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“Still, a skeptic might ask is American family life unique? Is the U.S. really so different from the rest of the world? The answer is yes, at least in some key respects. Just consider that while American children constitute a tiny fraction of the world’s population of children, U.S. buyers are responsible for annually purchasing a mind-boggling 40 percent of the world’s toys.”
Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors
By Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs
It is safe to say that I am a Youtuber—I watch it more than traditional cable TV. One of my favorite channels is UCTV. UCTV is from the University of California (all branches) and uploads massive amounts of lectures and documentaries on just about any topic you can think of. Many of the programs are for the public but without compromising the facts and research surrounding the topic be it healthcare or history. I heartily recommend you spend a little time with this channel! A most recent gem I watched was A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance. A Cluttered Life is a 19-minute companion documentary about a massive study made by two archaeologists, one linguistic anthropologist, and a photographer who specializes in documenting material culture and other sociological interests. Together, they teamed up and studied 32 two-parent households in the Greater Los Angeles area. In all houses, both parents worked. To assure at least one child was school age, all of the families had a seven-year-old child. The age range for the fathers was 32-58 and 28-50 for the mothers. Most of the dual-income families made between 50,000 and 149,999 thousand dollars a year.
The researchers went in and literally counted and recorded all of the household items, including food items. Additionally, they recorded the family’s activities in various ways from self-reporting, direct observation, self-video taping, and having outsiders come and video record them. What makes this fascinating is just how much we really do live like everyone else around us—well, I mean live for real and not the fake house we super clean before guests. It was hilarious to see photos of packed garages like my own and to learn that many Americans use their garages for storage and not for cars. It was weird to find out that having tons of family pictures around from the refrigerator to walls, to tabletops was a uniquely American thing. Most other countries do not have their family so much on display. Other weird patterns were that while most families spend almost all of their time in the kitchen and have serious morning bottleneck in the bathroom (most American families have only one bathroom in their house) when they can remodel, they choose to make a master suite bedroom mimicking that of a luxury hotel. And while these master suites are the least used in the house, the sanctuary effect they offer the busy working parents was considered worth it.
There was a dark side to the study and the issue was clutter, the use of convenience foods versus fresh foods, and something they referred to as ‘intensive consumerism.’ The truth is that nearly all of these families were swimming in clutter. Things were stashed everywhere—especially children’s toys. I had to laugh that while my house is pretty clutter-free, our basement, garage, and the famously packed-to-the-ceiling office slash guest room, which ironically is so stacked with clothes, books, tax stuff, materials for all sorts of DIY house projects that it barely functions as an office and is definitely a no-go zone for a guest room. It was oddly embarrassing to see my clutter problems looking identical to my fellow American’s clutter problems, and there are problems with this clutter.
For one thing, women measure high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone connected to all sorts of chronic illnesses) in the presence of clutter. Men actually are not as bothered by clutter as women. However, both men and women suffer the crippling financial problems that arise with buying too much. Americans are buying and buying and buying and not only are they burying themselves in clutter they are burying themselves in debt. All those little things add up.
There is a book that the researchers from this landmark study made to chronicle and sketch out the main findings of the study. However, I did not think it covered much more than the 19-minute documentary. I bought a copy and was a little surprised that it mainly comprised of photos with some graphs and text—so again, I think the short doc genuinely gives you a great wrap-up of the study. The one cool thing about the book is for reference. I have a pretty large library at home that I routinely reference, so for me, especially over time, this will no doubt be a great book to have in my collection (by the way, in every household studied—at least one member of the family was a collector) (blushing now). I think it would be cool when I am old to look at candid household photos of homes in the early twenty-first century.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.