In the past, Becky Makous spent her days in the lecture halls of the University of Vermont, amid the dense wilderness of New England, and on the well-trod roads of Europe. Now, Makous, 23, begins her mornings in a barn of communally-owned bovines.
Between around 7:45 a.m. and noon, she milks and cares for a herd of 32 Dutch Belted and Jersey cows. All the necessary tasks take hours, but the payoff is high: Makous makes some of the milk into fresh yogurt, a treat that she and her 100 neighbors will share at their daily common meals. And in the meantime, the cows are good company; one of them—a Jersey named Goldie—is fond of petting and head scratches, and Makous is happy to oblige.
After lunch, Makous spends her afternoons either making hammocks or caring for a neighbor’s child before joining her neighbors for supper. In this community, the evenings are a time for shared pursuits: acroyoga, board games, a feminist “think tank,” and general conversation and camaraderie. With the day’s work done, there is time for recreation and relaxation, and nightly activities involve community members of all ages, all abilities, and all interests. As for the next day? Makous may make tofu, or perhaps do more work with the cows. Her evening will again end in the company of her neighbors and friends, the people with whom she shares both labor and laughter each day.
Makous joined the Twin Oaks Community of Louisa, Virginia, in March. On the Twin Oaks commune, established in 1967, approximately 100 residents of varying ages share all resources, income, and labor, as they have since its foundation. In many ways, life at Twin Oaks differs from life in what Makous laughingly called the “outside world.”
“I’ve always been … skeptical of dominant culture, and the script that comes with [it],” Makous told the HPR. “You have to … go to college, and then go to graduate school, and then work a job, [and] then get married, and then have children, and live in the suburbs, and … work and consume, and work and consume, and then retire and die. And that has never, ever had any appeal for me.”
Makous is not alone in this thinking, as evidenced by the population and longevity of the community, but her presence as a young person in this space carries particular significance. She is participating in what may be a slow-burning countercultural renaissance among millennials—one that echoes the counterculture movement of the 20th century, but is ultimately dictated by the contemporary era.
The context of contemporary cohabitation
Both Makous and the Twin Oaks Community are part of a larger movement with decades-old roots. In the later years of the counterculture, young hippie Americans gathered by the hundred in rural areas across the country during what is now known as the “back to the land movement.” Though many of these arrangements quickly failed, a number continue to exist today, and their legacy certainly lives on. Contemporary cohabitation comes in many forms, ranging from two people sharing an apartment to 200 sharing acres of land, from student co-ops to urban co-living arrangements.
Of course, not all shared living spaces come with the intense, carefully-cultivated sense of community found at Twin Oaks; those that do, however, fall under the umbrella of “intentional communities.” These arrangements offer their residents a number of benefits: economic, political, social, and even spiritual. It is unclear, however, what the future holds for cohabitation and for the countercultural attitudes that revitalized communal living in the 20th century. Are young people still seeking out intentional communities? And if so, are they part of some greater contemporary movement or trend?
Millennials and cohabitation
The fate of intentional communities rests in the hands—and homes—of young people. Though few studies have been conducted into the number of young people currently living in communal arrangements, research on the more general living habits of young Americans reveals some telling trends. According to Make Room, an organization working to combat the rental housing crisis in America, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with roommates underwent a 39 percent increase between 2005 and 2015, resulting in about 7.4 percent of young Americans sharing space. What’s more, real estate database Zillow’s analysis of the American Community Survey indicates that between 2000 and 2013, the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with one roommate dropped from 76 percent to 65 percent, and the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with more than one roommate rose from 24 percent to 35 percent. A shared house containing two unrelated adults and a shared house containing six unrelated adults inevitably develop different internal cultures, and the latter is liable to “slip,” so to speak, into intentionality.
Some do move, though, to communes and other more explicit, traditional forms of common living. Even at its peak, the counterculture movement never included more than about 10 percent of young people. “Like it was even in our day, just a small percentage of people [find their way] out of the matrix,” Douglas Stevenson, spokesperson for The Farm Community, said in an interview with the HPR. “Most people are part of pop culture and oblivious … but a small group wants something more; each year, five or six of them find their way here, and The Farm is the right fit for them.” And if The Farm isn’t right, hundreds—if not thousands—of other intentional communities exist across the United States alone.
The appeals of cohabitation
The practical appeals of common living are stark to young Americans: help with children and chores, neighbors with different tools and supplies to loan, financial benefits from the sharing of resources. Charles Durrett, credited alongside his Cohousing Company partner, Katheryn McCamant, with introducing the concept of cohousing to the United States in the 1990s, saidin an interview with the HPR that the genesis of cohousing in Denmark was an act of progressive pragmatism. “Cohousing was originally a feminist movement,” he said. “[It is rooted] in the notion that with moms working out of the house, [cohousing] makes it easier for everyone to get dinner on the table.” Besides saving time, both cohabitation and cohousing can pay off financially, too. According to Durrett, people have reported saving between $200 and $2400 a month as a result of cohousing. For young people struggling to live affordably, these are no small sums.
In addition, a number of people in the contemporary era move to communal living arrangements for ideological reasons, a marked behavioral shift since the ’60s and ’70s. In an email to the HPR, William Rorabaugh, author of American Hippies, wrote of the original counterculture movement, “not many political activists were involved in [the “back to the land” movement] because activists tended to be urban-based … but switching from activism to spiritual growth might have given some people a new sense of purpose.” Stevenson—who himself moved from the political movement to the land and spiritual-growth movements—summed up the difference in attitude between the 20th century communards and young, contemporary communards: “Young people are looking for communities because they are concerned about climate change, the oil crisis, carbon footprint … the older generation was interested in all that, but was really on a spiritual quest for enlightenment and knowledge. The younger generation wants sustainability with spirituality as a part of personal life.”
Evidence to support Stevenson’s observation can be found on the digital map of the Global Ecovillage Network. In the United States alone, there appear to be more than 100 individual ecovillages. As the value of “wellness” and “clean living” grows in the contemporary American psyche, the ecovillage is becoming more recognizable to the average American. Hayley Joyell Smith, program director of the Ecovillage Training Center, based at The Farm, argues that ecovillages are a viable, sustainable future for housing. “By sharing spaces and sharing resources, not only do we have an opportunity to enhance our own lives, but we have an opportunity to reduce the sometimes negative impacts that we have on our resources … we’ve got to have [this] paradigm shift,” she said in an interview with the HPR.
While many young people are passionate about the environment, not all opt to make major lifestyle changes. Perhaps the best explanation for why some engaged millennials refrain from cohabitation is twofold: a lack of knowledge combined with a sense of cultural pressure. Sky Blue, the executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community and a longtime resident of Twin Oaks, described in an interview with the HPR the tendency of young people to “reinvent the wheel” of cohabitation—stumbling through all the same challenges that co-livers have faced for decades, unaware of the resources that exist for them, perhaps even unaware that common living has been attempted before. After all, it can be difficult to see around the more pervasive institutions of life in the United States.
Of course, these institutions can be changed. One must look no further back than the ’60s and ’70s to see how certain aspects of alternative lifestyles can become mainstream, leaving fundamentally-altered cultural attitudes in their wake.
Millennials and a countercultural renaissance
Though communal living played a significant role in the counterculture movement of the 20th century, cohabitation alone does not a counterculture make. However, those motivations that drive people to pursue co-living may indicate a larger cultural movement. Do millennials—like hippie Boomers—seek to reject cultural norms by pursuing common living? This is a question with no quantifiable answer, though some insights may be found in the relationship between the countercultural and contemporary eras.
It is easier to see the possible roots of a new counterculture if one can first see that which indicates otherwise. One reality in particular indicates that millennials are not seeking out cohabitation for the same countercultural reasons as their hippie predecessors. Joseph Manzella, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, stated in an email to the HPR that “Millennials are more likely to opt for cohousing situations out of necessity in these economically difficult times. That does not necessarily translate to an interest in counterculture-style communes, since the motives for joining communes in the ’60s-’70s were not rooted primarily in economic conditions.” However, this economic pragmatism does not preclude individuals from creating intentional communities after they’ve moved into shared living spaces.
What might, in fact, be the larger barrier preventing a rise in intentional communities is a general lack of accessibility. “The groundwork for a [countercultural] renaissance is there … but do [millennials] have the financial resources to create [common living arrangements]?” Blue questioned. While cohabitation can certainly allow individuals to save money long-term and certain housemate situations are inexpensive, many intentional communities require an initial buy-in—oftentimes, that of a house or other dwelling within the community. Therefore, affordability is a part of broadening the appeal of intentional communities, as is diversification. Of course, these needs are nothing new. The land movement of the original counterculture was almost entirely white—about 99 percent so, according to American Hippies—and largely middle-class as well. Perhaps the exact model of mid-century communal living is too sullied by the legacy of racism, sexism, and classism for a renaissance in the age of intersectionality.
It is hard to know for certain, but a number of factors do indicate that some cultural movement is indeed afoot, concurrent with millennials’ interest in cohabitation. Fred Turner, a professor at Stanford University, thinks that the future of counterculture will stem particularly from the political progressiveness of young Americans. “As we came out of the ’60s, the communalists won … but the New Left—the major political component of the hippie movement—did not,” Turner told the HPR. “And the New Left sensibility would see a kind of counterculture that figured out not how to live together with people like yourself, but how to reach out to people who are different from yourself … I think that the countercultural vision of living together and doing it through consumption and the personal experience is remarkably badly fit for that new work … It’s the across that matters now.”
The “experiential” counterculture, to use Turner’s terms, is not entirely dead, and perhaps it could coincide with a political revival. After all, millennials like Makous exist across the country, living in a variety of arrangements for a variety of reasons. Makous elaborated via email, saying, “I moved [to Twin Oaks] … to help build an alternative to what the world looks like. I definitely want to fight against all the various kinds of class, racial, and gender oppression I see and hear and read about in the world at large … I think probably the most important reason I moved to Twin Oaks is how much it aligns with my values and political view of the world.” She is not alone.
Moving forward, perhaps the experiential counterculture of the millennial generation will most visibly manifest in small co-living arrangements, rather than on the rural American communes of old. Perhaps it will manifest in marches, sit-ins, and protests of all sorts, in intersectionality, in “across-ness.” Perhaps it will manifest in all of these ways. Perhaps it will manifest in none of them.
And perhaps the vernacular of the contemporary counterculture does not yet exist; after all, intentional communities of all shapes and sizes—and larger movements, too—have a tendency to come together unintentionally.
Image source: Ric Manning/Wikimedia Commons