Living in Groups (by )

Until relatively recently in human history, people tended to live in small but relatively intimate groups, sharing a lot of domestic arrangements; a party would go out hunting, another went out gathering, others looked after the children, others cooked the food, and so on.

This was, quite simply, more efficient. Economies of scale meant that a small team could cook for a large group in less total person-hours than each person cooking for themselves - especially when you compare the time consumed making and maintaining cooking equipment and the like.

These days, the same economies of scale have had the opposite effect - food is now produced in factories, and easy-to-cook ingredients and ready meals are cheaply available; this, combined with all sorts of other socio-economic factors, has lead to it now being quite practical to live entirely alone, spending your days working then coming home to a small meal you cook for yourself in minutes, cleaning your dishes and clothes in a machine, cleaning your floors with a machine, and so on.

And, thus, I suspect the loneliness of bachelor living is probably a modern phenomenon. Without ready meals and domestic appliances, moving away from home would be an unattractive prospect until you had a partner to team up with in order to form a breadwinning/homemaking duo (and the fact that sexist role models enforced a certain split of duties is, I think, entirely orthogonal to this issue) - and when you team up with a partner is precisely when you really start to want to be away from your parents...

Some of the best living arrangements I've had have been as a student, when the also-interesting economics of the cost of a place to live in London would force us to share houses (and sometimes rooms). Although we rarely actually cooked for each other, living in the same house as several other people was psychologically comforting for me. I really don't function well at all when living on my own; I've never officially done it, but in situations where all my housemates happen to be away for a few days, I've definitely started to slide into depression.

I currently live with my wife and daughter, so I'm basically OK, but even then, we still wish there were other similar couples we could share some resources with; if our house was larger we'd have lodgers. Personally I think my ideal would be having my own bedroom, office, bathroom, and kitchen (although I'd often cook for others), but sharing a big living room and garden, and being in the same physical building. There's increased security in a house that's rarely totally empty, and efficiencies in sharing resources (such a house would take up much less space than several individual ones, and consume much less energy), and increased convenience (you'd be quite likely to be able to find somebody to help you with something). And you'd have good times together.

This was a nice thing about what I did last weekend, which was to go on camp with my cub scouts; you might think that, with my legendarily complicated and busy life, the last thing I need is to donate my time to a voluntary organisation. But I work solving complex mental tasks (mainly on my own), face the difficult challenges of supporting my family under trying circumstances (shared with my wife, but we still feel quite 'alone' as a small family without much support from our extended family); after weeks of that, a weekend of hard work solving relatively simple problems (how to wash the puddle of sick away from outside the tent full of sleeping children, when it's raining heavily and the sick is slowly being washed downhill towards the tent? Answer: get digging equipment, dig a trench in the little gap between the tent and the puddle, scrape it all in there with the spade then wash it in with water, then close the trench) as part of a team is a delightfully refreshing change. Much more refreshing than a holiday spent just doing nothing; I'd be fretting too much about all the jobs I should be doing at home. Volunteering means I'm doing something somebody needs me to do, but working with others so it's a fun team activity rather than an ordeal.

But I wonder how many people would be happier living in 'communes'. A friend of mine is a Hare Krishna; I'm indifferent to the religion, but their culture is excellent - and part of it seems to be a high acceptance of living in groups sharing resources, which I think is very healthy.

Perhaps there's an opening for a property developer to set up some buildings with little apartments that then share living areas. Obviously they couldn't just be sold as independent units; perhaps they'd need to be owned by a limited company of some kind and the mortgage repayments, rent, or other expenses paid by all the residents paying a share, since the residents would need to be able to vet and veto potential new housemates, as rifts occurring in such a community would be fatal.

In the meantime, I wish our house had room for lodgers 😉


  • By David, Tue 26th Aug 2008 @ 9:33 am

    Although we rarely actually cooked for each other, living in the same house as several other people was psychologically comforting for me. I really don't function well at all when living on my own; I've never officially done it, but in situations where all my housemates happen to be away for a few days, I've definitely started to slide into depression.

    Yup, same here. It was one of the really surprising things I learned about myself whilst at College: that I'm simultaneously an introverted and a very social person.

  • By Improbulus, Fri 29th Aug 2008 @ 10:35 am

    You really don't have room for lodgers, in that enormous place??

    One of my former singing teachers upped & moved with her family to a community living project in Sussex, can't remember the name. I visited there - they jointly owned acres of lovely countryside, there were several families living there, with some communal areas. Fab environment for the kids to grow up in & learn to socialise etc.

  • By Sasha, Tue 2nd Sep 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    The problem with living communally is someone always goes dangerously bonkers (generally an alpha male who didn't get something he thought himself entitled to) throws out the easily worried then chases the others with an axe and keeps the place for themselves!

    Up till that point though, its great. Perhaps the arrangement would work if there were a good proportion of older people (I've only lived communally with student-aged people) on the grounds that dangerous loonies would have had ample opportunity by then to remove themselves from the gene pool, and the older generation have ways of dealing with little toe-rags plus years of practice 🙂

  • By Lionel, Mon 8th Sep 2008 @ 3:45 pm

    I used to assume that restaurants were a relatively modern invention, till I heard that in Roman towns few flats had cooking facilities and that people went to takeaways for everyday meals. Not only would it be wasteful to have all those separate kitchens, but also dangerous in the days of fire-risky wooden houses.

    In the 1950s the one family car took my father to work, so we relied on the bus but had weekly visits from a butcher, fishmonger, green grocer and hardware lorries, and our laundry was collected and delivered. The idea of having your own washing machine was sold as a 'convenience', though in practice running the machine, keeping the guarantee paperwork, buying soap powder and getting it maintained amounts to the burden of running a small home laundry business. So also the paperwork and maintenance of running a car amounts to running a small transport business. As for keeping a PC up-to-date...

    So, in the name of convenience, most of us are now running masses of small home businesses on top of the work we need to do to earn a living.

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