Thursday, January 19, 2012

How Consumerism Is Destroying the American Family

 There is a lot of talk today about the demise of the American Family.  Many on the right blame this on progressive liberal values.  But are other forces perhaps at work here?  I think so.

There is a lot of talk these days about the demise of the American Family.  People want to blame our permissive culture, or perhaps the media, or perhaps Gay Marriage.  But the real reason our Families are falling apart is consumerism, plain and simple.   We are training generations to believe that owning things is better than doing things, and that your family is a success if they own a lot of crap, not if they actually like each other.

Take Joey.  He is a typical kid of today, born in 1985 when Ronald Reagan was President.  His parents both have careers, so they could have enough money to buy all the things that they felt their family should have.  Nice cars, a nice house in an antiseptic suburb, cable TV, cell phones, and the like.  But since both his parents worked, he never saw them as much as he would have liked, and when he did, they were very harried and stressed about paying all the bills.

Joey was raised by sitters, day care providers, after school programs, his teachers, and mostly his peers.  His buddies in grammar school, middle school, and high school were the biggest influence on his adolescent years, and like most suburban kids of today, he would spend hours at one friend's or another, playing video games, listening to music, skateboarding, and later on, trying to scarf beers and maybe smoke some weed.  They would talk for hours about bitching cars they would have, and which girls in school might be "easy" and which ones were "hot".

Joey's parents took him to every extracurricular activity possible, when he was younger.  Soccer practice, three times as week, that sort of thing.  They stressed to him that school was very important and that he had to "get good grades" to get into college, because getting a college education was absolutely essential, if he was to aspire to the lifestyle they were leading.  No pressure here, Joey!  Succeed in school - or else!

And of course he increasingly questioned the value of all this.  He wanted consumer goods, just as his parents did - perhaps more so.  He would read car magazines all day long and dream about tricking out a Honda Civic with gull-wing doors and a bitchin' stereo.  The idea of that throwing thousands of dollars at an economy car was kind of dumb, never occurred to him.

When he was in middle-school, his parents divorced.  It was a traumatic experience for him - as it is for any kid, but it was hardly a unique one in this day and age.  Joey found himself bounced from parental home to parental home, spending weekends with "weekend Dad" - and his Dad's new girlfriend, and weekdays with Mom and her new Husband ("Don't call me Dad, call me Frank").  Joey was very confused.

And once his Father remarried and started a new family, and his Mother and Frank started having kids, Joey found himself on the outside looking in - a relic of a former relationship, a half-brother and a step-son in two homes.  At home in two places, but at home in neither.  If people think that sort of thing doesn't mess with a young kids mind, I don't know what they are thinking.

Of course, the cost of maintaining two homes and two-and-a-half families is not cheap.  But since both Joey's parents worked and made good money, they could afford it.  And one reason Joey's Dad divorced his Mom was that it was economically feasible.  Driven by normative cues touted by the media that a marriage should be "perfect" and that any setback or act of infidelity was unforgivable (thank you very much, daytime talk shows), divorce was not only an option, but a predictable eventuality.

When he was older, Joey got a part-time job after school and his Mom gave him her old Civic, and he spent every last dollar trying to trick it out like the cars in the magazines, with mixed results.

He had a girlfriend, of course.  But like his car or his Xbox or his stereo, she was just another acquisition, and an opportunity to lose his virginity.   Relationships, as he had been taught by his parents, were disposable commodities.  You got married, and then got divorced, if the marriage was too much of a hassle.  People were to be used as you saw fit, then disposed of.  Frankly, it is amazing to me that we are not raising a nation of sociopaths.

But, these were the salad days, ironically.  Joey had a "hot car" and all the games and toys he wanted, little responsibilities, a little pocket money, and the allure of sex and drugs to keep the mystery alive.  High school was a lot of  fun, and by playing his parents off against one another, he could keep the booty and largess coming.

Despite his parent's pressure - or because of it - his grades were mediocre, and after graduation, he went off to the local Community College.

In his second year at school, he got his girlfriend pregnant.  What should have been a joyous occasion - an opportunity to start a family - was instead an awkward moment in his life.  Should he marry her?  Or just pay for an abortion.  They chose to get married instead.

With mediocre grades, and by now, staggering credit card debt from the junk he bought to bolt on to the now-decaying Honda, Joey was not happy with life.  His wife was constantly complaining about money issues, and with his education, getting a good-paying job was difficult.  It seemed that just a few years ago, life was sweet!  After all, he could hang with his buds and smoke dope and play Grand Theft Auto all day long.  Now, at the ripe old age of 25, it seemed kind of old.  The mystery was gone.

What went wrong here?  Why is Joey's life a hollow shell instead of a rich and rewarding existence?  What happened to the American Family?  How did it turn from Leave it to Beaver into this sort of gross exercise in excess?

Consumerism, I think is the key.  Joey's parents were obsessed with being successful and making lots of money to have things like fancy cars and cable-TV, instead of being content with less and enjoying the family more.  Joey, as it turned out, was just another possession they acquired - and then disposed of.  A leased car, to be traded in, when the time was right.

And Joey bought into the same false dream - the idea that having a bitching car and lots of money would be sweet!  - but not having any real practical means of obtaining such things.  The idea that he could be happy with non-material things never occurred to him.

And why would it?  Joey had been parked in front of the TeeVee since nearly birth.  His normative cues were all about consumerism and buying things.  He had been programmed to believe that owning things or even just wanting things was the same as happiness.

A wedding should be the happiest day of your life (not just another excuse for consumer excess).  The birth of your child should fill you with joy.  Marriage should be a wonderful journey through life.  But for Joey - or his parents - none of these things were true.  Obsessing about the material, they rejected the greatest gifts God could bestow.  Within a few years, he was divorced, just has his parents had been.

What will happen to Joey's son?  It is tragic to think about it.  Being raised in poverty, but always wanting - not food and basic shelter, but consumer goods, cars, drugs, money, and "bling" - he will end up a lot like his Father, only perhaps worse off.  While Joey slid far down the economic ladder from his parent's level, his son will slide even further.  And it goes without saying that Joey was likely divorced before the lad is two.

And the sad thing is, it didn't have to be this way.  If Joey's parents gave him less of their money and more of their time, he might have done better in school - and spent less time with his peers and the television, absorbing poor normative cues.  And perhaps if Joey's parents were less obsessed about him getting into college, he could have viewed his career options in a more rational light.   Maybe he was destined for college - maybe not.  But one this is for sure, together, he and his parents, working together as a team, could have prepared him for life.

And perhaps instead of wanting things like a car, he could have wanted experiences more.  Maybe viewed his girlfriend as something more than an opportunity to get laid.  Perhaps viewed his wedding day as something to look forward to, rather than something he was trapped into doing.

Is Joey a real person?  He is an amalgam of a number of young folks I know or have met over the years.  Young people who came from "good homes" - middle-class families with lots of money, lots of things, but not lots of love.  The outcome of such family unions is pretty predictable, actually.  When acquisition of things and money becomes the primary goal of any family, the family quickly devolves into a race to the bottom - where each family member, from husband and wife, to the children and even grandchildren, vie to see who can get the most out of the relationship, for the least amount of work.

And ironically, any family unit, whether it is just a husband and wife, or a large family with children, or an extended dynasty of children and grandchildren, is indeed an economic unit that has ties that are economic as well as emotional.  And one reason we see the decay in the American family, I think, is not that we have too little money, but indeed, too much of it.  We are a wealthy nation - we can afford divorce.   We can afford day care and dual incomes.  Or at least we could.  Lack of money, ironically, can often be the tie that binds us together.

Joey and his family are representative of a typical suburban family today, that has children from multiple marriages.  Each child has two sets of parents - a Mother and a Father, a step-Mother and a step-Father.  They spend time in two homes, have two bedrooms, and two sets of possessions.  The driveways are filled with cars - one for each member of the family.  Everyone has their own television, their own computer, their own cell phone.  No one knows what the other is doing.  Parents have little or no idea what their children are downloading, reading, watching, playing - or who they are doing this with.

It is only when the Police knock on the door that the parents realize they are living with strangers - often dangerous ones.  The Columbine High School kids were not an anomaly and their parents were no outliers of irresponsibility.  They were just typical products of a suburban nightmare that is unfolding in America, largely unnoticed by most folks.

(And sadly, when the Police do show up, or the School Principal calls, the answer is always the same: "Not my child!" - and parents will defend their delinquent kids, which teaches them only that you can get away with murder, sometimes literally, if Dad can afford a good lawyer).

Money and economic co-dependency is often the glue that holds relationships together - and can also be the lubricant to help tear them apart.   Not long ago in this country, it was unusual for even a middle-class family to have more than two cars, one or two telephones, and more than one television.  Families were forced to interact with each other out of necessity.  Sharing and joint experiences were the norm, not the exception.

Even in my deeply dysfunctional family, group experiences were the norm.  With only one television, we had to compromise on which of the three channels of programming we would watch - together as a family unit.  Variety shows were popular back then, as they appealed to a larger audience within the family home.  If you didn't like one segment, perhaps your Parents did, and it was short enough to sit through.

Today, everyone has their own television, so everyone watches their own channels.  Even here on retirement island, we see the flickering blue glow of the TeeVee at each end of all our neighbor's houses, as husband and wife separate every night to watch their own shows.  People living apart while living together.

Or take the telephone.  We had one wall phone in the kitchen (and yes, it had a dial, and no, this was not that long ago) and as an added luxury, my parents had one in the bedroom.  If you were on the phone, no one else could call in (busy signal, no voice mail) and no one else could call out.  So you had to share the phone, and that meant not hogging it too much.

Today, even the youngest in the family has a cell phone, and everyone can talk or text all they want, without ever having to interact with one another.  You see this all the time - families together on vacation, each attached to their own electronic device, communicating with others - but not with each other.

Or take the "family car" - which was usually Mom's.   If you wanted to go anywhere, you had to ask permission to borrow the car.  Sounds pretty quaint and Norman Rockwell, but back then, few teenagers had the money to buy a car, and few parents had the money to buy cars for their teenagers.   When you went away to college, freshmen were not allowed to keep cars on campus, as it was felt that it would be too distracting from their studies.

Today, the average suburban household has a driveway full of cars - one for each family member, and then some.  The idea of not having your own car, for the average middle-class teen, is shocking.  And many middle-class kids expect a car as a matter of right, not privilege, once they turn 16.   And many expect a car - often a brand-new car - to go off to college in.

We ate together as a family because we could not afford for everyone to eat out separately at fast-food places, prepare frozen entrees, or have a pizza delivered (back then, you couldn't get one delivered anyway, outside of college campuses!).   So Mom made minute steaks, which were awful, but we sat down as a group and ate them together.

We are a far wealthier nation today than we were 30 years ago.  Much has changed, and much of this change has been so gradual as to go unnoticed.  Our increase in apparent wealth has changed the way the family dynamic works, and often this has not been a change for the better.

My parents didn't get divorced largely because they could not afford to.  Even with an upper-middle class lifestyle (of the time), the amount of money needed to maintain two homes, pay child support, and all the other attendant expenses would have been staggering for them.  They would have have to sell the family home and lived on far less money, and this was largely because my Mother had no separate income of her own.

Divorce was rare in my generation not because of moral values but because of monetary ones.

So what does this mean for the future?   Is there any way to recapture the "old family values" of the past - without resorting to the child labor ideas of Newt Gingrich?  Is banning Gay Marriage going to be the bulwark that shores up "traditional marriage" and brings down the divorce rate?  What about outlawing abortion?  In all cases, I think not.

The recent recession perhaps gives us a clue into human behavior, and how our emotional relationships of family, friends, and even lovers, are often more economically-based than we would like to think.  During the recession the divorce rate declined.    And I think this is in part due to the fact that many people can no longer afford to play the "Weekend Dad" game - maintaining two households and shuttling children back and forth.  I have met people who have agreed to get divorced, and yet remain in the same household - for economic reasons alone - as they cannot stand each other, but cannot afford to separate.  Economic glue can hold relationships together.

And oftentimes, in relationships, economic glue can hold people together long enough for them to sort out arguments and calm down a bit.  Everyone fights on occasion.  If husband and wife have separate bank accounts, separate cars, separate retirement accounts, separate phone numbers, and separate careers, it is far easier to escalate a simple argument into a "That's it, I'm outta here!" situation.

But I think, too, there are "values" issues here as well, but not the "family values" issues that the far-right would like to tout.  The divorce rate has been declining since 1981, in a long-term trend.  And I think this is in part due to the larger number of people willing to "live in sin" without getting married, and as a result, their breakups are not chronicled or counted in the statistics.

But I think too, that many children of divorced households have chosen their spouses more carefully, and chosen to live together for years, before getting married - often doing so only when deciding to have children.   They tell me that they don't want to make the same mistake their parents did and inflict the emotional distress of divorce on their own children.  So it is not atypical today to see a couple living together for a decade before marrying, and then doing so for the express purpose of raising a family.

Now, some "family values" types might see this as heresy.  After all, living together outside the sanctity of marriage is a major sin!  But if the resultant marriage is stronger and better, is this such a bad thing?  I think not.  

Another advantage of living together is that, after having both lived together for an extended period, and having saved up enough money, they can afford to raise a family on a single income - allowing them to have one parent at home to raise the children, instead of having to rely on daycare and after-school activities - as well as peers - to raise the children.  Again, this would seem to be a better "family value" to most folks, but again, not to the far-right.

But no, the far-right would still have the Joey's of the world getting married at age 18, rather than living in sin.  They would prefer Joey marry a girl he knocked-up and then end up getting divorced, five years later, as that is a "family value."   And perhaps that is one reason why Evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than most folks - according to a survey by a prominent Evangelical Christian.  And - you guessed it - Atheists seem to have the lowest divorce rate of any group.  And the rate of out-of-wedlock children is also highest for....evangelicals.

So much for family values, eh?  It is the lack of Prayer in the classroom and God in the town square that is leading to high divorce rates, right?

Perhaps not.

I think instead, it is a lack of real values of the soul - the emphasis even among those of faith that God will smile down upon you and buy you a new Chevy Impala SS, if only you believe hard enough.  God is like Santa Claus, and he buys nice shit for the faithful.  That is the message of modern "evangelical" Christianity - not real spiritual values.

It is also the emphasis of the television and the cell phone - the texting and yakking and distraction from real life and real communication.  It is the distraction of blaming all our woes on various minority groups, such as immigrants or Mexicans or Gays, rather than looking inward at our own failings.

And I don't think this trend is irreversible.  The people who are pushing for "family values" the hardest, seem to have the least of them in real life.  And their sponsors are the marketers and corporate shills who want to sell you happiness in installments.  And this leads to unhappiness in the consumer-family, as the vaunted rewards, as-seen-on-TV, never seem to quite materialize.

Maybe less is more.  Maybe living with less junk and more experiences is an answer.  Just a thought.