Pre-industrial age families were managed by a momma and a poppa. Momma stayed home, watched the kids and managed the household. Poppa went out and worked long hours on the family farm and in later years it was the factory. Momma worked her tail off too, but it was to keep the household moving along. This nuclear family construct stayed very consistent until about world war two. The war effort combined with the needs of the industrial age forced a sea change in the way the family was structured. Many ‘moms’ went to work and they haven’t looked back for the last few generations. In the modern world families are different. Where we still have two parent households, the majority of them have both adults active in the workforce.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a need on a national survival level that necessitated both heads of household to hold down jobs, but there are several other more practical and modern reasons for the continued existence of dual income families. The simplest reason is that we have more stuff. Our homes are bigger, we have more cars, more electronics, more health options, more of everything really. This stuff isn’t free. Want a quick primer on how the world has changed? Go take a look at the least expensive stick or brick built starter home you can buy today. Generally it’s a 3/2 with a one or two car garage. Now go to the older section of a town that housed the middle class of the 50’s and 60’s. You’ll see significantly smaller houses, usually two bedrooms with a single bath and carports in lieu of garages. Just by driving around town you can see that the expectation for middle class and average quality of life has expanded.
It’s not just about stuff, it’s about services too. The expectation is regular meals at restaurants. A sausage biscuit and coffee at McDonlds for breakfast or a Happy Meal for the kids may seem like a great deal at $3 or $4 dollars, but when you think about the fact that it’s fifty cents worth of raw materials and energy then you realize eating out is expensive. One of the reasons is a self fulfilling prophecy, you eat out because preparing healthy low cost food takes time. If both parents are working then time is in very short supply. If both parents want good careers then the family needs to be as close as possible to places with lots of available jobs which usually translates to dense urban environments. Workforce density means competition, which also means more work places with extended workdays and evening / weekend events. On top of the extended on the job hours, the times needed to work at those jobs goes up too because of the commute. More commute and work time means less time to prepare meals. But a quick run through the drive through will fix that, right?
Don’t’ forget Job transitions are real when most people have a double digit number of jobs throughout their career. Job transitions, especially the involuntary ones, means that there is always the possibility of a parent losing the job unexpectedly. In a single income household, if the professional wage earner loses their job it’s a disaster. It’s best to prepare for this type of situation by sharing the risk. If both parents are working then the odds that both will be out of a job at the same time are much lower. Modern families need to have at least some cash flow because we live in a world where the selling of credit has meant that most people have payments for everything. There are are multi-year and multi-decade lines of credits issued from cars to houses, to boats, and other large toys. Credit is offered for things like vacations and even underwear if you fall into the Victoria’s Secret trap! Since the average family uses credit for everything, and servicing that debt requires regular payments, then it follows regular income is a necessity. Unfortunately, as referenced earlier, regular employment isn’t. This reinforces the fix of two wage earners so one can provide support while the other is out. Bottom Line: For most families, there needs to be two wage earners to meet the standard needs of what’s considered a middle-class lifestyle.
So far this commentary is just for the couple. Household management becomes an insane carnival when the kids come. First there is the additional space we are enculturated to think we need with kids. This translates into a larger house and/or the more expensive home in the neighborhood with the better school system. Some parents want safer (ie larger and more expensive) vehicles. Larger households take more time to clean and maintain. Honey do’s and projects can suck up immense amounts of time from research through completion. Putting the ‘stuff’ aside, there is the time component. Someone has to watch the kiddos when there are unexpected school and after care closures. Winter, Summer and year round school breaks are regular long term child care challenges. There are some after school / out of school programs but they have holes in their service that only a parent can fill. Kids also get sick and when that happens they aren’t allowed at school or daycare. There is the additional cost in money and time with the kids extracurricular activities. What if everything isn’t normal? What if there are additional medical or developmental costs, like needed tutoring? It’s not just kids. If you happen to be a member of Generation X, then your part of the first large scale sandwich generation where the children aren’t launching at the ages they have in the past and parents are living so long that they need elder care by a responsible and we’ll resourced mid-life individual.
Up until this point I’ve concentrated on the family dynamic, but it’s not just about the family. Every community needs people, specifically volunteers, to help make the community stronger. It’s everything from local charities to other sorts of civic engagement. Between the fiduciary needs of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle, the time and resource needs of raising children, and ancillary needs of being engaged in your community is it any wonder that most two-parent families simply can’t pull it all off? It’s also about individual development. There’s personal health, relationship maintenance,personal enrichment and the need for upskilling. There is a financial and time cost to all of this. In some instances both are exorbitant even for a full-time professional.
How do people currently manage?
So if it’s pretty obvious that most average two-parent professional households can’t do it all, but they need to, how does it get done? Right now it’s pretty much a hodgepodge of solutions. Some get parental support if the grands are engaged and still young enough to contribute. Sometimes it’s in money and sometimes it’s in time. This is an age old relationship. My grandma used to pick me up every day after school after she got done with her shift working at Jordan Marsh. The challenge with the extended family all working together, at least with the professional class, has to do with the reality of the modern professional job market. A massive chunk of professionals have to move to hundreds or thousands of miles away to get a job. It’s why there is the term ‘heart home’ because so few professionals live and work where they grew up.
Some are always stressed and on edge. Things get done but they are done poorly. Some are huge wage earners and pay through the nose for needed life buffers like cleaning services, nanny’s, tutors, etc. Some just fail. They let things fall through the cracks – this can result in seriously messed up kids with a hugely negative impact on both the family and society at large.
They Need Three!
I couldn’t really do this article as part of my a big problem big solutions series, because, well it may be a big systematic problem, but this solution is not really feasible. But I have come to the conclusion that what is needed is a third adult. No, i’m not saying everyone should join a fundamentalist sect of the mormons. I have to admit the idea of a second wife scares me worse than a good Stephen King novel. I’m talking about something aligned to how we have done it in the past, but more formal or regular.
It could be a grandma, an aunt, a brother, etc.. but someone who basically fills the role of the old ‘momma’. Who is head of the household. Who engages community, who cares for the kids, who cares for the aging grandparents. The difference between today’s more complex world with its more expensive needs is that they would have to be supported by two wage earners, not one. Because our world is more complex, their needs to be the systems in place for their healthcare, their retirement, etc. Making them a dependent helps in this regard, at least with the healthcare if provided by employers but the rest of it is expensive. Having a third responsible adult manage the household affairs outside of the formal workplace isn’t without its drawbacks. There’s the aforementioned costs associated with their long-term needs but there is also complications relating to the family dynamic.
This third adult is not a new model. This model worked with my Aunt Anna. She didn’t have kids, she was the caretaker for my great-grandparents and a foster mother too many nieces and nephews when the other sisters were busy raising their own kids. Because all of my grandparents generation had a stay-at-home parent each individual family didn’t need a third parent in the household. Having Aunt Anna float between my great-grandparents and all the other families provided enough of a buffer to smooth out the bumps in life for everyone. Unfortunately I don’t think one sixth of an extra parent in the household will be enough in today’s more complex world with the prerequisite dual wage earner household.
I honestly don’t have a solution, I only have a need identified. The challenge is that we need a third adult in the household to have it run smoothly. I am a fan of Science Fiction. In movies like iRobot and the Star Trek series there are human like robotics that can fill this type of role. Maybe in the future crazy advanced humanoid robots would work, but today that tech doesn’t exist and I don’t see it developing to that extent for many generations if it’s even possible.
Another crazy sci-fi trope is the idea that everyone will be wealthy enough to not have to work. Ths mitigates the need from both parents working. I don’t think that wealth will ever reach the point where everyone won’t have to work. In the same way we will keep coming up with stuff to buy, we’ll keep coming up with stuff for people to do for work. People who generate wealth will always want to keep what they earn and won’t look kindly on those who aren’t working. That’s human nature.
So we have a catch-22. Modern middle-class professional households need two working adults to meet the average needs of our modern world and enjoy some of the experiences that life has to offer. Effectively run modern professional middle-class households need a stay-at-home parent/adult for all sorts of valid reasons. You can’t have a parent stay at home and have a dual-income family when there’s only two adults in the household. That leads me to my thesis that it takes a third adult.
In the 1960s Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston had a hit with the song “It Takes Two”. Maybe today some pop duet needs to make a new version called “It Takes Three”. Actually now that I think about it, it shouldn’t be a pop duet it probably should be a trio.
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