Thursday, December 28, 2006

America: Too Fast, Too Furious?

You often hear people claim that as they age that life – time itself – seems to go faster and faster. In a blink of an eye the kids are grown and you are looking at fewer years left than you’ve already lived. It is a universal phenomenon and frankly it’s a little disconcerting for those of us closer to fifty than we are to forty.

There is a perfectly logical explanation. When you are only ten years old one year is 10% of your life, and at age 50 one year is 2% of your life. It only makes sense that relative perception would make a year seem 80% longer to the ten-year-old as he skips off to school. Face it, you and I won’t even finish paying off Christmas until June (you only have ‘til September before the Christmas decorations start making their appearance at Target).

This topic was a conversation starter at a recent holiday dinner and it really set off an interesting take on our country and our way of life. It begs the question “is our way of life superior or simply insane?”

My opinion? It’s both.

The knee jerk response to the frenetic pace of American life is typical. It goes like this… Because most families need to have dual incomes just to get by a heartless and greedy corporate America is short changing our family life and driving us all to an early grave. Parents have to choose between staying home with a sick child or sending them to day care or school with snot running down their faces. It seems Mommy or Daddy has to be at an important meeting today. People who work at day care centers and at elementary schools will tell you this happens all the time.

So, who is at fault when this happens? It surely isn’t right that a parent should 1.) treat their own child like this 2.) expose all the other children to illness 3.) should feel so compelled to be at work that they would forsake the attention they should be giving to their own kid in favor of a hot project at work. Yes, I would hope that the boss, the company, our society would put the emphasis on the child’s needs in this case. Some companies do and others not so much.

There is a mentality that I have seen at my workplace that really rubs me the wrong way and those who hold it are usually those without any kids. They will say – and I mean literally – “is it the company’s fault you got your wife pregnant? Shouldn’t your wife stay home and take care of your little brats?” This is shortsighted and counter-productive in the long run, but it is a reality.

In other countries, especially in Europe, they have far more liberal worker policies. More paid time off for maternity (and paternity), more vacation (or holiday if you will) and shorter workweeks. The trade off is a less dynamic economy, higher unemployment, less income, far higher taxes and far less buying power. The gain is a slower more leisurely life style with less emphasis on work, work, work.

There is another factor that is really the key to this debate. Our individual wants and desires play the most significant role in our work versus lifestyle choices. It is possible for family to live on one income in this country. It is difficult at times but if you don’t get yourself into too much debt it can be done. Many of us baby-boomers had one parent stay at home while the other worked outside the home. Terrible decisions like the one described above were not needed. There were other decisions like taking vacations and buying a new boat were never made either; there was simply no money for them. Families did without luxuries, families got by on hand-me-downs, and families didn’t get to eat out all the time and buy soda pop, chips and snacks on a whim.

Today we want it all – and we want it all today! Instant gratification requires two incomes. The boat, cable TV, fast Internet, new living room furniture, the tropical cruise, the cell phone plan for all the kids, the surround-sound home theater and the new addition to the house cost a lot of money. Lest we forget that the regular bills like gas and lights and telephone, sewer and water and property taxes, (not to mention gas for the car) keeps creeping up every single year. Thanks to Chinese manufacturing and stores like Target, Wal-Mart and the Family Dollar Store clothing and other non-durable goods are actually cheaper than they used to be.

The point is that there is no scapegoat, no demons here. We can choose the lifestyle we want. If you are working for a company that is so rigid and inflexible that you are forced to make terrible choices when it comes to your child’s health and well being then it is time to look for a different job. There are better companies around. If you want all the goodies and toys then both of you are going to have to go to work. If you are a single parent you may not be able to own your own house right away, or subscribe to cable TV and eat out four nights a week. Choices, my friend. The very fact that you are a single parent is often a matter of choices you made. Oh yeah, you can choose to move to Europe too, that is if you can find a job… Europe – the land of milk and honey, you know the one… Eh, oh that’s America you say?

Is the preferred American go-go lifestyle slightly insane? Yes, Virginia, it is. I’ll be the first to admit it. I too want many of the things I rattled off, but do I expect that I can have it all - and have it all right now? No way. My first tropical vacation may well be after I’ve already turned 50. But I will have me that boat!



TJ Willms said...

“Our individual wants and desires” rule our lives and we both love and hate it. If that sounds like a mental condition, maybe it should. Clearly, we all possess the capacity to change it, but do we really want to. It would FEEL like a regression toward a more pragmatist, utilitarian past. Rather than a constant advancement to the brave new world of a future where everybody has everything, and consequences just evaporate into the ethereal mist of a Utopian ideal.

Nice post

Happy 2007!!!