Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors - Book Review

Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors - Book Review

I just finished an absolutely fascinating book! I'd repeatedly heard this study and statistics from it referenced in many different places, so I finally got it for myself to see what it was about. 


It reads like a coffee-table book-- lots of intriguing images with a relatively small amount of text-- and is the result of an academic study performed in LA during the years 2001-2005. Three professors of Anthropology and a photographer set out to document, in unprecedented detail and scientific accuracy, the contents of 32 Los Angeles-area homes. They studied the "material world of modern American families at home" and "links between behavior and material culture." They wanted to know: What material possessions are present? How do people feel about and interact with their belongings? How do they display, store, and use their stuff?

Thirty-two "typical" families were selected from the Los Angeles, CA area. The families varied in socioeconomic status and income, but all families in the study consisted of two working parents with multiple children, at least one of whom was between the ages of 7 & 12. They did extensive interviews, took tens of thousands of photographs, and sought to count and categorize every visible item in the home. They spent a week with each family where they documented, every ten minutes, what each family member was doing, where in the house they were, and what material items they were using.

So what did they find out? So many fascinating things!

Material Saturation: Mountains of Possessions

Modern day America is the "most material rich society in global history."

The introduction states: "Thousands of artifacts fill the modern American house, from furniture pieces to small and moveable objects such as documents and clothing. Individual objects as well as the assemblages as a whole relay information about the choices and desires of family members who make purchases and decide what to keep and use. The images in this volume show that a spotlight on the material world can generate important insights regarding twenty-first century acquisition preferences, taste, intensity of consumerism, organization, tolerance for clutter, housecleaning habits, and parents' indulgence of children's demands for playthings." 

The researchers set out to count every visible object in every room, and while this was a staggaring task, it's alarming to think that they didn't even get to all of the stuff stashed in boxes, drawers, and backs of closets. One of the things I would be most interested to learn counts on is clothing, but that isn't something they even attempted to count, deeming it "impossible" because of how much was hidden away and unreachable. Just think about that. 

"The United States has 3.1 percent of the world's children, yet U.S. families annually purchase more than 40 percent of the total toys consumed globally." "Middle-class families purchase mountains of toys, clothes, and other goods marketed for children, much of which accumulates in crowded bedrooms with floor surfaces that rarely see the light of day. Parents' own words speak to the stress that comes with not having the time to attend to the material aftermath of kids' activities." "Many find their accumulated possessions exhausting to contemplate, organize, and clean. The visual busyness of hoards of objects can affect basic enjoyment of the home." It is notable that women spoke more often of feeling stressed about clutter than men. "The typical refrigerator front panel is host to a mean of 52 objects, which consume up to 90 percent of the surface space." "Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods." Even the spaces that were well organized contained high densities of items. 

Do we really want to live this way?

Flipping through the photographs is a little jarring and makes me realize how accustomed I am to social media visuals -- idealized, edited, prepped and cropped spaces. From Instagram, blogs, YouTube, home remodeling and decorating shows etc. But these photos are not those. They show what homes actually look like. The stark difference make me realize that I see more of those perfected images than I ever see real spaces in the homes of people I know! I felt shocked "I don't want my house to look like this" feelings, but also often deep (though reluctant) recognition of areas of clutter. 


One of the most shocking statistics for me was this one: "In our study, on average about 25 percent of evening meals involve no home labor. NO home labor. So that's the nights out at restaurants, delivery, or take out. To say nothing of the freezer meals that require only the "home labor" of removal from the freezer, placing on the pan, and turning on the oven. "Quite often family dinners rely wholly on frozen, canned, or boxed convenience items. The most popular strategy is the use of fresh ingredients in conjunction with prepared (canned or boxed) products such as flavored rice or canned soups. Just one in four meals is home-cooked from scratch." One in four! So we eat out about as often as we cook. Very interestingly, it was found that though we are relying heavily on prepackaged freezer foods mostly to save us time and effort, "cooking from scratch adds only 10 to 12 minutes compared to the hands-on time needed to prepare a convenience-food meal." This finding is one that I had heard in multiple places before reading this book, and I have found it to be true in my own meal preparation. Especially when I am cooking familiar, simple recipes, (and often cooking them in quantities that allow for another dinner of leftovers) it really doesn't take very much longer than it would to warm up or prepare convenience foods. Notably though, cooking from scratch more often, while not requiring much more hands on cooking time, does require more forethought and planning. Meal prep can require skill and mental energy that we may be lacking!

Also of note:

"U.S. families exhibit a strong propensity to stockpile food. Mega-packages of drinks, soups, canned vegetables, meats, ice cream, and related goods (paper towels, tissues, pet food, etc.) acquired from "big-box" stores overflow into second refrigerators, extra freezers, and garages."

"Our film and observations of more than 90 family dinnertimes indicate that just one in six of the LA families consistently eat dinner together, a figure significantly lower than what American families self report. Nearly one-quarter of the families did not dine together at all during the study."

"The duration of typical American dinners pales by comparison to primary meals in many parts of Europe, where people still savor the quality of foods and relish the social interactions enjoyed during a good meal."

Outdoor/Leisure Time 

Many people in the study expressed that yards and outdoor spaces were important to them.  They were often majorly factored into the home purchase decision, and owners spent a lot of money making them great, and filling them with recreational equipment. But ironically and sadly, they hardly ever used them! "More than half of the families in the Los Angeles study spent zero leisure time (none for kids, none for parents) in their back yards during our filming. In quite a few of these cases, no family member so much as stepped into the back yard for any purpose." (!!) "For another 25 percent of the families, the parents did not carve out any back yard leisure (relax, play, eat, read, drink, or swim) despite the presence of pricey features such as built-in pools, spas, above-ground pools, dining sets, lounge chairs, and swing sets. Children in this group of families enjoyed brief periods of outdoor recreation, but less than one hour in each case." On average, parents used their backyards for less than 15 minutes per week, and children for less than 40 minutes. Notably, this behavior was observed in Los Angeles, where the mild climate allows for year round outdoor recreation. If these people use their backyards so infrequently, I can only imagine what the numbers would be for the rest of the country, where freezing winters and hot summers don't allow for as much time outside! My kindergartener gets one recess every day at her public school for 30 minutes. This is not uncommon. So the kids who aren't spending any of their time outdoors at home aren't exactly getting their fill of fresh air during the school day. On another thought, due to the persevering ubiquity of grass-covered yards, I'd stand to bet that plenty of people are spending time (or money) laboring to upkeep lawns that apparently they never enjoy leisure time on. I have more than one neighbor who I have never seen out in their yard except to mow it weekly.

Parents in the study "rarely experience the luxury of extended bouts of leisure. Instead, they have highly fragmented leisure episodes--brief periods of relaxation repeatedly interrupted by other needs, such as attending to a child." "Fathers tend to enjoy more and lengthier leisure periods than mothers overall." 

"Children choose indoor activities for about 90% of their leisure time at home, dominated by TV, video games, play with toys and puzzles, and general play with siblings and friends. Much of this play is sedentary and solitary. Outdoor pools, sports equipment, and expansive grassy yards are rarely used."

"Household chores constitute fewer than 3 percent of all children's activities at home. Empty sinks are rare, as are spotless and immaculately organized kitchens."

"Across America, the disparity in families' uses of indoor spaces and yard spaces has become much greater in recent years, marking strong trend toward more sedentary, indoor living. Poorer long-term health among American adult and juvenile populations mirrors this pattern.

Other observations

Something I found shocking was how little time parents spent on computers. Remember, this study was conducted during the first few years of the twenty-first century, before the explosion of smart phones. "We rarely observed parents engaging with computers or gaming consoles. During the period of our study with each family, parents' average time at the computer was 7-8 minutes [. . .] Overall, parents are so busy attending to childcare, meal preparations, and other household chores that there is precious little time to spend plugged in when children are at home and awake. This is particularly true for parents with infants and toddlers." On a normal day, I might spend 7-8 minutes on my smart phone before I even leave my bed! I cringe in guilt to wonder what a study such as this would reveal about our use of time after the introduction of this very distracting tool! 

"Homes around the globe contain lifelong accumulations of possessions. People acquire heirlooms, art souvenirs, and photos that hold deep, personal meaning and play and important role in defining who they are." I wonder, how many of our possessions now hold deep personal meaning? With the explosion in quantity of possessions, likely a very small percentage do. 

In the section detailing which items families chose to display, I found it interesting that "In 31 of 32 homes in the study, diplomas, trophies, and other insignia or personal accomplishments of the children are on display [. . .] More than 13,000 U.S. companies make and engrave trophies. It is a multi-billion dollar industry. Compare that to "relatively little original wall art is displayed in the houses." I find that telling of the industries and products that our consumerism is supporting. We line our shelves with cheap, plastic, unoriginal replicas rather than supporting creative individual artists. 

I believe without a doubt the books assertion that "The degree to which we are affected by our domestic environments is frequently underestimated. Residential buildings profoundly shape the behavior of people." This is undoubtedly also true for the items we choose to fill those buildings with. 

Abundance, Generosity, & Minimalism