Busy Bees and Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees

We have all seen it, the minivan flying down the freeway at Mach Two trying to get the kids from school or ballet to soccer practice or scouts. Heck, if you have been a child in the past 20 years you have probably been the kid on Mr. Toad’s wild minivan ride. If not, then you have probably been the one driving the minivan. It seems like families have been getting busier and busier. I have friends who recall their daily lives and tell me about how busy their lives are. The questions that arise when discussing how a family man (or woman) can have such an abundant amount of busyness are why the typical family is so busy and what structural factors have contributed to their business? It seems that there are two broad factors that make the American family so busy these days: the activities they do and employment.

Why is the typical family busy? It is quite obvious why the typical family is always so busy, they participate in so many activities. Is it such a change from earlier generations? In the past, this hasn’t always been such an issue, because families and children have always done extracurricular things. The reason that it seems that people are busier these days than in those from the past, is that nowadays the societal norm is that both parents are employed, while in previous generations most families were single income. By having both of the adults in this equation being employed, you multiply one thing: Income. But you also divide one thing: Time. By both parents working, it is a constant juggle of schedules to get this person here and then that person over there. That would be all well and good, however, but for each seemingly benign activity, there is travel time to and from which compounds and adds up, and then it is multiplied by each activity and very soon it is nearly eight O’clock before you are getting everyone home. By having to work and also run everyone around, this brings up another need, especially if there is more than child involved in the perfectly timed, daily juggle; who is caring for or managing the other children’s activities? Usually, this task would fall to the other parent, or maybe a grandparent or even a close friend. But how often can you lean on your friends and family before it starts to strain those relationships as well?

Structural factors as to why families are busy are both easy to spot and also cloaked as other issues. One of the best examples of a structural factor that drives how busy families is that by doing different activities, parents are trying to make their children well rounded. By making their children well rounded (even at a young age) parents are trying to groom their children to be well rounded and successful and to get into a good college. Unfortunately, the society that these children will be growing up in focuses on a myriad of things, not only grades, these days. Colleges are looking for hopeful applicants to have a much more going on than just the requisite GPA; community service hours and extracurricular activities are a must, just to be competitive for admission. But why go to College? It was always stressed to me that I need to go to college to get a good job. My father told me that more than once, as we argued over the typical things teenage boys and their fathers’ argue over. The stress over higher education from parents toward their children is to try and push them up the socio-economic ladder. Before the rise of the need for the dual income family, most families were comfortable living off of the income of one, usually the male. The reason for the switch in the paradigm from single earners to dual earners if for the security it provides. Some statistics found suggest in the past 20 years the average single person income has stayed relatively stable, hovering just below $50,000. However, the prices of goods and services has gone up (remember when gas used to be a buck fifty a gallon!) so that means that the additional income has to come from somewhere, so to make ends meet the other parent would have to supplement the household income. I remember when I was a kid, it started with my mom hosting Tupperware parties to help pay for a trip or vacation or for Christmas presents, eventually mom went to work part time while my sister and I were in school. Other structural factors that perpetuate the need for a dual income household is the instability of employment. This has become more apparent in the past few years as we have dug deeper into the current recession, and what jobs that are out there have become a hot commodity. The insecurity of the job market also makes some of those that are employed to try to go above and beyond in their current job’s parameters so they are viewed as of higher value and are a more worthwhile choice of keeping off of the chopping block.

In closing, there is much that makes the lives of the typical American family busy, some of these things are in our span of control, but most are not. Most of the factors that make us busy are just coping mechanisms to get by in everyday life and to make a life better for those we love.

by Jonathan Rumsey

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