A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

October 5, 2019 72 By Stanley Isaacs


– [Narrator] This program is presented by University of California Television. Like what you learn? Visit our website or follow
us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest UCTV programs. (melancholy guitar music) – We went into the homes of 32 families. The families all had parents who worked. Both parents worked outside the home at least 30 hours a week. – And we designed an
ethno-archaeological component that really addressed the questions of how people use their
built environments, how they use space, how they interact with their material
culture, the material worlds of middle class, dual come
families with children. – Come in. – I like this chair. – We systematically documented what people have in their homes, where they keep it. – And it was that first day, when I- I saw he had a camera. He’s taking pictures. We had tidied up. When I heard the first cupboard open, and I went, “Oh, no. “He’s taking pictures of the
insides of the cupboards too.” All these little figurines
and the napkins and things. – The archeologist counted
every single thing, in every single space, every single room. So we have a document
of the number of objects that are in kids rooms,
the number of objects that are in kitchens and living rooms. It’s really fascinating. – One of the things that we
discovered and documented is that contemporary US households have more possessions per household than any society in global history. Hyperconsumerism is
evident in many spaces, like garages, corners of home offices, and even sometimes in the
corners of living rooms and bedrooms, and the kitchen, and the top of the dining room table. – Shower stalls. – The shower stalls. We find lots of stuff. – [Elinor] Piles – Piles of stuff. – Mountains. – And it’s clearly in
some of these households creating some significant
stress for the families, particularly the mothers. – The finding was that women
who looked around their homes and saw clutter, and
remarked on the clutter, and remarked on the effect of
the clutter on their lives, mainly that it was very, it was like an ever-present, continuing, ongoing burden for them to manage, that those women when we looked at the cortisol levels of the women, their cortisol was very high. – So this is yes, a very crowded bedroom. All the reading that
I haven’t gotten done. – [Elinor] A house
could be full of clutter and nobody cares. – [Lyn] That’s right, that’s right. – It was generally the case, that men, they didn’t even remark on the clutter. So there’s a greater tendency
to remark on the clutter if it bothers you, if you are the one who’s responsible for tidying it up. – We have lots of stuff. We have many mechanisms by which we accumulate possessions in our home. But we have few rituals
or mechanisms or processes for unloading these objects,
for getting rid of them. – Things come in from all sides. They really do. They come in from gifts,
and birthday parties, and holidays, and from relatives,
and those kinds of things, and school, and treasures, as I call them. I have always been a treasure hoarder. So a rock, or a branch, or something, and my kids then ended up that same way. – There are a lot of
forces that encourage us to consume, and obviously this is the entire advertising industry, right? Millions of dollars invested
to get us to purchase things. (melancholy guitar music) This book is really meant
to get us to think about how we consume objects, to think about the number and types of toys we consume and give to our children. – The United States has 3.1%
of the world’s children, but consumes 40% of the world’s toys. – [Elinor] Of course,
children in all societies have something that is similar to toys. But the sheer quantity of
toys is really astonishing from the cross-cultural point of view, and how the toys spill out
everywhere in the house as well is also staggering. – We found in the study that
children’s toys and objects were in living rooms. They were in spare bedrooms. They were in their own rooms, of course. They were in kitchens. They were even in, sometimes,
in master bedrooms. – [Elinor] There’s some blurriness to the idea of a toy, because the parents have a lot of sentimental involvement in these toys as parents. One of the things we soon realized, is that the toys themselves
were toys for the parents as well as for the children. The house actually had a kind of child culture about it as a whole, where it became a child-centered house. – Some of it’s nostalgia, right? I mean, Snoopy, he’s a cultural icon. How many children
actually recognize Snoopy in the contemporary. I think Snoopy’s almost an
artifact of our childhood. I think the sheer
density and availability, and fairly inexpensive array of objects that are out there, this
has significantly changed over the last 50 years. We’ve found cheaper ways
to produce more stuff. Because of that, there’s more available. The reality is that we’re
perhaps spending more on children’s material culture, on toys, than ever before in the
history of humanity. (upbeat music) One of the chapters of
the book is devoted to looking at what people
have in their pantries, what they have on the shelves
in the garage by way of food, by way of what we found
to be stockpiled food, and stockpiled household goods. We walked into some family
homes, and we found that in addition to refrigerators
and freezers in the kitchen being packed full of convenience foods, the freezer that was in the garage as part of that secondary refrigerator which is not uncommon in
American family homes, was also stocked full of
these convenience foods. – If you brought someone from Rome, or from a town in Sweden,
and you showed them the size of the
refrigerator in the kitchen, and then walked them to the garage, and they saw the size of the
refrigerator in the garage, they would be pretty astonished. The refrigerator then becomes something to think about culturally. Why do we have these big refrigerators? What is that saying about
food in our society? – Dual-income families with children face scheduling challenges
that single adults do not, and that’s how do I
coordinate shopping trips, going to the grocery,
around school schedules, around afternoon pickups,
around the myriad of obligations that emerge from coordinating two or three calendars on a daily basis. Parents perhaps find that it’s easier to shop maybe only once a
week, or once every two weeks. Fewer shopping trips,
bigger shopping trips when we go do them. So hitting the big box
stores like Costco or Target. – I think that’s true. We still do go to Costco. When we’re there we’ll go, “Oh, yes, we need 96 granola bars. “We need them.” – Forty batteries. – And we still have some
of the residue of that. If I were to walk through
my kitchen right now, you’re right, I’d still have
a cupboard full of batteries, even though we don’t
have that many devices that need those batteries anymore. – In addition to this,
you would find shelves in garages and in pantries
that would be overflowing with pallets of bottled
water, and juice drinks, and paper towels, and cleaning products, multiple versions of the same things. (upbeat music) – The reason for having
such large refrigerators, having such large freezers was because we were putting inside
the freezer, especially, boxed items that were
prepackaged convenience foods. – Chicken nuggets, frozen
pizzas, fish sticks, French fries, things that could be cooked, that could be prepared from cold to hot in very little time. – There are now on average 400 linear feet of frozen foods available
in these big box stores and these big grocery stores. This contributes, actually, to the way that families are consuming their meals. With so much prepackaged
and frozen food available, we’re getting more and more family dinners that are actually these
segmented, independent mini meals. The kids insist on eating
something different, because they know that
mom can fix it easily with this prepackaged food. Our data show that only one in six meals is eaten together by the entire family. – Families have brought into this idea that use of these foods
will somehow save time in the preparation of meals, at the end of otherwise busy and hectic
work days, and school days. In the end, some of the
self-researchers found that families are only shaving off
about 12 minutes per meal. – We started doing something. We go to a business that
provides ingredients and we “don’t cook.” But you package all the
ingredients for a particular meal. This is what your typical
dinner would look like. – Oh, right. – So you package all the
ingredients to make a sauce. You get the meat. Then you get the whole, all
the cooking instructions. – That’s fantastic. – You un-freeze it, and then
ta da, dinner in a sack. It’s absolutely fabulous. – That’s very good. – It’s certainly a strong pattern. We saw this recurringly
across the 32 families, not all of them, but many of them. It really indicates these
consumption patterns that have changed over the
last couple of decades. We want to go to the store
fewer times per week. This is particularly true
for middle class families, with both parents working and
with two or more children. It’s a lot of work, shopping with kids. This is a way to get around that. But there are very real
material consequences. (upbeat music) This book is very much
a visual ethnography. We used some 20,000 digital photographs for 32 families’ homes as
the basis of the analysis. We went in and looked
for things, for patterns, and how families were using their homes, the kinds of things that they imported into various home spaces. Kitchens, for example, were these centers of intensive and frequent activity. – If you look at the data points of where family members
are every 10 minutes, you’ll see lots and lots of little dots that are in the kitchen. That’s because the kitchen is used for almost everything else but- No, it’s used for eating. But it’s also used for
a lot of other things. If there’s going to be
a clock in the house, the clock is going to be in the kitchen, because the kitchen is what Anthony calls the command center of the house. – Everything transpires in kitchens. Activities are organized. Schedules are coordinated. Plans are made for the next day. Meals are cooked. Kids are doing homework in kitchen spaces. Very, very intensively used. A lot of the material culture in kitchens speaks to this logistical center of everyday family life. – I think of the table itself
as kind of a touchstone. It’s the place where
everyone wants to aggregate, even when there are wonderful
facilities that were designed for the kids to do
their homework, for example, inevitably they’re out
at the kitchen table. That’s convenient for
the moms too, of course. They can do child care. They can multitask with dinner
preparation and child care. – That is our refrigerator,
or was our refrigerator. I mean, I look at these
and it just gives me joy to see this stuff. Because these were treasures
that were very near and dear. – It’s amazing how the refrigerator is a site of memories and plans. – Yes, this is memories. – One of the studies that
Jeanne and Anthony did was look at the family refrigerator door as a major site of this kind of nostalgia and sentimentality for the family, looking at how many different photographs and other personal things
about children’s art, and lots of little things about the family that went on the door, so much that you can’t even see the door. The door is just filled
with the family culture, the family history. – There seems to be a kind
of a correlation between how much stuff is on the
refrigerator panel door and how much stuff is in the broader home. – There’s still, these are
notices for dentist appointments, but those are one timers. – And these are school things. – This is all, if your
kid’s going to be sick, how do you call in sick, because I never remember how to do that. A school calendar for the days. – And this pizza? – These are pizza
coupons that Luke is now- Now, look at- This is going to, this
shows stuff gets up here and it never, ever leaves. I think the expiration date
on these is two years ago. – We also found some interesting patterns that emerged in bathrooms. Bathrooms are where we
start the day, right? So we put on our face. We put on our clothes. We look at ourselves. We check in. We make sure that everything’s there. We psyche up for the
workplace and for school. They end up being these
anticipatory spaces, where we’re anticipating the day to come. – Not only is our fridge the site of, but our bathroom mirror has
become the schedule center. Because we have a really
big bathroom mirror. So anything that kids are
doing that’s important is taped up there. Because I won’t always open the fridge first thing in the morning, but I will always brush my teeth, and look at myself in the mirror. – Bathrooms are also
perhaps one of the most contested resources in families’ homes. A lot of the families’
homes that we were in had only one bathroom. When you have to cycle
everyone through that space within a span of about 30 to 45 minutes before shuffling everyone
off to school and work, it can be stressful. You’re coordinating opportunities
to visit the bathroom. As a result, we found that
there’s a lot of sharing, and family strategies for dealing with this very finite and limited resources. Stack multiple people in there. Because of that, these
were interesting sites of child socialization. – One of the clear ideals of these parents is to create a master bedroom environment that represents a retreat,
a spa-like retreat, from the crazy chaos in
the rest of the house. – This is perhaps one of
the least intensively used rooms in the home. Not a lot of activities were
unfolding in master bedrooms. But what you might find surprising is that this, out of all other home spaces, this was prioritized more frequently as a space for remodeling. In 2004, the average cost
of creating a master suite in the greater Los Angeles area, was about $80,000. – Their money would have
been much better spent on places that are clear
bottlenecks in these homes, bathrooms that are overly
busy during the morning rush, or kitchens that are often described by the family members
themselves as too small, too out of date. – I can think of nothing
that more potently speaks to the significance
of this space to parents. We might even think of the master suite as a symbolic space. If they’re like my family, you just crash. You fall asleep because you’re
tired and you’re exhausted. But you get to wake up in that space. These are spaces that were
made to look more hotel-like, look more resort-like. They were intentionally
decluttered as well. This is opportunity for parents to wake up in a space that looks
qualitatively different than the rest of their home. For that reason, because of that, parents might have conferred some kind of restorative benefits out of this. This is a place to charge your batteries, a place of refuge to prepare yourself before you go back out
and face all of the work that is contemporary American
family households and beyond. (upbeat music)