Monday, June 15, 2009

The Cost of Modern Life

Let's start of the week with a good one. David Airth asks,

"I will start by saying that my grandfather had five children, a stay at home wife and at least one servant.

I am trying to understand how come he could afford such a life, with only him working, something that is impossible to do today.

Since my grandfather's time the work force has expanded. I suppose with that expansion some things have got more prohibitive and expensive.
What is interestingly implicit in the question is the claim that in certain ways the standard of living for folks in the upper class and upper middle class have decreased, yet by other markers one would certainly have to argue that they have also improved. The single earner with servant model is certainly not accessible to many, and there seem to be several factors.

On the one hand, after WWII, the GI Bill allowed a class of people access to higher education who never otherwise would have had it and because enrollment in college allowed an automatic deferment during the war in Vietnam, what had been a small elite class of college educated workers expanded significantly. The successes of the liberation movements also expanded the pool of folks competing for higher wage jobs which were no longer de facto reserved for white men. This rise of the white collar class led to stagnation in wages.

At the same time the money coming in was flattening out, the amount needed to maintain a normal middle class life was increasing. The Levittown suburbanization saw folks moving from more densely populated areas to less so, but not the inexpensive country land, rather the new suburban developments in which the homes themselves became larger and larger and more and more expensive. The market being driven by two income families, the cost of the "American Dream," a family in a family home went up and up and up.

This lifestyle required additional overhead that wasn't needed. If you were living in a city, you didn't need a car, or one at most. Now in the suburbs where nothing is in walking distance and public transportation is seen as lower property values, multiple cars with all the costs of fuel, maintenance, and insurance become a virtual necessity and a drain on the monthly income.

After WWII goods became cheaper (both in terms of cost and quality), but this meant that we could buy more of them, more often. This is why the size of houses has been inflating quicker than the economy -- we need places to put all our stuff and we spend an inordinate amount on stuff that our parents never did. They would buy furniture once in their lives, furniture that would last generations and much of which was handed down and didn't need to be bought. We constantly buy new particle board junk at IKEA to redo rooms and reredo rooms, something that wasn't in the budget for past generations. Same for clothing. We buy cheaper and thus buy more, but also have to buy more because it is inferior and wears out, unless we get too fat and have to buy another wardrobe at a bigger size because we are eating out much more than they ever did.

Additionally, they would pay electric and phone bills, but they used nowhere near the electricity we do -- think of how many vampires there are in your home with a digital clock on them, each one sucking electricity and adding to your bills. The electricity to run a record player is nothing compared to how much is needed for the laser inside a cd player. Instead of hanging clothes we run driers that chug the electricity. Now add in the monthly costs of cell phone, cable, high speed internet, Netflix, and other invisible monthly charges (this is not to mention the burden that student loans play in many lives) that were not even on the horizon for those earlier and suddenly you see that it is not only that the prices have found equilibrium in a world where more people have money, but that it flows out at a substantially greater rate.

We have luxuries that our grandparents couldn't fathom, but at the same time there are ways of life that they may have had access to that are certainly beyond us.