When Kevin Smokler asked me to participate in the Virtual Book Tour for Ethan Watters' new book, Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment, I said yes. Always one to judge a book by its cover (or title), Urban Tribes sounded intriguing, especially when I read the blurb on the back:
The current generation of young Americans is waiting longer than ever to get married. Urban Tribes tells you why. And by the way, it's good news.
As a thirty-something unmarried American, I was looking forward to hearing the good news! But as I read, I found myself questioning the author's assertions rather than agreeing. Watters' thesis is that young Americans are spending the increasingly longer time between college and marriage in tight knit groups of friends he calls urban tribes. These tribes act as surrogate families and give one the space and encouragement to find oneself, encouraging all sorts of things, from the home brewing of beer to the undertaking of massive art projects. In theory, it sounded great, and seemed to "prove" that many folks aren't the slackers they're assumed to be.
Alas, the people I read about didn't sound like many people I knew. Frankly, many of them sounded annoying, and I found myself wanting to say things like, "Oh grow up!" and "Don't listen to everything your friends tell you!" It all sounded, well, so high-schoolish. And the word that kept coming to mind for me was not tribe but clique. For example, in Chapter 8, "Love Versus The Tribe," Watters quotes messages he received from people who wrote to describe their tribes:
"This tribe has made me realize that I can be happy living my life my way," wrote Kari, twenty-six, from Pittsburgh. "My tribe will not let me waste time on a loser." In very similar language, Rebecca, also twenty-six, from Dallas wrote, "The group has helped my romantic life because it has strengthened my self-esteem. I will not settle for anything less than true love and passion with complete respect. If it hadn't been for the tribe I may have married the wrong person for the wrong reasons." (p 184)
Certainly there's something to be said for having friends who help you grow up and figure out who you are. And I agree with Watters' premise that for our generation this happens during our twenties, and with lots of help from our friends. But reading the above passage made me wonder if tribe members are forsaking their individual identities for that of the tribe's, and if that weren't perhaps detrimental to the process of finding one's self. In Watters' tribe world, one's tribe is one's family until romance strikes, at which point (like Watters himself) you move from your tribe into marriage. Writing about his own transition, Watters says,
I was in the process of changing my definition of "us" from meaning "the group" to meaning "Rebecca and Me." (p 202)
This transition is understandable and necessary, but there seemed to be little examination of the "I" without the context of the group, which I found disappointing. At many points in Urban Tribes, Watters appears tantalizingly close to examining some really interesting concepts, e.g. how do young Americans balance their needs as individuals within the dynamic of their larger group, or groups? What about people who don't follow his nice clean pattern of tribe to marriage?
Nearly everyone I know is coupled up, many live with partners, but very few are married. This doesn't fit with Watters thesis that we're creating tribes (in fact I couldn't find a single person who considered him or herself part of a tribe), but certainly is evidence that our generation is playing by different rules. What effect is that having on us? I know many women, myself included, who are finding the nebulous world of living-together-but-not-married difficult and confusing. The fuzzy roles and expectations are stressful, but there was no examination of this, by my reckoning, rampant phenomenon.
Watters also talks of our waiting to marry as part of our search for our "soul mates" but doesn't examine the inherent risks associated with, or even feasibility of, such perfectionism. After all, the tribe demonstrates that one's social needs can be met by a variety of different people. Why must those needs all be met by one person once one marries?
It's not fair to blame Watters for not writing the book I wanted — and expected — to read, but I can't help but be disappointed with the book he's written. Certainly there are interesting things going on with our generation, but I'm not convinced Urban Tribes has fully uncovered what they are.
For some futher thoughts, Peter Merholz wrote a review back in September. I totally relate to his frustration with that lack of actual data Watters uses to support his assertions, but since Peter already covered it, I won't write about it here again.