February 21, 2013

Where do young people hang out in our cocooning times, and why?

The percent of people who stay holed up in their private sphere these days is far greater than it was in the 1980s; Americans in all parts of the country have not hunkered down this much since the mid-century. Still, there's a continuum of cocooning -- some are mostly invisible to the outside world, but some go out every day, even into public spaces. And yet the types of places they go to show that they aren't as open, trusting, and outgoing as it may appear from the mere fact that they left home. First, a review of where people go, and then an account of why they visit these places and not others.

Children are not allowed outside at all anymore, so their public hang-outs have vanished -- the video game arcade, the roller rink, the mall, the park, the playground, the pool, etc., and have not been replaced or built over by new public hang-outs for kids. Teenagers who haven't left for college don't hang out much in public either. Occasionally you'll see a few at the shopping centers, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, but mostly they're locked inside by helicopter parents too. Worse, they don't rebel against their smothering mothers and sneak out.

College students are different -- they're typically away from their parents, so they have more freedom. The biggest change in campus life over the past 15-20 years has to be the transformation of the library into a primary hang-out spot. Movies, TV shows, and commercials from the '80s show people studying in the library, perhaps with friends, but it wasn't a main destination for hanging out. Now students are eager to spend hours at a time inside the library.

Before, campus libraries had at most a few vending machines for food and drink, but now that so many students spend so much time there every day, a new space has been created to meet their needs -- the campus library cafe. It's not a bustling cafeteria, or like the food court at the mall, but a small quiet place with places to sit down, and that mostly sells snacks.

I should mention at this point, for those who were in college before these changes (I remember them being under way during the early 2000s), that people don't go to the library to browse the stacks, check out books, or even do that much nose-to-the-grindstone work (college classes have never been easier). Instead, they go there for the multitude of "study areas," some wide-open, some more intimate, some with talking allowed, some quiet-only, some with a huge computer cluster, some where students bring their own laptops, and so on. In the 21st century, college kids are so not hormone-crazed that their main social destination is a great big study hall.

Despite the library's popularity, very little socializing actually takes place. You might if you already know the person, but it is not a place where people go to interact with people they don't know. If you sat down with a person or group that you don't know and tried to strike up a conversation, that would be awkward.

It's like the rise of the small house party, where the only ones in attendance are directly known to the hosts, or at most by one degree of separation. Further degrees of removal means you can't be sure they're trustworthy. Young people today just feel uncomfortable socializing with perfect strangers. The mass of students packed into the library might seem like an exception to small-only gatherings, but they're all cut off from each other. It's more like cells in a hive than a bustling crowd.

You do see people trying to make minimal contact with others around them, though only in the form of fleeting eye contact, and so only between the sexes. It's not an invitation to come over and talk to them, or an invitation to them to come on over to you. It's not even a strong expression of sexual interest or intent, since again it never goes any further than a quick glance.

It's more like an agreement to give their ego a little boost if they give yours a little boost. If they're out in a public space, they aren't in the most anti-social category -- they still feel some need for social recognition, appreciation, and belonging. Totally cut off from everyone else, they'd have no idea where they stood in the eyes of their peers. So, head on down to the library and see how many people are willing to make eye contact with you. Like, "I got a look -- thank god, I'm not ugly after all!" or "That chick over there just looked at me and didn't have a creeped-out look on her face -- thank god, I'm not the biggest loser after all!"

Because this contact is so superficial, only kids in the normal-to-"popular" range go there. (I use quotes because in anti-social times, no one is actually popular with a broad group. I mean those who would've been the popular kids back in the '80s.) You generally don't see the fat/ugly side of the bell curve, or even the nerdy/geeky side -- surprising for a library, eh? I'd guess that they tried out the library as hang-out, but noticed they didn't get any looks, or got creeped-out looks, and decided the hell with it, might as well stay in my room and play Xbox or have a Twilight and Ben & Jerry's marathon again.

And because this contact is so fleeting, they do it a lot more frequently. It's not like a huge party on the weekend where you get along well with strangers, some of whom may become new friends, or go all the way with someone you've had your eye on, or maybe even just met. The heady after-effects of that kind of socializing will last well into the next week. They're such a powerful signal to your brain, that it doesn't need reassurance of your normal-to-desirable status for awhile.

But split-second eye contact isn't such overwhelming evidence, so you need to be constantly scanning to see if others are trying to establish it with you. Girls especially seem to strut around frequently in a see-and-be-seen way, never quite sure if they're perceived as hot or just do-able. This self-doubt would be easily settled if they went to large parties once a week and got a sense of how many guys made a move on them. Way more convincing evidence than eye contact. But today, lots of unfamiliar guys making a move on you feels awkward and creepy. Or even if they had school dances -- how many date offers did you get? But if they don't want to go to those dances in the first place, they'll disappear, and that option for self-evaluation disappears too.

There's an obvious parallel to texting and posting on Facebook as a replacement for voice calls or in-person conversations. Receiving a single text gives you only minimal reassurance that you aren't ugly or a loser, so you need to keep receiving them -- and to return the favor for assuaging your own self-doubt, you need to keep sending them to those who sent them to you. Young people's social exchanges (hard to call them interactions) are thus part of their broader suite of OCD tendencies -- they're always teetering on the brink of self-doubt, and feel compelled to keep pushing some button to receive the little food pellet for their ego, again and again and again. They don't want the social equivalent of an intensely flavored, endorphin-releasing meal that would satisfy them for some time to come.

Without going into too much detail, you see the same general dynamics at the other major hang-outs for college kids and 20-somethings -- the coffee shop has been turned into a campus library computer cluster, for instance. Somehow supermarkets have become hang-out destinations (although you don't hang out there for very long), with some now offering their own little cafe area with seating, like the campus library cafe. Quiet small-scale food places are somewhat popular too, like Noodles & Company, Lunaberry, etc. Not "fast food," though -- too many cars constantly pulling around to the drive-thru. The gym is the only place where young people get physical in public these days, again with interaction among strangers being understood as forbidden.

For contrast, where don't you see college kids and 20-something hanging out much anymore? Well, the student union is more or less dead as the central, all-purpose hang-out, and so are the large green spaces around campus that social-seeking and sun-worshiping students would have flocked to back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Food places that are more bustling and carnivalesque are gone too -- cafeterias, mall food courts, the automat. And all commercial stores where the purpose is to browse are also gone as hang-out spaces -- the bookstore, the record store, the video rental store.

As for physical activity, playing sports in public spaces is gone -- an informal game of football in a field, tennis courts for tennis or roller hockey, basketball courts, baseball / softball diamonds, kicking the soccer ball around, frisbee, hacky sack, etc. Public pools, mini golf courses, roller rinks, and dance floors have also been abandoned. If people do get physical in an open area, it's always jogging with earbuds jammed in their head -- don't interrupt me.

What distinguishes the spaces that have fallen from the ones that have risen seems to be how purposeful your visit is expected to be. If it's the kind of place that you visit for some specific, deliberate purpose, then that wasn't so popular in the '80s but has taken over now. If it's the kind of place where you visit with no plan or purpose in particular, that used to be popular but is now being reclaimed by the wilderness.

When people develop the cocooning, distrusting mindset, they don't want unfamiliar people to approach them. How can you manage that while still venturing out into public spaces? And how can you still take part in at least minimal social exchanges? Well, simple: hang out at a place where there's a very well understood expectation that strangers do no approach one another there. Why? Because everybody goes there for some specific purpose and is otherwise occupied -- studying, writing a paper, checking items off their grocery list, getting a quick bite to eat in between studying, meeting friends to catch up with them on important matters over lunch, and so on.

So, if someone unfamiliar approaches you, you can just give them that look or vibe of, "Uh, do I know you? This is a place for studying, you know..." In a bar or on the dance floor (other deserted spaces), you can't give someone a look like the very act of approaching you is violating an unspoken behavior code. So blowing a guy off in those spaces makes you feel more bitchy. But if you're sitting at a booth in the Whole Foods cafe area, you can give them a weird look -- after all, you're just taking a little rest while running errands, and they'd be interrupting you.

For the same reasons, you can't make any new same-sex friends at these places. If a bunch of guys are huddled around the TV in the union to watch the game, they can shoot the shit all day long even if they don't know each other. But plopping down across from some random dude at Starbucks, just to chat, would give off mad homo vibes. Striking up a conversation with a same-sex stranger is no problem at a record store or bookstore if you've got similar tastes, but you wouldn't think of doing so in a supermarket just because you both like Spanish cheeses.

This little investigation shows why it's worth paying attention not just to gross quantitative measures of sociability, like how much time to people spend outside their home, but to qualitative aspects as well. You might think that cocooning, while worse compared to the '80s, still isn't so bad -- look at all the kids hanging out in the library, in Starbucks, jogging around the park, etc. But they only choose these places because they can be assured that strangers won't approach them; they'll have plausible deniability because people don't go to those spaces to really interact. So, "I'm not being anti-social and awkward, I'm just here to conduct other business." Even when people do venture out into public areas these days, their lack of trust and social awkwardness still shows through.

12 comments:

  1. Unfortunately, I can identify with these cocooning times, and think your observations are right on the money here. The question is, what can be done about it?

    As someone with moderate-severe anxiety and depression, I wish I could go back to a time where cocooning wasn't as in vogue as it currently is.

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  2. Anonymous2:25 PM

    The college library is just a place to go if you don't want to be near your roommate, for whatever reason. So its still essentially cocooning, like you said.

    -Curtis

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  3. Anonymous2:48 PM

    Chto dly- What is to be done?

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  4. Our best clues about what is to be done should come from the '50s, more like the mid or late '50s, when they started to shed their mid-century cocoons.

    I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that whole period, and it's not simple because there are generational differences -- what brought out the Greatest was different from what brought out the Silents, and what let out the little Baby Boomers.

    For the Greatest, public airing of discontent with the company man ideal (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit). That not only had an effect on their career choices, but also with women -- like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960). Not only does he stop chasing pointless promotions, but in so doing, he shows sincere interest in a young woman instead of assuming she'd be yet another wise-cracking dame still making the rounds on the alpha cock carousel like the other girls in the building.

    For the Silents, it seems like simple "exposure therapy" -- like if you're afraid of spiders, you just let them crawl over your finger, then your hand, then your arm, then maybe two at once, etc. You learn that most spiders around the house aren't that dangerous.

    They were hanging out somewhat in public by the mid-'50s, but they needed some pop music that would get them excited and signal to them that it's OK to let your guard down and just have fun, along with those around you. That's where the Silents were when Marty McFly visits them in 1955 (although that was a little exaggerated to make them look like hormone-crazed '80s teenagers).

    Millennials just need to start putting more blind faith in their peers, and in people in general.

    The Baby Boomers got to live more unsupervised childhoods, compared to the Silents, because their Greatest Gen parents were rebelling against the mid-century roles in general.

    They were through with the company man and smothering mother roles, and that also meant less managerial parenting styles. After all, they'd grown up in the 1910s and '20s, when things were a lot more unsupervised, and they lived to tell. Hell, they live more enjoyable, well-adjusted lives because of it.

    That's like the flashback scenes from It's a Wonderful Life (not a hit at the time, but that feeling would catch on by the late '50s). In the '10s, kids used to sled out onto a frozen pond on top of shovels. And in the '20s, teenagers courted each other, felt passionately for each other, had dancing fever, and so on. Maybe we *are* depriving our kids of real life by keeping them inside all day, glued to the radio or the TV set.

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  5. Anyway, the point is that there isn't some five-year plan that we can start to carry out. First there's a shift in public moods and attitudes, then people realize they all feel the same way, and the whole old way collapses, almost overnight, and for better or for worse.

    So it comes down to, how can you make people feel more comfortable to admit their discontent in public? The most that the average person can do is just acknowledge how strange the world has become, letting others know that they weren't the only ones who thought so, and it's safe and OK to say so out loud. Hell, to even get mad about it.

    "Well I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get MAD!"

    People are immune to those kinds of overtures early in the cocooning period, like the later '30s or the '90s. But eventually the hysteria and paranoia seem to have accomplished their purpose -- near total social isolation -- so why do we have to hunker down so much anymore? Maybe we *were* over-exaggerating things.

    I know you don't want to hear it, but you're just going to have to wait until the grassroots is ready for the message. We're 20+ years into a cocooning period, and the last one only lasted about 25.

    It's more like providing a good example, and shaming those who are anti-social, in the meantime. Even if people aren't prepared for it, it's still necessary -- otherwise, who will get the message out when people *are* ready to hear it.

    To use an evolutionary analogy, we have to provide the "standing variation" that selection can act on when the environment changes. Otherwise you'd have to wait around for a random mutation to get selected -- have fun waiting for that. If the sociable variant already exists in the population, though, selection can act right away and carry it quickly to fixation.

    Again, look at how quick the mid-century cocoons collapsed during the late '50s and early '60s.

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  6. I went to college in the mid-200s. I never went to the library (I think I checked out one book that Mencius Moldbug recommended) and didn't even know that was a spot for socializing. I wasn't particularly sociable, wanting to focus on graduating as soon as possible. I did wander around looking/listening for signs of house parties though, because I was too young to legally buy beer and they always had kegs and a $5 max entrance fee. That means I generally didn't know anyone there, but drunk people are easygoing. Just this weekend I was at a neighborhood bar and a girl slightly younger than me (drunk before she even entered) walks in, asks me to dance (and summarize the story of my life) and starts talking about how a friend of her family had just died, and about her client (as a public defender) who (unlike most of hers) she believes to be innocent of a tragic event (I think I'm not supposed to say much about that, although I'm not the one violating attorney-client privilege). So perhaps agnostic should take hope that there's still members of the new generation willing to expose themselves at a moments notice, even while there are folks like me who wish the traits of the "greatest generation" (or Victorians, if you're a Brit) could endure forever and the hippies never raise their foul heads again.

    Back to college, I would generally see people hanging out on the quad (and while I was working in Hyde Park I pretty much always found lots of kids hanging out there), often tossing a frisbee or something. The indians liked to play cricket. Hockey is less public, but a roommate of mine would periodically gather up folks to play a bastardized version (no skates, or really any other elements of the costume if you weren't a goalie).

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  7. Forgot to include in my above comment that anecdotal evidence, like I provided, is worthless. But it's stock in trade here, so why not shoot the shit?

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  8. The hippies hardly raised their foul heads in the first place. Remember that every opinion poll done during the Vietnam War showed that late teenagers / young adults were always more in favor than any older age group.

    You're taking the Baby Boomers' self-aggrandizing history of their role in world history at face value.

    Even as a slacker / dropout counter-culture, the hippies were no-go's. The surfer dudes / surfer babes began even earlier in the 1960s and lasted all the way through the '80s or early '90s. Hippies had their little moment in the late '60s and early '70s, then that was it.

    And remember that it was the Greatest Generation who unraveled the mid-century zeitgeist. That's what you're a fan of -- a period, not a generation. Sure, circa 1960 there was a youth movement centered around rock and R&B music, cars, and hanging out.

    But the larger changes in society -- everything other than teenage pop culture -- like the turn away from the company man role, the passivity, the smothering of bratty children, substituting TV dinners for a real meal, etc., was accomplished by the 30 and 40-somethings who'd become restless from such stultification.

    And you're also overlooking what the Greatest Gen was like as young people. Here are Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed re-enacting their generation's Flaming Youth days during the Roaring Twenties:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rha-6qG4OQ

    Looks just like an '80s teen comedy -- energetic young people lacking self-consciousness, a dance craze, and everybody at the party including the supposedly stodgy old dude jumping into the pool.

    Their modern-day counterparts are Generation X and Gen Y. Sadly they'll probably be remembered for being adults during this period of falling crime rates, stability, rising to the challenge of 9/11, enduring economic hardship during the Great Recession, inoffensive music, etc.

    But they're more complicated than that, having been youths during the Go-Go Eighties, and as disaffected 30 and 40-somethings undoing the Millennial Age within the adult sphere... whenever that happens, but sometime in the next 5-10 years.

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  9. "a girl slightly younger than me (drunk before she even entered) walks in... and starts talking about how a friend of her family had just died, and about her client (as a public defender) who (unlike most of hers) she believes to be innocent of a tragic event"

    Occasionally this kind of thing happens, but why is it always when someone is drop-dead drunk? It's like how young people don't "hook up" (i.e., make out) unless they get pretty damn drunk beforehand.

    It dulls their senses, so they won't get too excited and enjoy it. It dulls their memory, so they won't face the possibility of attaching themselves to the person afterwards. And it gives them the all-important "plausible deniability". It's degrading.

    Same with the shit-faced confessions. Or, while horribly hung over the morning after. I experienced one of those last semester when a Millennial chick lived next to me. And a few weeks ago, some Millennial chick, drunk off her ass, was sulking down a nearby street at night, screaming and fake-sobbing to the whole block about how "My boyfriend haaaates meeee!"

    What looks like a moment of opening up is anything but, if they're always drunk. It dulls the whole experience, they might not remember it, and they've got plausible deniability instead of just being sincere with someone. If they're stupid drunk, you don't feel like they really trusted you and chose to confide in you.

    Not like people didn't get drunk and open up before, but it wasn't the only way. Generally not -- see any teen comedy from the '80s. Or sit-com. People generally don't talk about their problems to anyone else anymore, perhaps to kin or at most a romantic partner or spouse. Everyone's so stifled and bottled-up.

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  10. Anonymous9:04 PM

    What about the impact of technology? Before, you had to go to the mall or to a store if you wanted to purchase something or even just browse. Now all of that can be done by internet. If you stayed in your room, you had fewer options for amusement - reading, playing a musical instrument or perhaps a cardgame if a few dorm mates were up to it. Now there is internet and Xbox. Not to say that secular cycles aren't an important influence on behavior, but perhaps technology modulates them. If that is the case, the next higher-crime era may be less exuberant than the ones that came before it.

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  11. Anonymous8:16 AM

    " If that is the case, the next higher-crime era may be less exuberant than the ones that came before it."

    I'm not so sure about that, because people will be driven out of their houses to attend more pressing concerns.

    I don't think the coming years will be less exuberant. There may be less crime than before, and more suicide, though.

    -Curtis

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  12. "but perhaps technology modulates them"

    That's what I see. Technology has very little "influence," as though it had a will of its own against those who adopt and use it.

    Portable headphone-radios, Walkmans, Discmans, etc. -- that was all there in the '80s, but you rarely saw people walking around with them on in everyday life. They were used more for when you would be going for a long time without access to your stereo, boom box, or whatever. Like going on a long trip. Only when the social mood turned toward cocooning could something like the iPod catch on.

    Same with the abandonment of video game arcades. Their last peak year of revenues was 1988, so they declined way before online technology allowed them to play with friends / strangers in their own separate homes.

    The last time that society changed from cocooning to outgoing, a lot of the existing technology was either dropped or adapted for new purposes.

    Radio was no longer to huddle around for hours in your own home, listening to narrative programs play out -- it was for music to play over the car stereo, or even at home to get you energized and pumped to get out and go do something fun.

    Huddling around the TV also gradually fell out as a popular past-time, let alone circling around to watch it while eating a "family" dinner.

    All the drive-in establishments (restaurants, movies, churches) fell out of use, as people became more comfortable being around strangers without the shielding walls of their boat-sized cars.

    I think we'll see the change first with food. We won't "order in" as much as we have since the '90s. Remember that only Domino's delivered pizza in the '80s and early '90s.

    Then when we get more restless about shopping, we'll go back to real stores because shopping online is so boring.

    Kids won't have mini-plush bowling pins with a Nerf-like ball to play indoors -- they'll go back to real bowling allies. Who knows, mini golf, roller rinks, and arcades could make a comeback.

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