Revisiting ‘A Room of One’s Own’ for the Millennial Set
Virginia Woolf’s seminal feminist text continues to be relevant in unexpected ways
When Virginia Woolf penned her 1929 essay (originally a lecture), A Room of One’s Own, the creative landscape was much bleaker for women than it is today. Women were banned from many educational institutions and cultural spheres, and lacked the financial independence of their male creative counterparts. Woolf created her “room of one’s own” concept to illuminate the lack of opportunity for women in her day to achieve the state of creative solitude needed to write successfully.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
But now in 2018, the question of access is shifting from a matter of gender to an issue of economics. Where once it was difficult for women to gain independence from their parents (and later, during marriage), now people of all genders are struggling to find financial security through entry-level jobs — even with a college degree.
Many millennials — like myself — found our first post-schooling jobs (often outside our field of study), only to discover that our wages would barely cover basic living expenses (rent, utilities, and groceries), let alone allow us to enjoy the kind of middle class lifestyle our parents attained. Meanwhile, wages are not keeping up with the rise in rents, and many American cities have become too expensive to live in for a worker making minimum wage — which calls into question what a “minimum wage” means in 2018.
As a result, more millennials (anyone born between 1981–1996) are living at home with their parents than at any time since 1880. According to a 2017 Census report, a full third of young people are living at home, and their living arrangement isn’t changing any time soon. Most young people who lived with their parents the previous year remained at home the following year. Un- and under-employment are precluding millennials from upward mobility.
While the playing field has been leveled in some ways for women and people of color (with significant gains still to be made), the weak labor market for recent graduates and staggering amounts of student debt have made age one of the biggest indicators of how likely a person is to find gainful employment. Statistics are fairly similar for the percentage of white and non-white millennials living at home. Intergenerational households are also common in many immigrant cultures. As the United States becomes more diverse, this type of family living arrangement has naturally become more prevalent.
Delaying marriage (or writing it off altogether) is another factor leading my generation to continue living at home with parents, or to live with multiple roommates as a cost-saving measure. It has become increasingly difficult to maintain a comfortable middle class lifestyle on one income alone, but various reasons millennials are less eager to tie the knot than generations past. Many of us are more focused on improving our educational and professional lives before looking for a long-term relationship.
Why do these factors matter? If one is living at home with a supportive family, the reasoning might go, surely they have a certain level of financial comfort — even if it is one of dependence. That may be true if said person is content with living at home, but for many the stigma and stress of living with family past the socially acceptable age has significant effects on one’s psyche and confidence. Even when living at home makes the most sense financially (to save money in order to move out, for example), there’s always a small voice in the back of your head reminding you that you’ve failed to “adult” properly. The perception is that you’ve delayed adulthood, and are under constant pressure to finally leave the nest and truly begin life as an adult.
But the bigger issue here, for those of us with creative ambitions, is the need for solitude. Just to draw from my own experience of being a millennial living at home (for the most part happily — bar the aforementioned anxiety about social stigma and the natural desire for independence), I have to intentionally create private time for myself in which to create. When your parents are doing the wonderfully supportive thing of allowing you to live at home, you feel obligated to be an active participant in the family life — which includes everything from helping with household chores and cooking meals to spending time with the family watching TV or exercising. I get along extremely well with my parents, and am happy to spend time with them, so that’s not the problem. The problem is feeling guilty when I want to say “no, I can’t do that right now” because I would rather be and need to be writing. To be clear, this internal pressure is coming entirely from me, not my folks. But I never felt this pressure when it came to my college roommates, for example.
Back in college I would often decamp to the local Starbucks to keep myself from being distracted, but now I also do so to ensure I won’t be interrupted while writing — whether it’s my mom needing help with a household task or my beloved dogs barking at every little movement outside the front door. Starbucks, however, is not exactly a room of my own. There’s always a lot of other people my age at the coffeeshop with their laptops, but it’s far from an ideal workspace — it’s just the lesser of two evils. Privacy and the ability to concentrate are hugely important to the creative environment.
The need for a room of one’s own goes beyond the profession of writing. Numerous creative disciplines require the kind of solitude and financial security Woolf describes as necessary to flourish as a writer — including all manners of visual arts, and even video game design. It’s disheartening to think about how much art we are losing to stifled creativity.
But for many millennials, moving back (or never leaving) home has become the most practical option — an inevitable byproduct of these economic times. As more and more young people live at home, the stigma has not necessarily gone away, but is something a lot of us have in common. Millennials are choosing to live at home to save up for a solo living space, shift career paths, or pay off student debt. It’s increasingly viewed as a natural “stepping stone” for my generation, an optional life choice, just as much as marriage, having children, and home ownership. For creative millennials, the challenge will be making this modern living arrangment coexist with our need for a room of one’s own — retrofitting our childhood bedrooms for adulthood.
And as Woolf wrote:
Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference. It does not ask people to write poems and novels and histories; it does not need them… Naturally, it will not pay for what it does not want… And so the writer… suffers, especially in the creative years of youth, every form of distraction and encouragement… If anything comes through in spite of all this, it is a miracle.
Prescient words, from an author was often ahead of her time.