by Tom McBride

Farewell to the Dorm

MINDSET LIST® Remarks Delivered to the Interface Student Housing Conference, Austin, Texas, April 6, 2018


The Mindset List® thanks Mr. Bruce Sanders of Elauwit for inviting us to speak today.

Over half a century ago I began my college life in what was called a dormitory, at a university about ninety miles northwest of Austin. Though we did not appreciate it at the time, we were herded like the proverbial cattle into a four-story building with the same-sized rooms, sparsely furnished with standard issue university desks, tables, and beds. We ate the same food, prepared in advance for us, all in the same place. We had communal bathrooms—none of us even had our own stall, much less our own bathroom. Women lived in totally separate facilities and were allowed only grudgingly into ours. There was a TV lounge, with exactly one television set. There were study lounges at both ends of each floor.

There are a couple of notable things to observe about my experience, which was quite typical in its time and even somewhat typical for most of the last half of the twentieth century.

First, we were saying goodbye to living at home. We were going from having the run of our parents’ house to confinement to a single room. We could no longer raid the fridge for a snack, though it was admittedly good to get free of Mom and Dad at long last.

Second, our individuality was thwarted. While we certainly had ways to assert our own uniqueness, the living space was not encouraging. We all had the same room and the same beds. We had to struggle a little bit in order to make a uniform living space “ours,” and there was a limit to what we could do. It mostly entailed what we were able to put up on the walls, but if we ruined the walls doing so, we’d have to pay a fine. This could be a stiff price to pay for the luxury of looking at a Mams and Papas poster.

But, as anyone can tell you, that was a long time ago, informed by a wholly different mindset. It was back in what we should call The Age of the Dormitory. The grandparents of today’s students probably still use the word “dormitory” to refer to college housing, while their parents might use the slightly less outmoded term “residence hall.” But both terms are fast going the way of such phrases as “personnel director” and “maternity ward.” We know that the world of the dorm is rapidly ending. We know that today’s budget-conscious and consumer-minded Millennials want something different: their own apartments within walking distance of the university. Their own bathrooms, and lots and lots of storage space, are essential. So are nearby shops and restaurants and the other accouterments of the urban experience. Many Millennials are happy to live with even up to three other people as long as they have their own privacy. They will sooner pay more money for a place with interesting furniture and top quality amenities than they will pay for a cheap-o place without such amenities. Unlike their parents’ generation, they’re not into authenticity and grunge. A place with balky Wi-Fi or cell tower reception is an absolute no-no. Some amenities are optional, but according to a Houston research firm they will pay up to around two hundred dollars more a month for such extras as a big fridge or dedicated parking or fitness center.

Note the differences from fifty years ago. Today’s college students don’t want, and will not tolerate, a major discontinuity between their life at home and their life at university. They want continuity with that life, but this is not some Peter Pan thing. It’s not that they don’t want to grow up. It’s that they want something different from previous generations’ preferences in their living lifestyle. And they are eager to find ways to assert their own individualism: their own bathrooms and bedrooms, their own special kind of Pumpkin lattes around the corner, and their own ability to be eccentric within urban settings where everybody is a little eccentric.

It just isn’t your father’s dormitory any more. That’s going the way of your father’s Olds. They aren’t making them any longer.

Now we know that these developments are powerfully driven by economics. Universities can save money by outsourcing student housing; and students have discovered that when you get control of your own lifestyle off-campus, it’s sometimes cheaper than living on campus, and a lot more interesting, too. This has opened up a lucrative market for construction. But I want to take the balance of my time to describe the cultural factors that have led us to this trend. It’s not just the economy. It’s also, as we are fond of saying about the 2016 election, the cultural mindset, and we aren’t called The Mindset List for nothing.

So what are the major cultural traits of these Millennials—Gen Y and Gen Z—living in these places?

NARCISSISM. First, their much-described narcissism needs to be put into context. They have been characterized as coddled and spoiled. They’ve been called the “Trophy Kids,” who got a trophy just for participating and not for winning anything. But every young generation is so described by the older generation. It’s a meme that just won’t go away. It’s built into the tensions between old and young. It’s quite true that young people, in reasonably prosperous times, are self-involved, and why not? They are trying to find themselves in the world. It’s not as though Baby Boomers and Gen Xers walked barefoot through the snow in order to help the poor. And even if they are rather narcissistic, that does not mean that they are not also worried about debt and extremely skeptical of free I-Pads in order to get them to move into college apartment X as opposed to college apartment Y. It is possible to be “narcissistic” and budget-conscious and thrifty at the same time.

URBANITY. Second, they are very much an urban directed generation. They want to live in big cities because that’s where the jobs are—they do not plan on being the factory accountant in Kokomo, Indiana and raise a family there, because there are no factory accountants in Kokomo any more. They like cities because they can travel light there: no car is required, and now they can get anywhere with Uber or (more politically correct) Lyft. They like cities because they are meaningful consumers. They are looking for just the right product for them in terms of affordability and personal expression. You can only find these in big cities and on Amazon. But Amazon is just an on-line extension of the urban experience. And so if they want to “practice” the urban experience in an off-campus housing arrangement with the apartment buildings on one side and the latte shops and Turkish restaurants on the other side, well, as someone once said: for those who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing they like.

SANITY GLAMOUR. Third, they have grown up with a kind of glamorous cleanliness, especially as manifested by clean, lovely websites (perhaps their own); sleek and super clear TV and tablet screens; and word processors where you never have to get your hands black changing the ribbon. And they are looking for this same chic, sanitary glamor in their living arrangements. They are looking for authentic slumming not so much.

TOLERANCE. Fourth, they are a fairly open-minded generation. Again, we should not assume that they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. They can be self-centered and tolerant. They have grown up with intercultural and gender differences as normal, especially in the media and on cable and Youtube and streaming. This gets us back to the urban experience again, as there is obviously more acceptance of tran-genders in Boston than there is in Clear Lake, Iowa. And so in many ways the end of the dorm is, again, the adoption of urban experience, with a premium put on consumerist diversity, inclusiveness of different types of people, and even a certain aloneness—what sociologists used to call urban alienation. But they’ll take it as the price for working on their individuality.

SKEPTICISM ABOUT INSTITUTIONS. Fifth, they are not institutional-minded, for a couple of reasons. They have grown up in a world where you can avoid the middleman of institutions (look at how direct media exposure has bypassed the power of political parties to choose candidates; and look at how Amazon has replaced the middle man big box stores and how Wikipedia has replaced the on-campus reference librarian—another middle man now bypassed). And this generation has seen institutions fail—to stop 9/11; to get Iraqi intelligence right; and to head off the Great Recession. So off-campus living, besides being less costly, is a way by which they can diminish, to some extent, the institutional grip of the university.

RELATIVE SEXLESSNESS. Sixth, they are not having sex as often as previous generations did. Demographers have different theories about why this is so. Please let me say, in general, that they spend about a third of their time on digital media; and while many older Americans think this is far too much, it is equally true that if they are on line or “on phone” they are spending time that previous generations could use for driving past the speed limit or having sex. It is difficult to shoplift or have sexual congress while texting at the same time. And many of them are canny enough to know that their professional careers depend on their being able to work with the opposite sex in more impersonal ways, as the human resources managers will tell them. This is a generation in which Platonic friendship between men and women is extremely common, and this is also why multi-gendered living arrangements, especially off campus, are becoming more typical.

These are the features of a different mindset from 50 or even 20 years ago. It must be added, though, that some things don’t change. Universities still want their students’ out of classroom experiences to be educational: to be daily processes of listening and tolerance, learning from others who are different, and working to release each other’s creativity. How space can be designed to make this sort of thing happen more productively is a separate subject, but the general educational mission of the college is much the same, for better or worse, as it was years ago.

To sum up: the end of the dorm has been motored by economics, yes; but also by a new generation

*Highly individualized

*Urban in outlook

*Driven by an aesthetic of sanitary glamour

*Suspicious of communal institutions

*Budget-minded even as they are also skeptical about their consumer decisions

*Flexible and open-minded (if also narcissistic and self-involved) and

*Directed towards pre-professional Platonism in their relationships with the opposite sex.

Someday historians of American social life will try to determine the precise mix of economic and cultural factors that ended the age of the dormitory. The interactions between money and mindsets will be, for them as it is for us, a fascinating and complex subject. I have tried to outline some of the cultural elements that have led us to where we are today: off-campus, within walking distance to the lab, with lots of storage space and your own toilet. And for those in the business of building and managing such residences, it helps to know the mindset of the customer. –Tom McBride for the Mindset List®


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