According to a recent study released by the UCLA Center on the Everyday Lives of Families, U.S. families have reached “material saturation.” The back areas of our homes (closets, basements, attics, cupboards) are so stuffed with possessions that our things spill out into our front areas (table tops, floors, furniture) and create more visible clutter than ever before in the history of the world. We’re no longer enjoying leisure activities and our children’s stuff is at the top of our clutter piles.
Published July 1, 2012, Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century examined the homes of 32 southern California families. The visits took place from 2001 to 2005 and involved families with two parents who worked full-time and who had 2 or 3 children in the home (and at least one of those children was between 7 and 12 years old). The families represented multiple ethnic groups, neighborhoods, occupations, and income levels. Data was collected on each family through week-long in-person site visits, interviews, videos, and surveys.
The study makes one point very clear — clutter and children have a strong correlation.
Our data suggests that each new child in a household leads to a 30 percent increase in a family’s inventory of possessions during the preschool years alone.
How is it that children lead to such a drastic increase (30 percent!) in possessions? The researchers provide two explanations: parental guilt because of working outside the home and generous grandparents.
The United States has 3.1 percent of the world’s children, yet U.S. families annually purchase more than 40 percent of the total toys consumed globally. Spilling out of children’s bedrooms and into living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, and parents’ bedrooms, the playthings of America’s kids are ubiquitous in middle-class homes. … A sense among working parents that they have less time to spend with their children may be spurring them to shower kids with toys to compensate for a perceived loss of quality time at home. Other relatives contribute to children’s material assemblages, including about $500 spent by grandparents each year on toys, clothes, books, and other gifts. Given the high divorce rate in the U.S., many children wind up getting gifts from multiple sets of grandparents.
Another interesting correlation emerged during the study of the 32 families was that the number of items on a family’s refrigerator seemed to have tracked to how much stuff cluttered up the home. The more densely populated the front and sides of the refrigerator, the more crammed the house was with stuff.
… the refrigerator panel may function as a measuring stick for how intensively families are participating in consumer purchasing and how many household goods they retain over their lifetimes.
U.S. families are no longer taking advantage of the bicycles in their garages, the hot tubs or swimming pools in their backyards, their swing sets, or their patio equipment. Items conducive to relaxation were purchased by the families in the study, but rarely or never used.
Leisure is indoors. Most families have cluttered home offices or desk spaces with computers that are visually stress inducing and intrude on indoor leisure time, reminding families of workplace commitments. The material residue of families’ vanishing leisure includes these overused home offices and rarely used back yard patios and play areas.
How Does It Happen?
In a recent interview in The New York Times, Anthony P. Graesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College and one of the researchers of the study, commented that he believes U.S. families are overwhelmed by their stuff. Stress levels are almost as high as the clutter.
In this interview, he provided more reasons for how he believes physical possessions have taken over U.S. families.
We can see how families are trying to cut down on the sheer number of trips to the store by buying bulk goods. How they can come to purchase more, and then not remember, and end up double purchasing.
In short, a family’s desire to save time ended up costing space and creating anxiety. Finally, he postulated families could reclaim their homes and stress levels if they became more comfortable with letting things go.
The inflow of objects is relentless. The outflow is not. We don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.