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As summer has cooled to fall, and as undergrads have begun settling into new lives and routines on campus, a rite of passage that once accompanied this transition – meeting the new roommate – is less and less a part of it. That’s because many young adults are opting to live alone. In doing so, they are missing out on an essential and formative life experience – not to mention the added benefit of sharing expenses.
If it seems strange that undergraduates are paying more to live alone while in school, only to live with roommates or with parents after graduation, it seems stranger still to some that a married couple would share a home with strangers. That’s what my wife and I did for several years.
If kindergarten is where children learn how to interact with other children, then roommates are how young adults learn to live with other adults.
Our decision to do so was an easy one. We have always had roommates – before we were married, as singletons; once we were a cohabiting couple; and now, with a cat and baby daughter in the mix. While not an economic imperative for us, splitting the rent has always made sense. That seems to be the case for the one in four young adults aged 18 to 31 now doing the same thing. Contrast that to 1968, when only one in 20 young adults had roommates.
Since leaving home after high school, I’ve had more than a dozen roommates. There was Alexander, the Harvard-trained Russian biophysicist who paced the apartment, ranting about his strategy to create a biotech company. There was Johnny, the lantern-jawed Army infantry officer, who came home one day to find that my cat had defecated on his pillow – and stayed anyway. There was Jessica, the samba-dancing lipstick lesbian, who kept adding detail to a giant dragonfly tattoo on her chest.
Each of them enriched my life and was a supporting actor in the elaborate drama that was my young adulthood. Lantern-jawed Johnny was the first person I told about meeting my future wife. Biophysicist Alexander figured out that my wife was pregnant before any family knew. Dragonfly Jessica boosted my comfort-level with the LGBT community.
Not all roommates are created equal, of course. A friend recalled an adventurous roommate who suspended a trapeze from the ceiling of their apartment. She neglected to anchor it properly, and the entire ceiling crashed to the floor. Later, the would-be acrobat ordered 40 pounds of crawfish from Amazon.com. When all of it was delivered at once, the roommates hosted an impromptu crawfish-eating party that night. “She was crazy. I’d never live with someone like that again,” my friend says. “But I’ll never forget that party, and I’ll never forget her.”
If kindergarten is where children learn how to interact with other children, then roommates are how young adults learn to live with other adults. We learn how to live with other people’s foibles, and we learn which of those quirks we’d do well to avoid in future roommates and romantic partners.
There is something special about sharing periods of your life with people who, while not family, are more than friends. Sharing a bathroom builds more intimacy than sharing a beer tab. You don’t have to love them all, but you can count on not forgetting any of them.
You don’t have to love them all, but you can count on not forgetting any of them.
Last Thanksgiving, my wife and I visited Switzerland, where I’d spent a year abroad. We stayed with my former roommate, Jean-Philippe, who now lives with his wife in an apartment about a mile from our old place. While our wives chatted over wine and fondue, Jean-Philippe and I reminisced about our college parties, about our arguments over dirty dishes, about his implacable ex-girlfriend and about our awesome bachelor pad. At the end of our conversation, Jean-Philippe looked into my eyes, reached over and squeezed my shoulder in silence. His sad smile seemed to say, “I remember you when…”
About three months into my wife’s pregnancy, we told our two roommates that if they wanted to move, we would not hold them to their leases. After all, they didn’t sign up to live with a newborn. The house is small and not particularly well-insulated. My cat’s meows carry through the night; I could only imagine how an infant’s squalls would sound. To our surprise, both roommates declined to leave. They were excited about “the new roommate.”
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