Monday, November 14, 2011

Does the American Work Schedule Harm Children? Part II

Previously I had compared the employment schedules of modern Americans, Europeans and Americans from two generations ago. I noted that worker productivity had increased 400% yet the workweek hours have increased, not declined. I concluded that contrary to the self-prescribed purpose of the increased work week, which is the need to maintain the standard of living, is actually the need for greed. This will be an abstruse concept for many but a reading of this article may bring clarity.

I can recall the year before my wife abandoned my son and I. We lived in a modest ranch style home in the country, had one car and enjoyed a comfortable but not extravagant lifestyle. She worked part time at a daily child warehouse center earning a little over minimum wage. Our monthly expenses were almost $1000.

Today I have reduced that to about $700 per month for myself. I don't live in abject poverty. I abnegate most luxuries or conveniences but still avail myself of all necessities. I support my son, I am in excellent health with all of my healthcare needs being met, I live in suitable housing, I have a functioning automobile and I have most of the amenities that have become customary in American society. I travel by foot or bicycle about as much distance as I do the car in warmer months. Still, I rode from Carmel to Lebanon on Wednesday during high winds and sub-40 degree temperatures after working a few hours.

In 1965, a U.S. Senate subcommittee predicted that as a result of increasing labour productivity from automation and “cybernation” Americans would be working only about 20 hours a week by the year 2000, while taking seven weeks or more of vacation a year.

As I had previously said I am in someone's employ an average of about 10 hours per week. I am a cost-conscience shopper and more the antithesis of a consumer. To see if the theory plays out that the modern worker need only have an 11 hour workweek, or even 20 hours, I will compare the early post World War II era standard of living to the cost to maintain such in the modern era.

In 1950 the average square footage of the American home was just under 1000 by 1970 that was 1400 and by 2009 it had ballooned to 2700. It could be argued that this provides more living space but I contend that it is the result of the consumer society. The additional space is used to warehouse more stuff. In fact, housing alone has not proven suitable enough to store all the stuff as there are over 50,000 self-storage facilities in the US now. In 2007, 10% of American households used a storage facility. That could be because there is no garage space left because of the number of cars in there.

Before I start getting into price comparisons let me give you a baseline using the Consumer Price Index [CPI] as reported by the US Department of Labour, Bureau of Labour Statistics. I will use 1950 as 100. 1960 is 123%; 1970 is 161%; 1980 is 342%; 1990 is 542%; 2000 is 715%; 2010 is 905%. This means that the same basket of products that cost $100 in 1950 would now cost a bit over $900.

The CPI is generally the best measure for adjusting payments to consumers when the intent is to allow consumers to purchase, at today’s prices, a market basket of goods and services equivalent to one that they could have purchased in an earlier period. The CPI also is the best measure to use to translate retail sales and hourly or weekly earnings into real or inflation-free dollars. This allows for a comparison of the cost for an item at different times and also wage hours that it takes to purchase the item such as a new car.

The American automobile has long been an integral part of American culture. Americans love their automobiles and in true consumer fashion want more and more. According to the US department of Energy, in 1950 there were .7 registered automobiles per driver. By 1985 it was 1 for 1 and by 2007 that had increased to 1.21. The average cost of a new car in 1950; $1,510.00. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, as of 2010 the average cost of a new car in the United States is somewhere around $28,400, about a 1900% increase or more than twice the rate of inflation.

The straight numbers comparison in automobile costs is not a truly accurate comparison though. The 1950 automobile had fewer electronic gadgets such as heated seats, auto door locks and windows, motorized trunk latch, built-in televisions and all the amenities such as AC, stereo system and electric seat adjustment that are now considered standard but were luxury options in 1950. So, Americans have actually chosen to spend more money, which is hours worked, on their vehicles which makes some sense being that they spend more time in them as their cost of driving has decreased.

According to AAA the cost of a gallon of gas in 1950 was 27 cents. Today it is almost exactly 13 times that here in Indiana. That straight number doesn't mean it cost 13 times as much to travel now though. In 1950 the average passenger automobile had a fuel efficiency of 15 miles per gallon. By 2008 that had increased to 28 mpg. So the actual cost per mile has only increased about half the cost of fuel or 650% which is substantially less than the 900% of inflation. Yet Americans are still spending more on travel costs because they are traveling further in their automobiles.

It is generally estimated that the typical American driver is logging about 14,000 miles per year now while drivers just one generation ago drove about 2,000 miles less per year as did the generation prior to that who drove under 10,000 miles per year. So, travel costs have increased based on additional driving. Also, the fuel efficiency ratings do not take into consideration the increase in urban usage of larger trucks and SUV's which are not included in fuel economy standards.

In 1973 adult bicycle sales were about 10 million units and bicycle sales outpaced passenger vehicle sales in that and the following year. That translates to about 6% of the adult population buying a bicycle that year. Today that number has remained the same although our population has increased significantly, about 50%. As with most exercise equipment purchases usage is minimal.

The average miles ridden by all adults in the US is only 23 miles. Neither is enough to be considered a factor in the overall miles traveled. However, bicycle usage provides a fortunate opportunity to examine wants versus needs. I do submit that while technology has allowed many of us to work from home or otherwise be less dependent on personal travel we nevertheless do need personal transportation, but not to the extent that it is being used.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [NHTSA] conducted a telephone survey to determine bicycle usage by Americans. The numbers provided here include riders and non-riders. People with family incomes under $20,000 average only about 18 miles per year. People with family annual incomes of over $100,000 average 34 miles year. This paradox can be explained in that the poor often ride out of necessity, may not be employed and rely regularly on public transportation. The wealthy on the other hand have both the time and money to do more recreational or competitive riding.

Support for my contention of Americans actions being based upon greed and convenience comes from families whose income is in the $20,000 to $35,000 range. Members of these families have the lowest ridership rate at only 13 miles per year per person. Report analysts theorize that this group has the resources to afford an automobile but finds that it is more convenient than bicycle travel.

The automobile usage and bicycle dependence clearly illustrate how Americans demand for excess and convenience, rather than need, has contributed to increased costs and the so-called "need" to work more and thus earn more. But it doesn't stop there. American's have been conditioned to believe that wants are actually "needs".

This isn't just a theory of my own creation based upon my personal observations. Social scientists have written on the multiple reasons for why people consume beyond what they need for survival which includes status, convenience and marketing. (Wilk 2002). The last of which I am quite adept at avoiding the influence of having grown up around and participated in the marketing industry.

In the movie "Lover Come Back" an introductory narrator states how Madison Avenue decides what we do:
"This is Madison Avenue, the nerve center of the advertising world. Here are borne the ideas of what we the public will eat, drink, drive and smoke. How we will dress, sleep, shave, and smell."

I have long stated that Americans wouldn't buy 90% of their wants unless someone told them too and 90% of their needs would go unmet if not for a biological function such as hunger. Consumerism has been driven by advertising. Spending on product promotion boomed, from $6 billion annually in 1950 to more than $13 billion by 1963. That number was a staggering $42.8 billion in 2007, slightly under the rate of inflation.

Marketing professionals have captured the zeal of political populists who used an egalitarian attitude for their gain and transformed that to consumerism for the gain of their customers -- the producing corporations.

Now back onto housing where costs have far exceeded the rate of inflation. In 1950 the average cost of a new house was $8,450.00 while average wages per year were $3,210.00. This produces a ratio of 2.63 to 1. That is it would take about 2 5/8 years to earn the money to buy a home. Now that ratio is 6.52 to 1 based upon average annual income around $46,000 and the average cost of a new home in 2007-2008 being about $300,000. No surprise here being that the average new home is almost three times the 1950 size. Maybe housing needed to augmented corresponding with the people themselves.

The 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey indicates that an estimated 34.2% of U.S. adults aged 20 years or more are overweight, 33.8% are obese, and 5.7% are extremely obese. This produces an estimated prevalence of adults being overweight at almost 3/4 of the total population. The 1960 Survey indicated that an estimated 31.5% of U.S. adults aged 20 years or more were overweight, 13.4% were obese, and 0.9% were extremely obese. That produces an estimated prevalence of adults being overweight at easily under 1/2 of the total population. It wasn't until the early 1980's that it reached 1/2. Although numerous factors contribute to being overweight nothing can better explain it than excess. Calorie consumption that exceeds necessity.

A clear demonstration of greed versus need is evident in food consumption. One would expect that as automation and a move away from labour intensive employment has expanded over that past two generations that caloric demand per capita would decrease. To the contrary, the level of food energy in the US food supply increased from 3300 calories per capita per day in 1970 to 3900 calories in 2000. This 15% increase reflects higher levels of all three food groups, carbohydrates (grains & sweeteners), fats and proteins (grains, poultry & cheese). Total calories in 1909 is estimated to have been 3400 calories per day, so the level was flat for several decades before the recent increase.

Ironically it is these behemoths of our society that I have found being the most vocal about the high cost of living and need for more employment. These people pay for the convenience of having professionals prepare and or serve unhealthy meals to cram into their burgeoning bodies. They amass a collection of exercise equipment that collect dust in corners, basements or self-storage lockers. They drive to the gym and circle the parking lot while ensuring they get the closest open space to the entrance. They use a button to roll up the windows and are so lazy, that to lock the door and honk the horn to announce that a path needs cleared as they will be waddling in, all that is needed is to press a button.

I have not included interest payments in any of the cost calculations. Debt service as a percentage of household income has increased substantially over the past two generations. The Federal Reserve reports that average household debt in 2008 was $93,850. Of those households that carry credit card debt the average was $15,800 with an interest rate of 14.67%. That translates to over $2300 per year in credit card interest -- about 5% of total household income or two hours per week of full-time employment. This type of debt was practically non-existent two generations ago before the age of consumerism developed where the typical consumer tried to emulate the wealthy.

Numerous metrics, including many not examined here, consistently point to the era of 1950-1970 being a time where social change that enveloped consumerism and the need for greed evolved. Although advances in automation and electronics, particularly computers, should have allowed for the workweek to at least be cut in half, Americans instead find themselves working more for income. Almost three times as long to purchase a home, about double for a car and significantly more for food. So, it is true that the workweek could be 20 hours or less but the average American has decided to instead spend more time working to satisfy an insatiable appetite for more, more and more.

Their purported reasoning belie the actual purpose which is to satisfy themselves. It is the me generation. Americans covet the lifestyle of others and base their own existence and so-called needs upon the media projections of what they should be. It is the lack of fortitude for self-direction that drives Americans to overwork and neglect their children.

I have yet to touch upon the cost of medical and sick-care which I will do in the next segment. This excessive need for greed by non-caring selfish parents is having a substantial impact on children's physical and mental health as well as education and overall life satisfaction.

Parents have allowed their role to degenerate to that of solely being a material provider. In the next and final segment, Part III, I will tell you how the pervasive need for greed is specifically harming our children and what you can do to reverse harmful decisions or habits. After you peruse that final installment you will hopefully find that you are of the responsible minority or be able to transcend from selfish consumer to supporting parent.

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©2008, 2011 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

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