Empty Houses

Zachary Gappa
|
Posted: Mar 26, 2015 12:01 AM
Empty Houses

Home is where… no one is. That seems to be the modern trend. City dwellers lead hectic lives, our suburbs are “bedroom communities,” and the talent of the next generation is quickly fleeing small rural towns. Our homes are empty for far too many hours of the day, and this trend has been steadily reshaping society.

Home is presumably a place primarily inhabited by a family in which the family finds protection, comfort, and fellowship. It is also a place to which we can invite others to partake in our lives. But these things can only truly be said of a home if we spend time in it, and this just isn’t happening.

In some cases, it’s easy to find valid, sympathetic excuses. Single parents run 30% of households in the U.S., a number that has tripled since 1960. Many of these parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time to spend in the home.

In other cases, we do not have good excuses. Our society tends to frown upon stay-at-home parents, or at least raise a doubtful eyebrow. Everyone is supposed to realize their full potential, and it’s assumed that that potential can only be realized in a career. The message is pretty clear: If you’re not working, you’re selling yourself short, you’re giving up.

Currently 67% of households are dual income, and the market has adjusted to the new norm. The modern dual income household has comparable discretionary income to a single income household in the 1970s. So, there’s no one at home for the kids, and we aren’t any better off financially. We’ve traded family time and leisure so that both parents can “have a career.” Is that a good trade for the next generation?

Parents today are trying hard. In fact, they actually spend a bit more time with their own kids than their parents did with them, but the total (20 hours/week combined) still leaves something to be desired. And those 20 hours include all types of shared time, including TV time and time spent in the same room with our heads buried in phones.

Consider how the average student spends their time. They are in school for roughly 7 hours per day, they spend 1-2 hours on homework, they sleep another 7 hours (less than recommended, but can you blame them?), and they spend 3 hours per day in front of the computer or TV. That leaves only 5 free hours and we haven’t begun to talk about sports, extracurriculars, travel time, meals, time with friends, etc. How much time is left for the family? How many hours are spent in the house that aren’t alone in a bedroom or in front of the TV?

Additionally, few households today contain extended family. We are a transient society, with the next generation frequently living states away from their extended family. Even if family is near, who has the time to steward these relationships? Rushing to and from work, carting children around to various activities, staying fit… it’s hard enough to manage the schedules of our own immediate family. Who has time for extended family? Good thing there are places and services to deal with our elderly. (And maybe we can just start preschool another year earlier while we’re at it.)

Perhaps the greatest victim is leisure time. We simply don’t have time for hanging around the house. The average full time American worker spends 47 hours/week at work, and the average part-time worker spends 26 hours. Work clearly hasn’t taken a time hit, and our children are doing more activities than ever, shuttled around by their parents. Throw in some basic chores, 6-7 hours of sleep, time at the gym, and adults are barely left with energy enough to watch a couple of hours of TV with the kids.

There is no time or energy for the kind of shared leisure that improves our minds and souls, enables us to educate our children, and strengthens familial bonds.

Consider the oft-heard advice of the elderly: Slow down, appreciate your children (“They grow up so fast!”), on your deathbed you won’t regret not spending more time at the office, etc. The combined wisdom of the aged seems in direct contrast to our current culture. They shout with a loud voice “Spend time with your family!”

We’ve sacrificed that idea with our modern obsession with self-realization. We’ve convinced ourselves that our primary moral duty is to be all that we can be, and we generally define that as our “career.” As our highest individual imperative, this obsession is actively dismembering our social structures. Since we must be all that we can be, by extension, our children must also. We fill our time. We fill their time. Little is left for family, and nothing is left for lasting, non-achievement-oriented relationships in our communities, churches, or extended families. Our homes are empty of children, parents, and guests.

But if the family is a fundamental unit of society, what happens when we spend so little time together? What happens to the next generation? Consider who will raise the children: Who is left in their lives? Who dominates their time? The state, through public education, and the media content they consume. Both are likely to have a disproportionately large impact on the next generation.

We are left with a nation of self-obsessed commuting achievers whose most consistent day-to-day social relationships are with the government and media. Huxley’s Brave New World looks more prescient by the day. Many people would rather not live this way, but our broader culture has made alternatives difficult. It is now difficult to live on one spouse’s income. It is now difficult to pull your child out of activities when every other family is doing it. It is now difficult to choose the incalculable benefits of family time and self-sacrifice when you could be spending time pursuing achievements that are so easy to rank and calculate.

This problem is not new. Our empty homes are the result of many, many decades of cultural development. They are the inevitable result of our emphasis on self-actualization combined with the technological developments that have made travel and isolation easier choices. We are experiencing the logical result of many decades of self-oriented culture.

Sadly then, short of a complete cultural change, our homes are likely to be empty for many years to come. We can only hope that the youngest generation or their children will realize the emptiness of lives defined by self-realization and packed schedules, and that they recognize again the importance of stable homes filled with people who spend time with and for each other.