The Challenge of Recreating a Functional Household in Today’s World

After watching my interview with C. R. Wiley on building a 21st century household, a reader wrote in with his observations on this topic from the pandemic - Ed.

Here are some thoughts I’ve recently had on the 21st century household arising from my experience of working from home for more than a year (COVID), schooling from home, and spending every day in the same house as my wife and children.  Going into this I thought it would be like the pre-industrial life in which the whole family lived and worked on the farm or shop.  But now I’ve concluded it is nothing like it, and the reason is because my children make no substantial contribution to the family enterprise.  Instead, they are largely a time drain due to the schooling that they need.

What is different now from pre-industrial times?  I think foremost is that there are very few low-skill tasks in which children can make a positive contribution to the family economy.  The pre-industrial trades and crafts might have taken many years to master and require high skills to create the finished product, but I imagine that many low-skill tasks were required along the way in which children could help.  Such is not the case for my 21st-century job as a university professor.  I analyze large datasets for my research and teach undergraduate and graduate classes, neither of which can my children offer any help.  Why?  The computer and printer do the low-skill tasks of arithmetic computation, data recording, copying, text formatting, multiple-choice grading, etc. much more effectively than any human could.   Only the high-skill and high-knowledge tasks of directing the computer (coding), teaching and advising, and scientific writing and reviewing are left.  It’s typically the case that people cannot make a net positive contribution to scientific research and university teaching until they are a couple years into a Ph.D. program (which not coincidentally is when students no longer need to pay for their education but instead receive a modest stipend).  Maybe this is an extreme example, but I wouldn’t be surprised if across the board that computers, devices, and various machinery have replaced most of the low-skill tasks that people used to do as part of moving up the ladder in a profession or trade. So what we are left with are dead-end low-skill jobs and high-skill jobs with no entry point for someone to learn on-the-job.

You mentioned that one example of a family enterprise is pastoral ministry.  I think it is notable that this is something in which even a teenager can contribute at a low-skill level — e.g., nursery and children’s Sunday School.

Another example of family enterprise that you mentioned is the political dynasty.  This hearkens back to the pre-industrial aristocracy, whose children did not engage in economically productive activities but were instead educated as preparation to rule (the higher aristocracy) or enter genteel professions like law and medicine (the lower aristocracy).  Perhaps what we’ve set up in the 21st century world is an economy where most people are forced into the position of the middle class of a century or two ago with computers, devices, and machinery in place of servants to do the low-skill work and the requirement that children be educated rather than economically productive.  The only problem is that not everyone is capable of gaining the high skills needed to enter today’s genteel professions, and there aren’t enough positions available for those who are capable.  Thus, the increasing economic strain in our society.

What about household work? If children can’t make a contribution to a parent’s outside job, can they at least make a contribution to the household upkeep? Again, I think the answer is no. Although my wife and I make our kids do many more chores than we did as kids, it hardly matters since modern appliances have made cooking and cleaning much faster and easier than they were in centuries past. And children can’t help with the burdensome parts of household management — the need to drive somewhere to take care of any errand and the need to constantly deal with the bureaucratic complexities of 21st-century life.

What about work outside the household? Can teenagers work outside jobs and thereby contribute economically to the family? It’s more difficult than it used to be. Government regulations have made it more difficult for teenagers to get a driver’s license and a permit to work than it was in my time. Beyond that, low-skill immigrants have taken the jobs historically done by teenagers — yard work, car washing, fast food, etc.

What to do?  I don’t see any easy solution.  Although I don’t endorse it, the precipitous decline in fertility is becomes more understandable. Otherwise, many Christians are going to need to accept that historically the need for children to be educated rather than economically productive often placed the middle class under greater economic pressure than those in the skilled trades.

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