News

The Lifestyle Ratchet Is Hard to Avoid

Written by Aaron M. Renn |
Thursday, June 6, 2024

Economic, technological, and social changes affect the availability and norms of society in ways that make it difficult to avoid adapting to them. I want to dial in on cultural and social expectations. Because these can put pressure on people to upgrade their lifestyles in ways that might be possible to resist, but which are difficult to do so.

I grew up in a small house without air conditioning where I shared a bedroom with my younger brother.

I remember how awful it was on hot summer nights in August. I put a box fan turned to high on a chair about three feet from the edge of my bed to try to get cool. But other than that, growing up there wasn’t bad.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, lots of people did not have air conditioning, or only had bedroom window units. Sharing bedrooms also wasn’t uncommon.

Things have changed today. While plenty of people don’t have AC or have children sharing bedrooms, these are now almost entirely a result of lacking the money to get them.

Air conditioning and one bedroom per child have become socially normative to the point that it’s a point of parental contention to choose differently.

There was a recent interesting article “Why Do So Many Parents Think Kids Need Their Own Bedroom?” in the Atlantic addressing this very point.

When I ask my husband what it was like to share a room as a kid, he shrugs. He didn’t consider it that big a deal. But many parents I’ve talked with who live in metro areas with high costs of living feel the same as I do. Some are stretching their budgets to afford a house with more bedrooms; others are reluctant to grow their families without having more space. As I mull this over, I wonder: Why do so many of us prioritize giving kids their own room?

Over the past half century or so in the U.S., the practice has become what the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Annette Lareau calls a “normative ideal”—something that many aspire to, but that not all can attain. It’s gotten more common in recent decades, as houses have gotten bigger and people have been having fewer kids. From 1960 to 2000, the number of bedrooms available for each child in the average household rose from 0.7 to 1.1, according to the Stanford sociologist Michael J. Rosenfeld’s calculations using U.S. census data. It’s held fairly steady since, the University of Washington real-estate professor Arthur Acolin told me. Recently, Acolin analyzed 2022 American Community Survey data and found that more than half of all families with kids had at least enough bedrooms to give each child their own (though it’s not certain that all of them do). Even among parents whose children share rooms, more than 70 percent say they wish they could give everyone their own.

Economic, technological, and social changes affect the availability and norms of society in ways that make it difficult to avoid adapting to them.

I want to dial in on cultural and social expectations. Because these can put pressure on people to upgrade their lifestyles in ways that might be possible to resist, but which are difficult to do so.

One kid per room is an example of such a standard. When I was a kid, I obviously would have preferred my own room. I knew that kids from families with more money did have their own room. But there was nothing unusual about sharing one.

Over time, as one child per bedroom became seen as the norm, not having that would mark a family as an outlier.

Read More

Previous ArticleNext Article