Is Independence the American Family’s Greatest Inefficiency?

©. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

The single-family home may be an outdated Victorian ideal gone wild.

Recently, I've been thinking about how strange it is that young (or even old) adults have their own apartments. Not to be that guy, but seriously: why should individuals have entire homes to themselves while millions of people have nowhere to sleep?

The idea of every single adult or couple owning their own place may seem eternal, but it’s actually quite new. In medieval Europe, extended families and their friends would frequently live together, sharing duties like childcare and cooking, explained John Gillis, a history professor at Rutgers University, in his book, "A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values."

According to Gillis, the push for single-family homes began in the Victorian area, with what some historians call the Victorian "cult of domesticity," a philosophy that put the single family unit on a pedestal. Victorian society imagined a “godly household,” in which a patriarchal father ruled over his wife and children, separate from the rest of the community.

While some pieces of this philosophy didn't age well (I hope), the single-family household remains a basic assumption of American life. Any small family that can afford a house of its own gets one. Even single people often want their own apartments. In 1960, only 13 percent of households consisted of single people. Now, it's more like 28 percent.

Privacy is nice, but it has some serious downsides. Rent and mortgage are the most obvious ones, but having your own space comes with a number of hidden costs as well. It's hard to cook, clean and watch children by yourself. Perhaps that explains why so many young professionals eat frozen dinners, or why single mothers run into Catch-22s when it comes to working and paying for childcare. Not to mention all the extra gas and electricity that goes into running so many nearly-empty homes. Besides, do we really need all that privacy? One study found that half of Americans are lonely.

As inequality increases, owning one's own home becomes less realistic. Perhaps that's why multigenerational homes, ecovillages, communes, coops and other intentional communities are becoming popular. The Fellowship for Intentional Community recognizes thousands of intentional communities in the U.S. alone (the movement is even bigger in countries like Sweden and Denmark because of course it is).

The Victorian legacy is great for companies that build houses and make frozen meals. But it makes life hard for the rest of us. Perhaps, if people focused less on fulfilling a Victorian era ideal of success, they could create a greener, friendlier and more efficient world for today.