Formal Book Review: Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters

From time to time I write longer book reviews on books I find particularly interesting. Some previous formal book reviews have been on national security, the CIA and Afghanistan, the prodigious mind of David Foster Wallace, 21st century college life according to Tom Wolfe, and the 4 Hour Workweek. This review is of Ethan Watters’ book "Urban Tribes," which argues that more 30 somethings are delaying marriage and forming "urban tribes". 

When someone claims to have spotted a social trend, two questions come immediately to mind: Is it true, and if so, does it matter?

These questions are rarely asked in a media culture where the insistence of producers and editors to have a "news angle" for a soft story is most accommodated by the invention of a social trend.

Most trends are supported by simply declaring the trend to exist ("More and more of this is happening than ever before") or buttressing the point with "survey data" which is often statistically insignificant. Jack Shafer, the media writer for Slate, once terrifically de-constructed a bogus trend story that appeared on page 1 of the New York Times involving women who graduate from elite colleges but decide not to pursue a career. He wrote, "Like its fellow weasel-words—some, few, often, seems, likely, moremany serves writers who haven’t found the data to support their argument."

Ethan Watters, author of Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?, recognizes this tendency for greedy trend-creation, which is why he opens his thoughtful book with the headline, "The Reluctant Trend Spotter," and he attempts to persuade us that he’s not trying to shill.

Watters, a San Francisco-based writer, explains that this all came about because he wrote a two-page article for a magazine in which he coined the term "Urban Tribes" to describe people like him, people who delay marriage into their 30’s and form a tight-knit circle of friends to provide the emotional sustenance most people find in family. So overwhelming was the response from the article that Watters felt a need to explore it further.

•••

Urban Tribes is a catchy moniker. If we’ve learned anything from other catch-phrases such as "the world is flat" or "the long tail" it’s that simple names are essential for complex ideas to spread, but in the oversimplification process the names become beholden to a wide range of interpretations. People obsess about the accuracy of the name instead of the phenomenon it tries to express. "The world’s not flat, it’s spiky!" Tom Friedman critics shout. Well, yes, it’s not flat, it is spiky, and I think Friedman knows this, but why make that crucial point about the inequities of globalization using Friedman’s vocabulary? "World is flat" is just a catchphrase, not a framework for discussing a complex issue. Similarly, "Urban Tribes" is just a phrase – important only because it provides new group identification to people formerly labeled by the census as "non-married" – the focus should be more on the social trend it purports to represent.

In this spirit, Watters does a solid job demonstrating how popular delayed-marriage and tribe-formation actually is among some members of his generation, or at least as solid a job as you can do anecdotally (he doesn’t claim to be scientifically anthropological). He tells his own experiences in a warm fashion: dealing with the societal stigma of being single ("Are you gay?"); operating in a tribe of friends that had no formal structure (it didn’t have a name or "officers"); how friends provided ample emotional satisfaction and fulfillment; the interplay between city life, weak ties, and one’s tribe.

After hearing all his stories and the stories of others he shares, and indulging in his playful meanderings on network theory and Robert Putnam (Watters thinks Bowling Alone misses many kinds of unrecorded civic activities), it’s easy to see the appeal and drawback of tribe life. You maintain the flexibility of singlehood and, by virtue of everyone staying single and committed to their friends, you derive the deep pleasure and satisfactions that only the richest friendships afford. The drawbacks appear to be equally significant: Can a group a friends really substitute for family life, the kind of family bonding that Watters’ good friend Po Bronson has described? Maybe, but some tribesmembers might never find out. In one of his most honest moments, Watters admits that life in a tribe might prevent long-term romance. His reason is because when you’re already being fulfilled by such wonderful male and female friendships, who has time for a boy/girlfriend? Another reason might be that, assuming marriage excludes you from the tribe, what good friend would want to see you leave the group?

Watters himself, at age 37, realizes that in order for a promising relationship to grow into something serious, his time with close personal friends would need to decrease (for a short while). This happens at last, and he finally – finally! – marries.

•••

OK, so Watters suggests nicely that the delayed-marriage trend isn’t terrible; in fact, it has given rise to close-knit circles of friends who are diverse in every way but generally share a marital status (single), age-range (usually in their 30’s), geographic location (urban environment), and education level (college grads). Instead of being apathetic and lost, these men and women can find warmth and satisfaction in their intense friendships.

Is it a trend? It’s hard to tell. Watters doesn’t marshal data to document it precisely, but through his anecdotes and personal investigations and the response to his newspaper article and Good Morning America appearance, I’m persuaded that it is something probably happening with increasing frequency.

Is it consequential? Yes, though not as much as Watters suggests, in my opinion. Proving that the benefits of family structure can be re-created in new ways is exciting. But the urban tribe can only replace family for so long, as Watters himself can speak to. The urban tribe phenomenon is a 5-10 year blip; not a fundamental alternation to the make up of groups in the country. Some people think the construct of "family" is antiquated in today’s world. If it dies, it won’t be because urban tribes prove perfect, long-term substitutes.

•••

The lesson in Urban Tribes for all of us – regardless of whether we’re in a tribe or not – is that friendships are wonderful things. Hearing stories about how Watters and his buddies trekked to Burning Man or went to sports games together or ate out every Tuesday night inspired me to want to be more proactive in my own relationships…To try to foster the special dynamic that exists when in close quarters with close friends, when laughter is contagious and living in the present seems as easy as breathing.

2 Responses to Formal Book Review: Urban Tribes by Ethan Watters

  1. I say this ‘phenomenon’ is the latest iteration of the extended adolescence of young adults in western industrialized countries.

    These people sound more like co-dependents than friends.

    About the guys who are trying to keep the frat spirit alive into middle age– do they drink when they go out together and is pansexuality involved?

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    While I agree with the notion that friendship is a beautiful thing, the rise of Urban Tribes (if it in fact exists), it isn’t necessarily a good thing.

    Leaving aside the “extended adolescent” language which people seem to use as a code word for immaturity, delaying marriage and childbearing has a major impact on society.

    Here we have the country’s most educated class, deferring marriage and childbirth into their mid-30s. In a practical sense, it makes it nearly impossible for these people to have more than one child (medical advances aside, few women 35 or older are going to have two or more children). It also means that they have less time to recover between paying the costs of childrearing and college, and their own retirement.

    The net result is that America’s most educated will have a birthrate that is well below the replacement rate, and those that do have children will be subject to greater financial pressures upon retirement.

    Regardless of any moral judgment, these are facts that we need to consider and compensate for in planning for the future.

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