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Posts Tagged ‘children’

One of the fascinating stories about Americans’ encounters with modern technology has been about how the flurry of labor-saving devices from the early twentieth century–electric lighting, central heating, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, electric and gas stoves, washing machines, dryers, full water and sewer systems, etc.–did or perhaps did not reduce the domestic workload of American women.

The conventional answer among historians, developed most fully in Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s 1980 classic, More Work for Mother (see also here), is a paradox: The time women spent in housework did not go down between, say, the 1900s and the 1960s, but stayed about the same. The reason, it is argued, is that standards for good housework rose and ate up the time savings provided by technology. No longer did gruel and cold cuts of meat make a passable meal; women now had to prepare “cuisine” each evening. No longer were monthly washings of bedclothes enough; they had to be washed weekly (and personal clothing had to be washed often enough to be changed daily). No longer was a bit of dirt and grime acceptable until spring cleaning; now homes had to be spic-n-span always.

1946 (source)

1946 (source)

Housework may have become less physically draining–no more hauling water or firewood to the kitchen; no more hand-wringing of wet clothes–and the results become more satisfying–better meals, healthier families, cleaner homes–but the time demands did not change.

A key research study behind this paradoxical story appeared in 1974. Joann Vanek compared several hundred “time-budgets” filled out by American women in the 1920s and ‘30s to those gathered from American women in the 1960s. (“Time-budget” studies ask respondents to report what they were doing in precise time segments, say, every 15 minutes, throughout the waking day.) Vanek found that among women not employed outside the home there was little difference in the amount of time they spent on domestic duties between roughly 1920 and 1970, despite all those new time-saving appliances. Given that many more women were working, Vanek concluded 40 years ago: “It appears that modern life has not shortened the woman’s work day. Farm work has been greatly reduced, but it has been replaced by work in the labor force. Indeed, for married women in fulltime jobs the work day is probably longer than it was for their grandmothers.”

In a newly-published study, Jonathan Gershuny and Teresa Atttracta Harms go back to the original time-budget reports, add more data and some new techniques, and come up with a somewhat different conclusion about technology and domestic work.

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The Grandma (and pa) Effect

Lily Tomlin’s star turn, the recent movie, “Grandma,” presents–alongside a lot of over-the-top histrionics and screaming–a key truth about the role of grandparents today. More so than in previous generations, grandparents today provide a safety net for and probably bond with grandchildren. And the grandparents who do so are disproportionately grandmas.

In an era when Americans worry about the durability of the family–well, Americans have worried about the family in almost every era–grandparents have become, perhaps with little notice, more important in various ways. The reason starts with simple demography: There are more grandparents in more young people’s lives.

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Left Out: Working-Class Kids

Two new books worry about the unstable lives of the white working class. Both Andrew Cherlin, noted sociologist of the family, and Robert Putnam, of Bowling Alone (2000) fame, warn that the economic insecurity blue-collar workers have faced over the last forty years has disordered the lives of white working-class children. That transformation, in turn, has handicapped their cognitive development, personal ties, community involvement, and economic success.

The basic story is well known. Since about 1970, there has been a gross deterioration in the jobs, wages, and employment stability available to men with no more than a high school degree. A few conservative writers have tried to muddle these facts, but facts they are. And it is not just that the economic fortunes of less-educated men have diverged sharply from those of men with bachelor’s degrees . . . .  Read the rest of this column at the Boston Review, here.

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Of Places Past

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (see links below) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

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The Giving Season… and Era

Every time I cash in on being (just barely) a senior citizen – at the movie line, on the subway, for example – I feel a twinge of guilt. The elderly, on average, can better afford such items than can young adults, especially those raising small children. Yet the system of discounts for age, like much else these days – say, Medicare vs. Medicaid – is slanted toward seniors. The logic is rooted in an earlier time.

Back in the day – say, before the ’60s – the assumption was that most old people could make it through their sunset years only with financial and personal help from their grown children. In last few decades, the flow of money and of energy has been largely going the other way (see earlier post).

In two new overview papers (pdf and pdf), sociologists Judith Seltzer and Suzanne Bianchi document the help many American seniors are giving their adult children long past the school years, be it directly with money or through help such as babysitting. (Bianchi, a terrific scholar of American family life, passed away recently, much too soon.) Among the less well-off, parents might largely help by re-opening a bedroom at home or providing after-school care. One study found that about 3 of 10 pre-schoolers are with grandparents when the parents are at work. Among the most affluent, parental help can include buying 20-somethings their own Manhattan apartments (see here and here).

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Child Labors

American children are typically expected to focus, laser-like, on doing well in school so that they can do well in college so that they can do well when they eventually start working. Moreover, parents enroll their daughters and sons in extracurricular activities also in part to give them practical skills. Given such a schedule, the proportion of teens, especially young teens, who work for pay has dropped considerably in recent generations; it also appears that rates of doing household chores have dropped. Our image of childhoods past, in contrast, depicts even young children working hard on the farm or in part-time city jobs. When did American childhood change to become so education-focused?

Noted USC historian Carole Shammas contributed to the discussion this summer. (Shammas has produced central studies on, for example, the history of the family and of consumption.) Writing in the William & Mary Quarterly, Shammas analyzes an unusual pre-revolutionary diary – a 12-year-old boy’s a detailed accounting, started in 1774, of all his daily activities. It tells of a quite different adolescence.

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Paying Attention to the Kids

Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.

Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.

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