In your tribe

Young people are staying single longer because they are so fulfilled by their network of friends, says journalist Ethan Watters in a new book. Has he touched on a generational phenomenon, or did he just write a book about his Burning Man crew?


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Sheerly Avni
October 13, 2003 11:32PM (UTC)

It's 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, and Ethan Watters and I are at the Rite Spot, a cheap, popular, moderately Bohemian hangout in San Francisco's Mission district, well known for its good lighting, great music, and terrible food. Tonight the place is almost empty, but we're a bit early -- this is just a quick pit stop before we meet up with Watters' friends for their weekly softball game. A San Francisco journalist and author of the new book "Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment," Watters is agreeing with me that a lot of people might be pretty skeptical about the premise of his book -- that loose networks of close friends, or tribes, sustain each other emotionally and professionally for the years in between college and marriage, and that the strength of these tribes is a particularly new phenomenon.

"If someone comes along and says, 'Hey, you and your friends -- you're in an urban tribe,' the response is pretty much, 'Fuck you, I'm not in a tribe,'" he admits. "I appreciate that. I just want to begin a conversation about this. And I hope the book is the beginning of that conversation."

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The conversation Watters refers to actually began in 2001 with an article in the New York Times Magazine, in which he suggested that people were staying single longer in part because they drew so much sustenance from their friends. Using his personal experience as a jumping-off point, Watters said that members of urban tribes (his coinage) spend their 20s and 30s roaming the cities, fixing each other's leaky faucets, planning dinners and weekly "Survivor"-watching parties at each other's houses, and -- in San Francisco, at least -- helping build hovercrafts for Burning Man. The period between college and marriage, he argued, was becoming longer not only because of declining economic and social pressure on women to marry, or boomer kids' notorious fear of divorce, but because tribes themselves were so fulfilling. The book expands on the article, and paints a much less bleak picture of single urban life than, say, "Sex and the City," or "Fight Club."

I'm 33, single, and moved to San Francisco eight years ago from a small town. Like Watters, I have a group of friends to whom I've said, many times, and not only under the influence of pharmaceuticals, "Man, you guys are like my family ..." But my initial response to his book was, "Fuck you, I'm not in a tribe."

The 39-year-old Watters is affable, easy to talk to, and well prepared for my objections. Tall, handsome, now married and expecting a child of his own, he describes the book as his attempt to make sense of the past 20 years of his life, a memoir of sorts, but one that he thinks taps into a larger cultural phenomenon. So far, not all reviewers have agreed. In a piece in the Atlantic Monthly, Caitlin Flanagan writes that Watters and his tribesmen "might be representative less of a striking new social trend than of arrested development." (Rule No. 1 for aspiring West Coast trend-writers: If you want to be taken seriously, don't open the book with your epiphanies from Burning Man.) After we order, I ask Watters what's so novel about his brand of tribes as opposed to say Michel de Montaigne's famous 16th century musings on friendship, or the Bowling League, or the Algonquin circle, or the man-boys in Barry Levinson's "Diner." What's he saying that the slogan from "The Big Chill" didn't tell us in 1983,that "in a cold world, you need your friends to keep you warm"?

"What's different now," he says, "is that a bigger chunk of our generation is spending time outside of the family unit -- both the family that raised them, and the one they might one day make after marriage -- but even more importantly, they are doing it for longer than any group in American history." Glaringly absent from Watters book are hard numbers to back up claims like these. However, the latest Census figures, even though he doesn't cite them, do show that people are marrying later -- the median ages of first marriage was 25.1 for women and 26.8 for men in 2001, up from 20.8 and 23.2 respectively in 1970 -- but there is no evidence to suggest that later marriages are proliferating because people are spending more time hanging out with their close friends.

After his New York Times piece was published, Watters set up a Web site, Urbantribes.net, and asked people to write in with their own stories -- in part to gather research material for his book. Thousands of people responded, and not surprisingly, they, like Watters, were overwhelmingly white, college-educated and relatively well-off. "We lack a lot of socioeconomic diversity," wrote Jamie, about his Washington, D.C., tribe. "But are internally varied in most other ways."

Throughout the book, and in conversation, Watters refers to "our generation," though as far as I can tell, he's not describing a generation at all, but a specific demographic: yuppie liberals with lots of disposable income who live in destination cities, people who hate to be thought of as a demographic.

When asked whether he thinks his tribal theory fits poorer urban neighborhoods, where groups that substitute for family are referred to as, uh, gangs, he reminds me that his book only describes one man's experience. "This may sound like a bit of a cop-out," he says, "but it was, like, lemme figure out what's happened in my life for the last 20 years, and let me try to draw in everyone else who seems to sort of, you know, identify with me."

Well, it does sound like a cop-out. Especially since the book does not bill itself as a memoir, but rather makes the hefty promise of explaining how a generation is "redefining friendship, family, and commitment." But when I try to pin Watters down on any of these questions, he reminds me, again, that it's "just his own experience."

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Part of what Watters is trying to debunk in his book, and rightly so, is the still popular conception that American men and women suffer from a Peter Pan complex, an extended adolescence in which we hold onto juvenile ideas of "freedom" because we are so afraid of the responsibility of adulthood. Maybe that's because adulthood is still rigidly defined by the holy triumvirate of Marriage, Mortgage and Kids. What Watters offers up is clearly something different. But still, a social identity based on belonging to a specific group of people doesn't sound like a huge step forward -- in fact, it sounds like high school for adults, with no graduation in sight.

"What's the difference between a tribe and a clique?" I ask, just as Watters' friend Noah arrives at our table to take us to the softball game. Watters tries to dodge the question: "Uh, Noah, you want to field this?"

A fellow tribesman to the rescue: "A clique is exclusionary," says Noah, curly-haired and serious. "A tribe is inclusionary."

This difference is key for Watters, who nods his head vigorously. Ethan Watters is a nice guy, and nice people don't do cliques; they are not snobs. "People can come participate [in tribes], and no one will look askance at you when you show up." This seems true -- at least as far as Watters' San Francisco tribe is concerned. Throughout the '90s, fresh out of school and sure I was bound for nowhere but a park bench, I attended several parties that I now know were thrown by Watters and company. While I do remember feeling intimidated by their important-sounding jobs (Editors! Freelancers!), I don't remember ever having been snubbed or made to feel like an outsider. Of course, had I moved in and tried to reap the full-fledged benefits of tribal membership -- in the book Watters details favors ranging from providing shelter to distilling home brew to driving friends to therapy -- surely I would have had to jump through some hoops before indoctrination, right?

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With my friends, it would take a lot more than hoops. In fact, none of them -- disloyal, unsupportive and emotionally stunted slackers all -- would do this kind of stuff for me, and they'd never chauffeur me to softball games on the other side of town. By now, my take on the tribe is not "Fuck you, I'm not in one," but "Damn, I need to find me one!"

We head out to Noah's car, and on the drive over to the Marina, I take the back seat and listen to them grumble like two old ladies about another tribal member who just won't grow up. "I'm worried about him," Ethan says. "I mean it's one thing to want to go off and have your own TV show when you're 25, but when you're 35?" Watters had mentioned earlier that in tribes, people like to gossip, but since he and Noah are both journalists, I can't help wondering if the conversation is for my benefit, especially since Ethan assures me that he's not using the ne'er-do-well's real name.

By the time we've found parking, the team is out on the field warming up. "The Elucidators" are mostly journalists, mostly in their 30s, and many of them turn out to be friends of friends of mine (or if you want to be fancy, people with whom I have "weak ties," a term Watters borrows from sociologist Mark Granovetter). I meet Brad, a journalist, and his wife, Jennifer, a lawyer; there's Christine, a consultant; Adam, also an editor; and finally a novelist named Alex and his gorgeous new wife, whose name I don't catch. There are several others there, and they all greet me with genuine warmth and friendliness. It's freezing and several people offer me sweatshirts. "Inclusionary" might not be a word, but is certainly a lovely idea. I take my position in the bleachers to watch the game, light a cigarette and start a heated conversation with yet another editor, Adam, about Spider-Man comics.

I meet with awkward silences, however, when I ask each person, in turn, "Are you a member of the tribe?"

"Uh, I just moved here," says Adam.

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"I married this guy over here just to get in!" jokes the gorgeous newlywed, pointing to her husband.

Sometime during the fourth inning, Watters joins me on the bleachers and offers a discreet behavioral corrective -- it's the first time I've heard any edge to his voice all evening. It turns out, not everyone on the team is necessarily a part of his tribe, some of them are just "on the team," and it was a faux pas of the new social order for me to have made that point so clear.

"That question," he says, "is antithetical to what this book is about, antithetical to what I'm trying to say. I found those questions unnerving. No one would ever, ever ask that." I apologize, profusely, although for what, I'm not quite sure. Tribes aren't cliques, right? They are organic, and naturally inclusive, no? But lines do have to be drawn, people get left out. The concept of a "group" of friends, no matter how loose, must leave some people out -- even if that uncomfortable fact is anathema to Watters and the rosy picture he wants to paint of open and borderless single communities.

Watters heads back to home plate -- and scores a double, but too late to save his losing team.

After the game, and some good-natured browbeating from Brad, Jennifer and Christine over my gauche queries, and on the verge of vertigo from all the slippery definitions and vagaries of the evening, I ask the women whether they feel that a "tribe" ever kept them single.

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"Oh yeah," says Christine, one of Ethan's friends from the softball team -- I know enough now not to pose indiscreet questions about her tribal status. "I have my friends so I don't get lonely. And if a guy can't get along with my friends, then there's something wrong with him. My friends are smart and cool -- if he can't deal, he's out."

But what about marriage? Settling down? Growing up?

"I think it takes more maturity and courage to define your own priorities, and wait for the right person," Christine continues. "You don't need to be defined by whether or not you're married anymore."

Jennifer, the lawyer, drives the point home: "How do you define maturity anyway?" she asks. "By how you live? By how you treat people? By your values, what?"

The tribe to the rescue, again. Jennifer has inadvertently saved Watters' memoir-pitching, generalizing, bet-hedging ass by touching on what makes the book worth reading. Part -- not all -- of our generation is redefining something, but that something is not "friendship, family, and commitment.' Instead it is single life itself, which Watters doesn't treat as a pathology, a neurosis or a condition from which America must heal, lest we all become bitter, Botox-addled old maids or freaky Chuck Palahniuk protigis. And for this he should be applauded.

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Watters himself finally makes that point clear at the book's end, when he throws down the gauntlet: "I have spent exactly 20 years -- almost to an hour -- living outside a family unit. It is impossible to see such a large chunk of time as a transitional phase between youth and adulthood. Twenty years is an era -- a goddamned epoch in one's existence."

Whether one agrees with him or not, Watters has said something original, and to this 33-year-old single adult, it is a long-overdue addition to the national conversation about what being a "grown-up" really means: The old definitions don't apply, the new ones haven't been invented, and 20 years suddenly seems like a reasonable amount of time to take to figure them out. If it requires some sociology-lite and a catchy phrase to make this point about the new adulthood, then so be it.

I am pondering all of this when Watters interrupts my thoughts. "I'd love to keep talking about all this some more," he says wryly. "But I've got to go home to my pregnant wife."


Sheerly Avni

Sheerly Avni is a freelance writer living in Oakland.

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