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Urban Tribes: The family of the future?

Ethan Watters is the author of “Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment”
Ethan Watters is the author of “Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment”

Recently, KALW’s Jon Atkinson headed out to Dolores Park to ask the resident young adults there about marriage. He mostly heard the words “outdated,” and “unnecessary” (save for the words of one hopeful park-goer). And those who follow marriage trends wouldn’t be surprised. People like local author Ethan Watters says young people are consciously prolonging the time between graduating from college and starting a family. In the meantime, they form networks of support that sustain them: groups of friends, neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers, and classmates who form a kind of family. Watters calls them “Urban Tribes,” and he sat down with KALW’s Hana Baba to explain how they work.

ETHAN WATTERS: There’s ways in which the metaphor does not apply; this is not a multi-generational organization. Most tribes are multi-generational. You have elderly and, this is a narrow strata, a narrow demographic, people are of similar ages. But indeed within any vibrant urban tribe that I’ve documented, you do have people that rise to a leadership position – and they’re the people who have the house where you always can drop by. Oftentimes there’s kind of a “queen bee” character – a very vibrant woman. And, I actually think because of the marriage delay on the female side, that you have tribes that are so vibrant. In human history there’s always been a way for men to take time outside of a family in between boyhood and manhood; they go off and do something. Very rarely has there been that place for women, this is really unprecedented in human history for women to suddenly have this expansive time on their own and outside of the family unit. It’s the addition of that energy to these tribes that makes them really vibrant places.

HANA BABA: So let’s talk then about your story. You wrote this book in the end of your tribe years. Can you tell me the story of how you decided to get married?

WATTERS: I was living in a Victorian in the Mission with five other roommates and suddenly this woman came along who was not part of my tribe. She came from out of town, and suddenly, she was there in my life and I realized that I wanted to give this a try. That did require that moment in time for that few year period – it required a stepping away from my role in the group which was really, as one of the organizers of group activities, my house was the place that people could come by, and I had to step away from that role. I basically had to take a risk. I wasn’t going to ask my friends permission to do this because I knew that the tribes often … I just didn’t want to ask their permission for it.

BABA: How old were you?

WATTERS: So, I was at the time, 37. I had lived 20 years outside of a family. This was an epic of my life.

BABA: You had lived a good tribe life.

WATTERS: I lived it as long as, you know, basically all those other roommates all were similar ages, we were all in our 30s, middle 30s all living together as roommates. When you look at it from my parent’s perspective, it made them uncomfortable. They didn’t know what it was. I think one of the reasons I wanted to write the book was to give it a name and to give it a story, to tell parents and the people that live through this time that this is a generational shift. This is you not just choosing not to get married for this expansive time; something has happened with our generation that has made many people delay marriage for this long period of time. Remarkably good things happen within that period of time. And the anxiety we have when we look in the bathroom mirror at 37 and we say, “Why aren’t I married?” is something you can take all on your shoulders, or you can take a step back and you can see it as a generational thing, which I think is much healthier. And, you can also see the positive things that happen within that.

BABA: So she comes along from out of town…

WATTERS: Right, so Rebecca showed up in my life from out of town. A year into it, I think one of the things that happens also for people that delay marriage is things tend to happen very quickly when they do happen. So, we were engaged a year after we met, and then we were married a year after that, and within that time, that was sort of enough time to let my roommates kind of like, left the door open, they wandered out and eventually, the didn’t wander back in, but I didn’t have to lay down the law or kick anyone out of the house.

BABA: How did they react? Did you get the resistance?

WATTERS: A little bit. There was a little bit. So suddenly I wasn’t available for some friends to do the things that we always did. You get very comfortable in those years and time can go by very fluidly and suddenly when you’re not available to do the things that you always did there’s a little bit of sadness. I have to say, weddings for the tribe cohort can be remarkably cathartic experiences because it used to be about a family giving away to another family and now, although my parents were there, now this was about my tribe expressing solidarity. The tribe participated in every way. It was a very homegrown wedding. It was my friends that were doing the music, doing the food, and it was a lovely expression of group support for this new endeavor.

BABA: You still live in the city, but the latest census revealed that San Francisco has lost 5% of its kids. Do you ever feel the temptation to move to the East Bay? To the Peninsula?

WATTERS: I think every parent that goes through the San Francisco public school lottery system and doesn’t get the school they want thinks about the possibility of moving. Having met a lot of those parents within the San Francisco school system I think there’s a remarkable wellspring of energy and desire to stay in the city. I think that statistic is going to swing. I think San Francisco is becoming a greater place to have children, to keep children, and the energy that urban parents have to do this is a lovely force in our generation and its going to continue that and its going to pave the way to have other people stay in the city with their kids.

BABA: So the urban tribe lives on after marriage … and children.

WATTERS: Absolutely. You have your network and that can be employed to do all sorts of wonderful things in your life. Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone had it so wrong about this generation. We are not eschewing social capital; we are building it. And we’re not as comfortable with this idea of “social capital.” Even that metaphor we’re not that comfortable with, this idea that you spend and save social capital. We have more of a social bartering system where we give to the people around us and to our children and we do it in a very lovely way. We don’t sign up for the League of Women Voters but we do a lot of other things that tie this city together. And if you’ve lived in this city long enough you can feel it around you. You realize that its there. It’s very hard for a statistician to come in and document it, to see those connections, its very complicated, but you’ll know it if you’ve lived it.

Read an excerpt from Ethan Watters' book Urban Tribes, visit his website. This story originally aired on August 11, 2011.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.