How We Live

In the first part of this series we took a look at Where We Live. We found that the majority of Americans live in urban areas and in neighborhoods of people that are politically, educationally, economically, and religiously similar to themselves.

In Part 2 of the series it’s time to explore How We Live. We’ll examine Americans spend their time and with whom do they spend it, focusing particularly on how this affects the overall community. What we’ll find is that Where and How Americans live have changed together – where Americans lived has impacted how we live, and vise-versa.

We’ll again use Marc Dunkelman’s research from Vanishing Neighbor as well as Harvard Professor Robert D. Putnam’s groundbreaking book Bowling Alone. Both authors use a variety of trends and statistics about how Americans spend their time to illustrate the changes in How We Live.

Why is this important for Coliving?

Coliving companies are providing a community-based housing product that strives to match how people live in the twenty-first century. With this in mind, the mission of the Coliving industry should be to identify how Americans want to live and then create living environments to match those wants.

If the industry can succeed in this endeavor, Coliving can be an ideal housing solution for the future American community.

In order to understand How We Live, we’ll first take a look at the American community of the past: the “Township.” We’ll then dive down to the level of the individual observing changes of how Americans spend time with one another. And finally, we’ll review the main takeaways and look forward to discussing the implications of these changes in part 3 of the series.

Disclaimer: As we discuss, I just want to make clear that How We Live has many facets and conclusions are not absolute so please utilize the information here as a foundation. With “Where We Live” there is one data point that truly matters – where Americans physically live. How We Live has countless data points and opinions to examine with numerous ways to measure how Americans spend their time.

If you think I left something out, it’s probably because I did. If you’re as interested in this topic as I am, I recommend you read the books mentioned in this article; they are fascinating reads and provide a thorough analysis of How We Live.

The American Township

As early as the 1700s American authors started to describe American communities through the lens of the “Township.” In Vanishing Neighbor, Marc Dunkelman defines the Township as “the core community building block” of American society and one “where communities of people with different skills and interests, disparate concerns and values, collaborated with their neighbors in the pursuit of the common good.”

Dunkelman claims nearly all versions of the American community can be classified as Townships. From the villages in the late 1700s and the small towns of the 1800s, to the dense urban environments in the early 1900s and suburban America of the 1970s – all have existed under the Township model.

Today’s version of the American community, however, has morphed into something completely different. One of Dunkelman’s main arguments contends that, “Townships, over the course of the last several decades, have been replaced by a new architecture. And that makes the most fundamental change in the structure of American life since the Revolution.”

We learned from The Big Sort in Part 1: Where We Live that Americans today are less likely to live close to others with “disparate concerns and values.” Thus we’re less likely to collaborate with them, which is a necessary ingredient for the Township model.

Changes in how Americans live have also played a critical role in the decline of the Township model and as you may have guessed from the book titles Vanishing Neighbor and Bowling Alone, Americans are spending less time with their neighbors.

Relationship Rings

When investigating whom Americans choose to spend their time with, it can be helpful to think about relationships in terms of three rings: inner rings, middle rings, and outer rings. If Coliving companies hope to create a sense of community amongst their members, understanding the way we form relationships and how that might be changing is crucial.

Inner Rings

The inner rings of relationships consist of the people with whom you are the most familiar. These rings consist of your immediate family and your best friends. Generally these are people you interact with on a weekly basis and they know what’s going on in your life.

Middle Rings

The next set of rings consists of people that are closer than an acquaintance, but they don’t know as many details about your life. These people could be co-workers, extended family, or neighbors. You might not reach out to these people for support in times of distress, but you would share with them the details of a fun vacation or when your daughter is graduating high school. In other words, “the middle rings have become what most Americans consider ‘community’” (Vanishing Neighbor, 97).

Outer Rings

The outer ring relationships typically revolve around a single point of interaction or shared interest. For example the fellow sports fan you high five at a baseball game or a distant friend who occasionally pops up on your Facebook newsfeed. You don’t regularly spend time with these people, but you interact with them going about your daily life.

If you’re a visual person like myself, maybe this graphic will help:

The stick figure in the middle is you. The rings around you represent relationships you have in your life. As the rings increase in distance, the less familiar the relationships.

The thickness of the rings represents the amount of “social capital” that is invested in each ring. What’s social capital? For our purposes we’ll define it as the amount of time and attention an individual devotes to another person.

For example in the graphic above, the three rings are equal in thickness so that person would spend an equal amount of time and attention interacting with the inner rings, middle rings, and outer rings.

Now that we’ve got the model down, here is where the discussion gets interesting.

The New American Community

Using the relationship rings model let’s examine how the average American invested their social capital in the past and how they’re investing it today.

Township America rings looked something like this:

Within the Township model, the strong middle ring relationships were the glue that held communities together. Whether it was 1776 or 1955, Americans living under the Township model had meaningful relationships with their neighbors (which we’ll explore in detail in the next sections).

So what has changed? The new American community has “vanishing” middle rings such that today’s model looks something like this:

Introducing a new American community model: The Network.

If it’s not obvious from the graphics, the social capital in the middle rings has almost completely shifted to the inner and outer rings. Dunkelman argues that a shift of this magnitude has never happened before and the result is “the new, central building block of American community: the Network.”

Today’s American communities are built upon a foundation of intimate inner ring relationships and single-point-of-interest outer relationships, which marks a fundamental break from the strong middle ring communities of the past. This seemingly subtle shift of Americans’ social capital was enough to completely change how American communities function.

I know what you’re thinking: you can’t just draw a few stick figure diagrams and proclaim the death of one form of the American community and the birth of another. I totally agree.

So let’s walk through the differences, ring by ring, of how Americans have shifted their social capital investment portfolios.

Strengthening Inner Rings

Advancements in communication technology have provided Americans the opportunity to choose who populates their inner rings as well as how much time they want to invest in their inner rings.

The Internet, smartphones, and social media are often described as “connecting the world” and in some ways they absolutely do. However, these modern marvels have also given Americans unprecedented freedom in choosing where to invest their social capital and perhaps as expected, they’re choosing the inner rings.

Americans living in Network communities today invest more social capital in their inner rings because they can. It’s as simple as that.

In Township America when you moved away from your family or an old neighbor moved out, there were not many options to stay in touch (maybe dial them up on a rotary telephone or send them a postcard). Due to limitations on spending time with their inner rings, Township Americans were more likely to invest social capital in middle ring relationships.

As Dunkelman observes in Vanishing Neighbor, “in an age when it is much easier to invest the bulk of your time and energy in the people you most want to seek out, there’s little impetus to build a connection to someone less familiar.”

Look at some of the stats below that support this trend:

Would Americans rather meet a new neighbor or spend that time video chatting a best friend? Network communities allow Americans to spend more time with inner ring relationships, but it comes at a cost of time Americans used to spend with middle ring relationships.

To be clear, this is neither fully a good thing nor fully a bad thing – but it is an important change that we need to recognize. Most people would agree that spending more time talking with Mom and Dad is a positive change, but spending less time with our neighbors is a negative change. Sorting through these pros and cons will be the focus of Part 3.

These trends would also seem to indicate that Coliving companies have an uphill battle in creating an environment where neighbors will want to interact. How can Coliving companies reverse this trend to create robust communities? That’s a massive question and one that we’ll take a shot at answering in Part 4.

Weakening Middle Rings

In Bowling Alone Putnam argues that in the last third of the twentieth century there was a staggering decrease in American community engagement. Here is a snapshot of some changes in political and community participation from 1974 to 1994:

Source: Roper Center national survey data of over 400,000 Americans

It’s important to recognize that the Roper Center survey is from 1994 and more than 20 years have passed since then. Unfortunately the richness of data found in the Roper Center national surveys have not been replicated, but Putnam did publish a paper in 2010 titled Still Bowling Along? The 9-11 Split that commented on a few community engagement trends post 9-11.

One of those trends was examining the percentage of college freshmen who said they had discussed politics in the previous year. From 1967 to 2000, the percentage dropped from 27% to 16% and then abruptly reversed post 9-11 to reach an all time high of 36% in 2008.

Another survey of college freshman found that the percentage that responded there was “a very good chance” they would participate in a protest of some kind while in college rose from 5.6% in 2014 to an all time high of 8.5% in 2015.

Putnam described these trends as a “civic-engagement ‘youth movement’ [that] has evoked the spirit of the early John F. Kennedy years.” While this is admittedly a small sample size to declare that American community engagement is back on the rise, adolescents have often been used as a good barometer for the future of civic and political engagement.

So some trends suggest that Americans are becoming more politically and socially engaged since 2000, which would typically be good news for middle ring relationships. But before we assume this, we need to understand how community organizations have transformed over the past few decades as well.

What we’ll find is these changes have not been good news for middle ring relationships.

Community Organizations

Perhaps the best example of middle ring decay in Network America is the transformation of American organizations outlined by Harvard professor Theda Skocpol.

Skocpol discovered that America’s new community clubs and organizations were targeted at specific niches and they were replacing traditional community organizations aimed at the greater public.

For example, many community organizations of Township America (Rotary, Lion’s Club, Elk’s Lodge, Freemasons, etc.) had mission statements that included phrases like “provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill, and peace.”

These local, chapter based organizations were about bringing the community together to solve problems. They were instrumental for maintaining strong middle ring connections in Township America, but today many of these organizations are seeing a decline in participation.

Since the late 1950s the Freemasons have lost 3.8 million members. The Elks Club membership was cut in half between 1980 and 2012. Only ten percent of current Rotary members are under the age of 40.

The decline of these types of organizations has considerably weakened middle ring relationships and the organizations that replaced them have shifted that social capital to the outer rings.

So we now know that the traditional community club has been on the decline, but some forms of American engagement have been on the rise post 9-11. So if Americans don’t join traditional community clubs anymore, what organizations are they supporting and what kind of relationships do they promote?

Strengthening Outer Rings

From 1968 to 1997 the number of national-scope nonprofits found in the Encyclopedia of Associations more than doubled from 10,299 to 22,901. During that same period the median membership of such organizations fell from roughly ten thousand members to only one thousand members (Bowling Alone, 49).

The standard American organization under the Network model is smaller than in the past, typically single-interest based, and more likely to collect funds than hold meetings.

As Skocpol noted, most of them act as advocacy groups for specific issues rather than for the betterment of a local community and don’t even have local chapters. In fact, among organizations founded after 1965, only 25% of them have chapters with individual members.

The huge influx of nonprofit organizations that were founded in the last several decades have names like the National Wildlife Federation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Right to Life Committee, and Zero Population Growth.

These new organizations are not designed to solve community problems or promote middle ring relationships; they are designed to advocate on Capitol Hill for issues such as climate change or abortion. As Dunkelman points out, “national groups now [embrace] a hub-and-spoke model where organizers headquartered in Washington or elsewhere would reach out directly to members” for donations rather than “regularly scheduled tea.”

Putnam identified the same trend: members of modern Network organizations share ties to “common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to each other.”

In sum, new American organizations are strengthening outer ring relationships by replacing the traditional ‘middle ring organizations’ that existed within Township America.

Social media has also played an important role in facilitating Americans’ increased connections to outer ring acquaintances.

Facebook newsfeeds allow people to keep up with hundreds or even thousands of outer ring connections. Online petitions shared over Twitter or Facebook affinity groups allow people that have never met one another to connect over a single point of interest. Not to mention Reddit where there are roughly 138,000 subreddit communities that are a collection of Internet users that hardly ever know one another.


Covering the entirety of “How We Live” in a blog post isn’t conceivable. However, my hope is that through imagining how Americans spend their time through the relationship rings model, we can better comprehend the nature and magnitude of change American communities have experienced, are currently experiencing, and will continue to experience.

Taking into account the changes in Where We Live and How We live, it’s a bit easier to comprehend Dunkelman’s contention that the American community today (Network) is an entirely different entity than the American community of the past (Township).

And let me tell you, the change train shows zero signs of slowing down. Autonomous cars, better and faster communications, and all the hype about AI and block-chain will surely have massive effects on How We Live. The growing popularity of remote work as well as on-demand delivery services should also continue to accelerate change in Where We Live.

Looking Forward

Parts 1 and 2 of this discussion focused on a presentation of trends and facts identified by academics studying American communities. In order to support any argument of how Coliving should be structured or what Coliving companies should do to support American communities, we first have to understand the current communities themselves and how they function.

Part 3 will review many of the changes to the American community and identify perceived positive or negative changes to American society. We will analyze a variety of pros and cons to be debated and can start some constructive conversations about what is good and bad for future communities.

Part 4 will focus on what this means for Coliving. Will Coliving perpetuate problems or spawn solutions?

Thanks for stopping by Coliving Corner and as always, comments, concerns, and criticisms are welcome.

Case for Coliving Articles

Part 1: Where We Live

Part 2: How We Live

Part 3: Advantages and Disadvantages of the Network

Part 4a: Coliving – Magnifying Advantages of Modern Living

Part 4b: Coliving – Decreasing the Disadvantages of Modern Living


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