The economic crisis is certainly taking its toll on families and the relationships that they are built on. A strong family requires a stable income and the things it provides, such as a consistent house and a balanced meal. What a family also requires, however, is great heaps of old fashioned quantity time spent together. The world that many middle class people live in, even those with reliable jobs, often puts these two directly at odds with each other.
Recent research at Boston College found that the most effective way to reduce teenage sex was for parents to spend a lot of time with their kids; the best way to do that was to have reliable family time at dinner every night. Highly scheduled activities that are part of a bizzy life have been separately found to be detrimental, turning kids into obsessive control freaks that worry more about peer pressure. Shuttling kids around in an SUV is not a successful substitute for simply spending time together. So why do parents do it?
The answer is that with an 8 hour day minimum and an hour or so commute, parents don’t have more than a few hours a day to spend with their kids. They try to make the most of it, not realizing that this time is the most precious thing that they have. The struggle to make a middle class living makes having a stable family difficult if not impossible, yet it is the standard of life that most people with those kind of jobs expect.
I’ve done my best to take an alternate route. When I was divorced, my kids were very young and my biggest fear was not being able to see them very often. I was determined to find work that allowed me to pick them up at school every day and have them over for dinner 3 times a week. This means that most middle class jobs are not available to me, so I’ve had to struggle. We only have one car now between my partner and I, which means 2-3 days a week I pick up the kids on the bus; at least this provides plenty of time together on a “small adventure”. I may have to get a regular job some day to keep my mortgage current, but for now I’m resisting. Clearly, my choice means that I have to constantly hustle to keep my time with the kids sacred. But I value the time we spend cooking and then eating together far more than anything material.
Very few people in the middle class make that choice, however. At the poor end of the economic ladder, people often hustle just as hard as I do but still don’t have time to raise their children properly. The struggle for money, either to support a middle class life or even just to survive, is ripping families apart far more than anything else. Our whole economic system is set up to deprive a generation of nourishment.
The trap that so many families was created naturally by our own culture. It has long been assumed that you got ahead in life through hard work and a trust in the system as a whole when it came time to cash your 401(k). Americans are starting to realize that while they’ve played by the rules all these years, a lot of people asking for a bailout have not been. Soon, people will realize what’s happened to their retirement. The basic understanding of our economic system that allowed it to soldier on despite being toxic to families is about to be tested.
This election has been different than any other since about 1980 in that “family values” has hardly been mentioned. For a long time, people realized that there has been terrible pressure on the family that posed a real threat. Hollywood, gays, and a number of things have been trotted out as the cause of that pressure for a long time, but not this year. This year it is increasingly obvious what the real problem is: just about every aspect of our culture as we know it.
What can we do about it? As far as I’m concerned, the best thing you can do with this culture is to drop out and take care of what you know is right to the best of your ability. Hopefully, many people will do this either by choice or because the downturn has forced them to. Then we can talk about forming a movement, an alliance of people who see corporate America as a very real threat to the health and safety of their kids and their family.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t have stable jobs; I’d love to have consistent work. I simply demand that it be on my terms. That may sound arrogant, but as far as I’m concerned I have a family to defend. It’s not your traditional family, but it’s the next generation of Americans all the same. I’m doing my best, but is America?