foreclosure. But rental markets aren’t easy either, especially for people with pets and children, or the elderly and disabled who need accessible facilities in short supply. And some of what happens is this – we need more people in our homes and apartments.

Whether we have fewer fossil fuels because we can’t afford them, or because we regulate emissions, or because of peak energy or, most likely, all three, we are going to need more help and more hands in our lives. The increasingly vast private spaces, maintained at enormous monetary, personal and energy costs are becoming unviable already. Whether we like it or not, there are not enough people in a nuclear family or single household to substitute for that energy. We’re going to need each other.

And we’re going to get each other – there are a huge number of forces pushing us together, sometimes whether we want other folks or not or not. One of my most reproduced pieces, called “The Brother-In-Law on the Couch Version of the Apocalypse” which also appears, slightly differently in _Depletion and Abundance_ argues that most of us intellectually towards “Mad Max” sorts of scenarios when we think about “collapse” but in fact, for most people, what collapse looks like is your brother-in-law living on your couch for a year. It looks more like young people couch surfing, and people combining households out of necessity. I joked in my original writing that many of us are psychologically less troubled by the Mad Max scenarios than actually having to live with our relatives or friends. But that is what the future looks like.

It looks like aging parents, whose retirement savings won’t cover medical and living costs moving in with grown children. It looks like grown children who can’t get a job or another job moving back in with their parents, who at least have houses. It looks like the state slashing funding for the disabled and making it impossible for them to live alone. It looks like unemployment above 25% for 18-26 year olds. It looks like not being able to get a rental because you have a dog and kids. It looks like more climate induced natural disasters and people who can’t go back to their homes. It looks like the fraying of safety nets and the recreation of those safety nets among family, whether biological or chosen, and in communities.

Sometimes we get tighter ties because we need them. In _A Paradise Built in Hell_ Rebecca Solnit’s extraordinary book about the way communities self-organize in response to serious crises, Solnit writes that most of us, in dire straits, set about the work of working together, even if we’d never done so before, or had hated the idea. Sometimes, as the song says, you can’t always get what you want – but if you try, sometimes you get what you need. In some measures, all of these bad things may also be part of what we need – which is fewer feet of private space around us and more people in our houses. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. It doesn’t mean it won’t suck some of the time. In fact, it will. The best answer I’ve got to the sucking part is to live with the family (biological or chosen) and friends that you like best, and get started early, so that you can say “Sorry, Sis, I’ve got Aunt Eleanor, cousin LaShanda and her two kids living here already, you have to take Grampa Jim, his asthmatic poodle and Cousin Lori who spends 2 hours a day on her hair.”

As many of you know, we’ve been looking for housemates for a while, but we’re busy and have been somewhat desultory about it. We began our farm as an extended family project – Eric’s grandparents lived with us until their deaths. We had hoped that Eric’s grandmother would live much longer, and we’ve missed them – even though sometimes living together, caring for aging and disabled family members was also hard. It left us with a house too big for just the six of us.

There are a lot of people in our lives that we would love to live with but it won’t quite work – our former housemates who also have children – but are tied to the DC area by a job, a college friend who is tied to a location by her custody agreements, etc… So we started looking outwards, through the blog. We met some wonderful people, but in the end, other obligations usually made it too hard for them to relocate – and that makes sense, because, after all, most of us have a compelling reason for living where we do.

We have finally found housemate #1 – Phil, Eric’s TA at SUNY Albany and our friend. He’s in his 20s, passionate about environmentalism and wants to learn to farm as well. He’ll move in at the end of the term, in May to two of the unused bedrooms downstairs. We’re still looking for someone(s) to take the 1000 square foot apartment as well. We’re excited by this – by life with more people and someone for Eric to make music with, by shared friendship and the ability to barter housing for things we need – like occasional babysitting and someone to work in the garden with us.

I’m a big believer that it is almost always better and easier to make changes that will be coming before they are necessary, on your own terms. That’s why we brought Eric’s grandparents to live with us – we wanted them to come before things became acute, while they could still enjoy our family. So too, we want our household to expand before we have to – because we have stuff to share and so do they, because we enjoy being with others, because we don’t need as much as we have, because many hands (mostly) make lighter times and lighter work. The future is more of us in less space. The future is community, whether we like it or not, so we might as well try and like it. So far, I’m having fun.



  1. #1 Kerrick
    January 26, 2010

    Congratulations on finding your farmmate #1! I hope that works out well, and that you find good farmmate(s) number 2 (and 3?).

  2. #2 curiousalexa
    January 26, 2010

    Yay! Tell Phil there’s a whole lot of people who are envious of his ability to do this… [g]

    I need to talk to my roomie about what we want to do here – we also have far too much space (built for extended family). Her latest crazy idea was to build a much smaller house and turn the existing house into a barn, instead of building the desired barn!

  3. #3 aimee
    January 26, 2010

    I miss having my Dad with me. He lived in my basement for years and helped me raise my first daughter. Then he got married and moved to a warmer climate. Rats!

  4. #4 Greenpa
    January 26, 2010

    Boy, watch out for that “living with the TA” thing! Been there- and it ruined me!

    Damn kid. You tell him something once- and he understood it. Then went and did it- right.

    Messed me up good when we started hiring help. 🙂

  5. #5 homebrewlibrarian
    January 26, 2010

    I am so happy for you and your family! Perhaps if Phil fits in well, more opportunities will arise. You’re not just adding another person to your home, you’re adding all of his connections with others.

    Years ago, my friends Betty and Mike said that their fantasy was to live someplace and have all their friends live right next door. They still hold that fantasy but not so tightly. As you’ve noticed with potential roomies, sometimes you’ve got too many ties or roots where you are to move somewhere else. They currently live in southern Arizona and while I love them to pieces, I will not be moving close by. I have invited them to move to Anchorage, but work and family in New Mexico keep them there. I point the finger of blame at our culture with its “happy motoring” slogan. Now that we’ve separated ourselves from the ones we love by hundreds if not thousands of miles (which would be my case), we’re starting to question the why of it all. Some of us are moving back near family (a coworker and her newly retired husband recently moved to Reno to be near their kids) but a great many of us are stuck where we are. I’d love for my friends elsewhere to move here but it hasn’t happened yet (although the invitation goes out pretty regularly) so I figure I might as well try working on developing community where I am. Seems that’s what you’re doing by bringing in Phil.

    Good luck to you all!

    Kerri in AK

  6. #6 Moopheus
    January 26, 2010

    “It looks like not being able to get a rental because you have a dog and kids. ”

    This is less likely to be a problem at least in the very near future, due to high vacancy rates, which means landlords more desperate for tenants. But those vacancy rates are a result of the other things you mention, which suppress the rate of new household formation. The recession and the housing bust are indeed keeping the brother-in-law on the couch. If this becomes a long-term structural change (or a reversion to past patterns, when it was more normal to have extended family in the same house) and some exurban areas become untenable, then that could change.

  7. #7 Anna
    January 26, 2010

    One major hurdle to living with one’s parents is overcoming your pride. In our case, we had the excuse that my mother has terminal cancer (which seems to be less terminal now that we are here) and the parents had a 1000 sq. ft. finished daylight basement just used to store 40 years worth of stuff. I still have angsty moments about being a “failure to thrive” and not finding a job after 9 months without anything permanent. Then I read your blog and know…this is the new normal and I am grateful for the basement and my mom who is still with us.

  8. #8 Tammy and Parker
    January 26, 2010

    My FIL shared one small bedroom with his FIVE other brothers. And they slept in the same bed. Their father delivered milk with a horse drawn carriage and built their home himself.

    I have three kids in college. They grew up living the dream most college aged kids live: moving out after they graduated from High School! (woot!)

    Except college is expensive. Jobs are scarce. Scholarships are drying up. Mom and Dad had to use ALL their savings to pay off medical debt from the littlest brother.

    My kids are wise enough to understand that now is NOT the time to graduate from college with a huge amount of student loans. So they are living at home, and carpooling to college, picking up a friend or two along the way.

    I’m a bit surprised at how many of my kids’ friends have parents who are charging them for both rent and food now that they are college aged. We don’t charge our kids, but we sure do expect them to help out with keeping things running around here. Gardening, cleaning, cooking, tutoring younger siblings, stopping to pick up Parker’s meds at the pharmacy that is on their way home from school, etc.

    My 18 year old even gives the 11 year old extra flute lessons because we need the money for the extra flute lessons SHE received to go towards paying down debt.

    And you know what? It’s been good for ALL of us.

    And chicks do indeed dig guys who invite them over to their parents house for homemade cookies and free videos from the library.

  9. #9 Art
    January 27, 2010

    Back it the days before the civil war and during The Great Depression anyone who found their house overlarge and their budget undersized took in boarders. A fee room with a door, and a bathroom down the hall were about all it took.

    These establishments could be anything from bare bones, a room shared with as many as would fit into a bed and nothing provided, to three full meals a day with maid service and laundry provided.

    Having helped build more than a few McMansions it has to be noted that a lot of them would be fairly easy to modify to accommodate boarders. One we built had six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and the master suit was on a separate wing. Large common areas, both a formal and informal dining room, large living room, computer room, in addition to a cozier family room would make taking on six to a full dozen boarders fairly simple. Parking would be problematic but the circular drive and four car garage would help. With sixteen or seventeen people living in that house, with a dozen paying for room and board, the costs would be manageable. The house is on a generous lot suitable for a large garden, a pond and perhaps a couple of goats and pigs.

  10. #10 John Andersen
    January 27, 2010

    I anticipate our daughter coming home after her BA in math to then get her PhD in math in downtown Portland. She will probably commute by light rail each day.

    As much as we thought she’d have her own apartment, reality dictates she save her TA money for food, and no doubt helping my wife and I to pay the mortgage.

    I’m happy with this prospect as is the rest of the family.

    Our son is likely to go to college here in town as well.

    Working together, we can solve problems we couldn’t solve alone. And this is really an opportunity to live more meaningfully than before when we were so “rich” we acted as if we didn’t need each other.

  11. #11 Teresa
    January 28, 2010

    It’s funny how standards have changed even in my lifetime.

    During a conversation about accomodating my elderly mom, I said to my husband, “Mom’s house is too small for three adults.” Then I remembered we’d had 3 adults and a child in it when I was growing up–and each adult had her own bedroom. Since we wouldn’t need that, we’d still have a room available as an office.

    (It’s still not a great solution for a variety of reasons, but the size of the house isn’t as much of a factor as it seemed.)

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