Going Solo or Going Multigenerational?

There has been a recent growth in living alone in the U.S. In fact, there are now more single Americans than there are nuclear families, with 1 in 7 adults now living alone. This is especially true for large urban areas like Washington, D.C and Manhattan where single people make up 50% of households.

In Eric Klinenberg’s new book, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone”  he disputes the idea that people living alone use more resources than people who are living together with family or friends. As he explains to Mother Jones:

“We need better research on this. People who live alone overwhelmingly tend to live in cities. They tend to live in apartments. They’re less likely to own cars. As individuals, on a per capita basis, their carbon footprint is surely lower than people who live in large detached single-family houses.”

The Greenest Spot in Manhattan (image courtesy of Magnus Nordstrom via Flickr)

So, while there might be benefits to living alone – this is probably only the case in really well-designed urban centers like Manhattan. Manhattanites, for example, use less gas and electricity than most US urban centers. But then again, being more affluent on average, its residents are still inclined to consume far beyond the planet’s means.

Let’s consider what Klinenberg doesn’t: multi-generational homes.

The number of multi-generational households rose 10% between 2007 to 2009 – driven largely by the recession. These households turn out to be a good way to cope with economic downturns, with multi-generational households having lower rates of poverty despite them having lower median incomes. As Erik Assadourian notes in “The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries” multi-generational housing could also be an innovative answer to the ecological crisis because the more people in a household the more hands there are for green activities like home childcare, elderly care, cooking, and gardening. Many of these both reduce household costs (and bring new informal economic opportunities) while also reducing ecological impacts – no spinach is more sustainable than the spinach grown in place of the grass in one’s front yard.

U.S. government social marketing poster (from Library of Congress)

In fact, during World War II 40% of all vegetables consumed by households were grown in personal gardens. As Assadourian notes, “Gardening could reduce both household food costs and the ecological impacts of agriculture if people are taught food cultivation strategies that emphasize organic and integrated pest management methods. As climate change disrupts large-scale agriculture and as food-insecure countries ban the export of grain, backyard and community gardens could play a substantial role in food security and community resiliency.”

Of course there are downsides to suburban living where many multi-generational homes are located including commuting long distances, lack of public transport and larger homes. But that of course assumes that there are formal jobs in the consumer economy to commute too. Yet as Assadourian notes, the consumer economy is a model that can’t last too much longer.

While suburbs right now tend to be unsustainable, perhaps one day in the future they will once again be the self-sustaining, homesteading communities of the future, filled with multi-generational households bartering food, skills, and time. Indeed, it appears to be already happening in Greece, where the unraveling of consumer economy seems to be most pronounced.

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