Tens of thousands of years ago, all living was communal.
The Middle Ages, when homes were essentially gathering places for small groups of revolving residents, represent a conceptual midpoint between hunter-gatherers’ living arrangements and those common today. As the historian John Gillis described in his 1997 book A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, people in medieval Europe lived with a mix of friends and extended family.
At that time, single-family households were uncommon in most of the world, and Western Europe became, around the 12th century, one of the first places where households were organized around monogamous couples and their children.
But these households still didn’t look much like today’s nuclear families. In addition to parents and their children, medieval households frequently included various townspeople, poor married couples, other people’s children, widows, orphans, unrelated elderly people, servants, boarders, long-term visitors, friends, and assorted relatives.
On top of that, people moved constantly among houses. “Home was the place that sheltered you at the moment, not the one special place associated with childhood or family of origin,” Gillis writes. Single people sometimes ran households, and marriage was not as narrowly defined as it is today. Most kids spent time living away from their families, especially as teenagers. Living with strangers was common, and locals would often treat houses like public property. “People entered without knocking, even without acknowledgement,” writes Gillis. “It was often difficult to tell which family belonged where … In big as well as little houses, the constant traffic of people precluded the cozy home life we imagine to have existed in the past.”
By the 1500s, the idea of a household as a father, a mother, and their biological children caught on among Europe’s new urban middle class, at least as something to strive for. This “godly household” owes a lot to the Protestant Reformation, in which religious leaders started rejecting the Catholic Church as the center of life and replaced it with a domestic divine: the father as a stand-in for God, the mother for a priest, and the children for congregants. It’s around this time that nativity scenes became popular, emphasizing Jesus’s role as a member of a nuclear family rather than as a lone preacher.
For all its popularity as a comforting idea, the godly household was hardly common 500 years ago. It was completely unrealistic for most people to find the time, money, and resources to run a household on their own. Even those who did usually had big households full of unrelated people; they relied on the larger community far too much to survive as a single-family unit.
It wasn’t until the 1800s that people began drawing a sharp distinction between family and friends when it came to who they lived with. So, during the latter half of the 19th century, the godly family started to take shape in reality. Industrialization made extended communities less vital for earning a living. When societies were mostly agricultural, production was centered near the home, and families needed all the labor they could get to run the farm during busy seasons. But as industrialization took hold, people started leaving home to go to work, commuting to factories and, later, offices. Something communal was lost, and by the early 20th century, industrial efficiency permitted a lifestyle of domestic privacy: Households shrank down to nuclear families, much more closed-off from relatives and neighbors than ever before.
Millennials are pushing back on modern living arrangements closely resemble what came centuries, even millennia, before in other parts of the world. Family members, relatives, neighbors, and strangers are coming together to live in groups that work for them—a bit like medieval Europe.
Instead of limiting their households to children, parents, and grandparents, plenty of people are going a step further, making homes with friends and even strangers. Cohousing, in which a large community lives together and shares household duties, is gaining popularity. In cohousing, individuals or families generally have their own houses, bedrooms, or apartments but share things like kitchens and community spaces. They’ll commonly trade off on responsibilities like cooking and chores.
Why don’t these lot just join the army or navy?