Asking for advice: my parents keep renovating their McMansion, my sister and I have debts

Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:

My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…

My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.

But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.

Advice columnist responds:

But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.

There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”

It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.

At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.

Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.

Why Americans love suburbs #2: family life and children

A consistent finding of researchers when studying day-to-day suburban life or asking people about their suburban aspirations is the belief that the suburban life benefits families and children. Living alone in the suburbs presents particular problems.

That the suburbs are preferable for family life had an early start in Anglo suburbs. Historian Robert Fishman argues early English evangelicals like William Wilberforce moved from London to Clapham to give their wives and children safer and purer spaces outside the city. While the men could commute to the city for work and other engagements, the women and children had their own domain in the suburbs.

This image of a safe suburbia for families perhaps reached its peak in the decades immediately following World War II. The birth rate jumped (hence, Baby Boomers) and families needed more space. The country and many major cities faced a severe housing shortage. The social scientists who wrote the ethnographic study Crestwood Heights, a study of a Toronto suburb in the postwar era, noted that suburban social life revolved around the children: “In Crestwood Heights the major institutional focus is upon child-rearing.” (4) Even as these new suburbs may have offered few opportunities for teenagers until they could drive (sociologist Herbert Gans said Levittown was “endsville” for teenagers), families flocked to new homes, more green space, and new schools. Television shows of the era depicting suburbia tended to show white nuclear families enjoying a comfortable suburban life (think Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch).

Today, many of these ideas about how much better suburbs are for children remain. The suburbs offer more green spaces. They are quieter. They have lower crime rates. There is less traffic. Kids get a more “typical” American upbringing (and the modal experience in recent generations is a suburban upbringing). Single-family homes in the suburbs allow a family to purchase more space for the entire family, acquiring separate bedrooms to extra rooms to larger yards.

One of the strongest indicators regarding the importance of families and children in suburbia involves the importance of school districts for the desirability of communities, property values, and helping determine where people move. Schools are important because they are viewed as the one sure thing that can propel children to greater heights: going to a good school district leads to a good college which leads to a good job and then a high income and a comfortable life. These school boundaries must be defended at all costs. Examples abound. This includes both the busing issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the recent case of students in the failing school district serving Ferguson, Missouri who for one year had a shot at a better education at a whiter and wealthier district until the law was changed. This includes a debate chronicled by anthropologist Rachel Heiman among New Jersey suburbs about which kids should go to which high schools (and the wealthier families were able to keep their kids in the better-performing schools and limit which other kids were able to come to their schools).

Whether suburban children always come out ahead compared to kids from cities or rural areas is less clear. Even if the suburbs can be exclusionary, some upward social mobility is possible, such as one study that suggested DuPage County offered more opportunities than other counties or programs from the federal government, such as the Gautreaux Program or the Moving to Opportunity program, that aimed to move kids from poorer urban contexts to wealthier suburban communities. Part of theexcitement about a return of Americans to cities involves the choices by some families to stay in major cities, such as the influx of families to Battery Park in Manhattan. But, many Americans associate the suburbs with kids playing in the yard, multiple institutions that help nurture children and family life, and successful family outcomes decades later.

Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.

Conclusion

These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

The tipping point income for men getting married may be $40,000

Amidst more Americans living alone, here is some discussion regarding at what income point men are more or less likely to be married:

Instead, analysts said, the decline in both marriage and partnerships is likely a result of the declining ability of men to earn a salary large enough to sustain a family.

“All signs point to the growing fragility of the male wage earner,” said Cheryl Russell, a demographer and editorial director at the New Strategist Press. “The demographic segments most likely to be living without a partner are the ones in which men are struggling the most — young adults, the less educated, Hispanics, and blacks.”

Russell pointed to data that shows marriage rates increase for younger Americans in connection with salaries. Fewer than half of men between the ages of 30 and 34 who earn less than $40,000 a year are married. More than half of those who make more than $40,000 a year are married, including two-thirds of those who make between $75,000 and $100,000 a year…

The Pew data underscores the economic marriage gap: Adults who do not live with partners are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than those who have partners.

“Our surveys show us that one of the things that’s holding unmarried adults back from getting married is that they feel they’re not financially stable enough,” Parker said.

While there are likely additional reasons for this (one example: the development of the idea that marriage is about two economically stable people coming together), marriage in American is increasingly tied to social class.

“Why Is My Smart Home So Stupid?”

A marketing professor gives an answer to this simple question:

One popular answer is that the Internet of Things is still in its infancy and that better technology and standards are within reach and will lead to greater integration, and thus, greater smartness in the not too distant future.

There is some value in this explanation. Everyone who has ever tried to get an IP camera to work on a cell phone will probably agree. But this answer is also entirely steeped in a technological mindset and the naive belief that better technology will automatically improve our lives.

An alternative explanation may be that popular tropes such as the “Internet of Things” not only inspire but also constrain our imagination as innovators and as consumers. Designing greater customer experiences and, thus, extracting greater economic value may be a matter of avoiding this trope altogether…

One managerial implication we can derive from Epp, Schau, and Price is that different smart home definitions are possible. And Nest’s definition seems much more powerful than Plum’s. Plum adds yet another layer to the Internet of Things, and the result is often a home where everything is connected but nothing adds up. In sharp contrast, Nest succeeds by putting its technology in service of a much higher sociological goal: the age-old quest to create and sustain a happy family

The suggestion here is that new technology is only as good as the improvements in social interactions that it brings. Way before the smart home, modern consumers have been promised all sorts of benefits from new technology but the created items don’t always lead to the desired social outcomes. Cars enabled easier transportation but led to more private existences and increasing sprawl. Similarly, more single-family homes gave people space but helped spread them out. The radio and later television delivered mass media, theoretically connecting people, but also led to people sitting around these items. Modern appliances were to save labor. The Internet allows unprecedented customized access to information yet can lead to echo chambers and isolated interactions. Autonomous vehicles will create more free time or more time to work?

Perhaps this should be a challenge for smart home innovators: how can new devices both help in their particular area (say heating or lighting or saving energy) and foster social interaction? This may actually be the harder part.

More sociologists and other scholars advocating for marriage?

There isn’t much data here presented to defend a trend but here is a brief look at recent research that highlights the benefits of marriage in the United States:

The new wave of pro-marriage scholarship is challenging orthodoxy in academic fields with reputations — fair or not — of being politically liberal, and perhaps even antimarriage, or at least marriage-neutral. Part of the shift is because marriage itself has changed within the last few generations. “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who has been critical of some recent scholarship promoting marriage. “When people got married who did not want to get married, especially women, and when women’s rights within marriage were much more limited, employment opportunities much less, domestic violence taken much less seriously, when rape wasn’t even a crime within marriage — that system deservedly had a bad rap.”

The new champions of marriage disagree on how, and even whether, to encourage marriage through public policy. Nonetheless, there is an emerging consensus around an idea that would have sounded retrograde just a few decades ago: that having married parents is best for children’s well-being, that marriage is beneficial for parents’ psychological and economic stability, and that it should be a priority in public policy…

It’s low-education (and often low-income) “fragile families” that most concern researchers. Princeton University sociologist Sara McLanahan recently wrote that children growing up with a single mother are “doubly disadvantaged”: They spend less time and receive less money from their biological fathers, and their mothers are also likelier to earn less than married mothers are. Children born to unmarried parents fare worse on a wide variety of measures, including an increased likelihood of developing behavior problems and of not making it to college…

Single people aren’t resisting matrimony because of some sort of moral weakness or stubbornness, these critics say, but because they have existing disadvantages, including economic ones. “The people who get and stay married — and make it look like married people are better off than people who aren’t married — were better off already,” Cohen said. “Marriage is a privileged position.” Simply prodding the currently unmarried into matrimony will not magically make them more stable, healthy, and wealthy.

As the article notes, scholars on different sides of the political spectrum disagree on what policies to enact to promote marriage and have different definitions of what marriage should be. But, could the two sides ever come together to promote a middle policy or in order to broker a compromise? If anything, it might be the pressure within each academic discipline that keeps the sides apart.

Siblings dealing with an in-family wealth gap

Inequality by wealthy doesn’t just occur across groups or families – it can be an issue within families.

Experts see a growing trend. The same forces that have increasingly separated the richest Americans from everyone else is dividing brothers and sisters, too. It’s given rise to a mix of often conflicting emotions, jealousy and resentment, disappointment and distance, but also frequently understanding and respect…

As the wealth gap has widened, some mental health professionals say they’ve seen more patients for whom such a divide has become a personal issue.

In 35 years practicing psychotherapy, Janna Malamud Smith says she’s never had so many clients troubled by sibling wealth. The complaints have grown so familiar to her she can riff on them without pause…

A decade ago, sociologist Dalton Conley produced research suggesting that income inequality in America occurs as much within families as among them. Yet the similarities tend to end there. With siblings, “you had pretty much the same advantages and disadvantages growing up,” he says, so big difference in wealth can feel like a judgment on intelligence or drive.

How Americans feel about the wealth gap within their families shapes how they feel about it nationally, whether or not they see it as an inequity that must be addressed, says Lane Kenworthy, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego…

Poll results suggest that many Americans feel the same way. Asked in October by Pew Research to name the most important reason for the wealth gap, 24 percent chose “some work harder than others,” more than tax policies, foreign trade or the educational system.

One review of Conley’s book The Pecking Order suggests Conley isn’t surprised to find inequality in the home:

Conley takes an opposing view, saying, “The home is no haven in a harsh world—it both creates and reflects that world” (p. 112). The problems of capitalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry that hinder and hurt people in society are the same ills that trickle unnoticed into the home.

This reminds me of Marx’s suggestion that the first exploitation occurred in the family. Also, this hints at the micro-level effects of broader conversations about inequality. It is one thing to have public discussions about the 1% or .01% but it is another to come face to face with these differences within your own family. How often do these kind of close interactions between unequal persons happen? Given our propensities to gather with people like us in our social networks plus the durability of social class in shaping our tastes and life chances, it may not be that often. Hence, the uniqueness of a show like Undercover Boss where the head of the company interacts with the average worker. Perhaps this means we need a show called Unequal Families