Baby boomers' insatiable demands


BABY BOOMERS often complain that they must work harder than their parents did to stay in the middle class. They're right about the long hours -- Americans are working more than at any time since World War II.

Today, 20.9 percent of the labor force works more than 49 hours a week, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In 1973, only 15.9 percent of workers logged such long weeks. About 10 million Americans, or 8.7 percent of the work force, clock more than 60 hours a week nowadays.

Harried employees resent their long hours and wistfully recall that their fathers were able to support families on 40-hour weeks. Whatever happened to those good old wonder years when mom could stay home with the kids and dad could be counted on at the supper table?

Part of the answer is that, after adjusting for inflation, wages have declined. Some economists believe pay has shrunk because labor unions have grown weak while foreign competition has strengthened. Others say our relatively low wages reflect the slow growth of productivity in recent decades.

Whatever the reason, this wage decline is real. Still, it doesn't fully explain why so many families have both the mother and father working full time -- and at least one of the two putting in more than 40 hours. The real reason many of us are working longer hours is one we don't like to admit: We simply want more stuff and are willing to work longer to get it.

Wait, you say. That's not true. You work long hours because that's what it takes to survive these days. You're not getting rich, and you're not greedy.

But do a quick household inventory and make an honest comparison with the home your parents owned 30 years ago. The truth is that most of us could work less if we were willing to live the way the typical family did in the 1960s.

Consider these statistics: The average new house built in 1964 had 1,470 square feet of living space. Only 15 percent of new houses had 2.5 baths or more. Today, the typical new home has nearly 2,100 square feet, a two-car garage and 2.5 baths, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

In Atlanta, where summers are hot and long, "I'd have to say 100 percent of new houses have central air conditioning," said Rick Porter, president of Richport Properties in suburban Tucker. "You just can't find a new house without it."

But in the early 1960s, only about one new house in five had central air.

Not only do we have much bigger, better homes, but also we are filling them with far more goods. In the 1960s, a typical house might contain one television (black and white), one telephone (not cordless with touch-tone service) and one charcoal grill.

Today, a middle-class family would consider that setup to be straight out of the town of Bedrock. Maybe Fred Flintstone could enjoy such a home, but you wouldn't.

Americans now believe that to be "middle class," they must have two cars, a microwave oven, a VCR, several telephones, two or three color televisions and cable-TV service. And the list just keeps growing. Retailers say the hottest sellers this year are big-screen televisions and gas grills.

Look at other measures of how much "stuff" we have. In the 1960s, a closet was a closet, just a couple of feet deep. Today, a closet is a small room filled with shelves and racks for our track shoes, tennis shoes, dress shoes, work shoes, golf shoes, etc.

Indeed, when a 30-year-old house goes up for sale, real estate agents regard it as a fixer-upper. As soon as a '90s family moves into a '60s ranch-style house, "they automatically start renovating," said Dixie Card, an Atlanta Realtor. "The first thing they ask is: 'Where can I put a second bath?' Then they want to expand the kitchen."

"When I first started in this business [10 years ago], people were more accepting of a smaller house with one bath," she said. "Now we have a whole different demand."

So we stay on the treadmill -- working longer to buy more space to contain more things. And we complain that we don't have time to spend with our families.

Rather than blame government policies or foreign trade for the expanding workweek, we should be honest about the personal decisions that have led to the time-crunch problem.

Of course, millions of Americans are working long hours just to keep a dry roof over their heads. But many of us in the middle class are working more to boost our lifestyle, not to survive. If we want to shorten our working hours, we have to start by shortening our shopping lists.

Marilyn Geewax writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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