NOTE: I’ve been slowly developing this idea for some time. While most of this will still very much apply in a current and post Covid-19 world, it was, for the most part, written before the difficult times that are upon us. As we continue to try to live the same life that our parents and grandparents did with more expectation, less time and an fewer financial resources, we will continue down the path of greater physical, mental and financial insecurity.
I’ve had this idea for a long time now, and I wasn’t sure quite how to express it publicly. How could I make a powerful commentary on the American lifestyle in the context of a blog that’s supposed to be about urban revitalization? How do I talk about the importance of maintaining a higher level of “fluidity” in our lives and still talk about revisiting the core concepts of meaningful density, public transit and walkability?
Then it hit me… they are the same thing. So here goes.
Fluidity is a concept we start to negate as soon as we talk about “settling down.” You know, that antiquated statement that implies some sort of calm life based around family, suburban living and the 7-seat SUV. It’s the belief that is so deeply rooted in an American memory of the country home, the white picket fence, the neighbor bringing over a cherry pie on the weekend, the dog out front, the cat in the window, and the children running around the big grassy yard playing some sort of tag game. It’s the wife in the kitchen and the man coming home at 5pm sharp from his job of 20 years asking “what’s for dinner?” It’s the housework done and the laundry folded, and the sense that the worst problems to be addressed are the ones you might find in a Leave It To Beaver episode, where Ward scolds June for unplugging the iron by the cord instead of the plug.
But as I look around at so many people my age who have “settled down,” the reality could not be further from the American fairytale. Lower wages compared to rising expenses mean both parents often have to work today. The pressure on women to pursue a career and run the household is enormous. The travel sports and the weekend-long soccer tournaments 50 miles away push families to the brink of no weekend rest and car-centric interaction. The shuttling from home, to school/daycare, to work, to the store, to school/daycare, to home and then back out to soccer, baseball, football, basketball, lacrosse, music lessons, art lessons, dance lessons, church events, community events, family gatherings… The layers of “movement” needed to maintain the typical family life today is all-too-exhaustingly-familiar for too many, perhaps even most Americans.
Furthermore, when I actually talk to these parents, they often talk about feeling “trapped” in a life of constant stress, endless bills, and the ever-present feeling of falling behind in all aspects of existence. They have no time to socialize to the level that they want to, or pick up that old (or new) hobby again, or do something that calms their whirlwind life. Worst of all are the ones that feel so entrenched in their life that they have no ability to change with the world, or with their changing needs as they age.
And it’s just beginning. Technological advances are moving faster than we can adapt. Automation is sure to bring massive job loss for our working class and blue collar families in the next decade. Imagine when truck drivers, the most common job in half of our states, are replaced by robots? What about when homes are built by 3D printers instead of people?
Furthermore, technology, cultural norms, political and economic movements and other variables of our world are changing faster than they ever have. The winds of change are far stronger and more frequent than at any other time in American history, giving us exactly zero time to catch our breath. Those who have the means to keep up will still feel the exhaustion of an over-committed, ever changing existence. Those who don’t have the financial ability, economic stability or the privilege of higher education, and the know-how to adapt will face perilous jeopardy, doomed to live a life like a person running after a speeding train that accelerates as time goes by.
With the storm of ever-increasing change, the “gig economy,” marginalization of our workforce, and rising demands on our American families, previous logic might tell us to dig in deep. The planting of roots, fastening us into a strong foundation such as the purchasing of land or a suburban house has long been the conduit of wisdom as a source of stability and financial investment. To some extent, it still is. But in a country that shows increasing signs of a roller-coaster economic, social and political climate, I would question whether the coming storm might be too much for the classic belief that stability results from entrenchment. At least, I would question this for a growing percentage of citizens.
If we think about change as a storm, and accept that change is happening faster, adding fuel to said storm, the high “winds of change” will become so great that the average American will no longer be able withstand the ever-strengthening gusts.
Sure, the wealthiest of citizens will likely be able to overcome the intensity of these increasing gusts, but eventually, the rest of us will have to do one of two things if we want to survive… become quicker on our feet so that we may run to safety, or become more aerodynamic when we have no choice but to face the storm head on. Or most likely, both. In the next 10-20 years, I believe that most Americans will no longer be able to hold their ground in the face of a changing economic and social pace of life. We will be forced to minimize our footprint instead of increasing it… leaner, lighter and more flexible… these will be the survival traits of the middle, lower middle and poor classes. We will need to accept that ownership of homes, cars and other major material possessions that used to be associated with American freedom may soon become the cinder blocks that pull us to the bottom of the proverbial lake. We will realize the benefits of moving to a more central location, allowing us to minimize our automobile use that the average American now spends over $800 per month facilitating. In sum, the next decade will favor those who officially begin to abandon the mirage of the American Dream in favor of an existence that is based in impermanence, fluidity and a sharing of resources for mutual good.
By no means am I implying that large suburban home ownership, multiple SUVs, and an array of “keep up with the Jones'” driven commitments won’t dominate a large portion of American life. What I am simply warning is that attaining and maintaining these will become more and more difficult in the years to come. Our desire for more space, more vehicles, more land and more isolation will feed the rampant rise in depression, anxiety, marital strain and even drug dependence that we are seeing more than ever in our suburban communities. We will have to make a choice… do we want what our grandparents had, or do we want our sanity? Do we want the big house and the picket fence, or do we want to keep our marriages intact, raise happy children, be productive workers, be financially solvent and still feel like fulfilled and happy individuals with minimal stress?
If this all smells of neo-hippie-ism, I assure you it could not be further from the truth. I’m not advocating for free love, anti-establishment, anti-war or an outright abandonment of rules and responsibilities. It’s also not socialism, as I’m not directly advocating for a change in governmental approach or distribution of wealth (at least not here). I’m talking about a choice that embodies a new way of responding to a social, political, and most importantly, an economic climate that is becoming ever more frantic. I’m not talking about the removal of free choice, I’m simply saying that we have to analyze the choices we’ve made as a country and truly look at whether they are still attainable and sustainable for most Americans going forward.
Fluidity, instead, is simply an acknowledgement of the fact that living the “traditional” American life has become so difficult for most, and it will only get harder in the future. It is the acceptance that most of us will never have the resources to weather the coming economic and social change by continuing to do what we’ve always done. It is the activation of a new sort of humanity in which we live leaner lives that don’t involve as many permanent fixtures. In short, most of us will learn we can’t be the rock in the rising current, we need to be the leaf that rides on top of it, and with it.
That’s a scary thought for most. The idea of riding the tide of change… it’s what we spend most our lives fighting with everything we have. We do everything in our power to create a sense of consistency and normalcy. Ironically, as change happens faster in our world today, we literally spend a huge percentage of our financial resources, our brain power and even our sanity so that we don’t have to change too. We fear what change will do to us so much that we hurt ourselves and our happiness to ensure that it doesn’t affect us or the ones we love. We stretch ourselves to the bone in order to isolate the variables of life by creating more space around us and our loved ones.
Fluidity isn’t about building a bigger wall against a coming tide, it’s about accepting that the tide will soon be too high… so we build a small boat with just the things that are important to us, so that we may ride on top of the impending waves. We live with strong sails that can capture the wings of change instead of fight it. We adapt our course as we ride the rushing current, instead of being downed or swept away by it.
Cities are places where fluidity is maximized. With increased density comes increased flexibility and stability. Yes, crime is typically higher, but it has been declining steadily since the early 90s. Higher crime rates than suburban areas don’t hold a candle to the benefits of flexibility with regard to housing, transportation and “down the street” convenience. For example, I live 4 miles from my work… I can get there using a car, a bus, a bike, an Uber, bike share, or God forbid I can walk. If I live in a suburban tract, I literally have only one way to get to work… a functional car. Living in the city means I have a plethora of options at various effort levels and price points… Cultivating a plethora of options is what fluidity, and ironically, freedom, is all about.
City living isn’t the first choice for everyone. But for many, it’s going to have to be very soon. The coming change will force us to be light on our feet, with multiple options for where we live and how we move about. Only the dense urban environment will allow us to do that.
How do I know all of this? Because I’ve had to live the “fluid” life since I was born. I was born in Chicago. I’ve never lived in a house, just apartments. I have never been able to know permanence, because it never existed for me. We were poor, I got sick, and it was just Mom and I. But we lived the fluid life, the simple life, without the shackles that most people consider “freedom.” I truly believe I am a happier person as a result, and as I see more and more people my age reeling and unhappy as a result of the life they thought they wanted, I think it’s important to explore this idea of building a life that can tolerate change instead of trying to fight it tooth and nail with mirage-driven visions of what our parents and grandparents had.
This is the first installment in a series I have entitled “Fluidity.” In time, I will write more on this topic. For now, I want to introduce the idea that the white picket fence life of suburban America may soon be unsustainable and unattainable for most citizens. Sure, it will seem like it’s possible, but as our commutes become longer and our commitments away from the home become more plentiful, maintaining the cul-de-sac life will quietly become one that challenges every ability to preserve our sanity and stability. To live this way will, inevitably, drive us to our wits end as we try to replicate the American life of generations before us… but with greater expectations and fewer resources.
A life based on fluidity acknowledges that if lower middle class America is to succeed, we will need to learn to live with the goal of flexibility rather than the traditionally valued permanence. The economic tide will eventually rise higher than any proverbial financial levy that the average American can build. And for those who can, the stress of maintaining that levy will become so difficult that it will that it will strain our sanity. With this in mind, finding a good boat rather than a strong wall will be the mindset that keeps our heads above water.