New book observes how US/UK urban families live and work

12/05/05

A new book provides a fascinating insight into how modern families live and work in five cities in the USA and the UK.

Helen Jarvis, a social geographer with the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, carried out her research with families living in the cities of Portland, Seattle and San Francisco in the USA and London and Edinburgh in the UK.

Called Work/Life City Limits, the book explores the complex interaction of working and home life in different types of families, taking into account a variety of related issues, such as gender dynamics, environmental impact, city planning strategies, and housing affordability.

Among the observations Dr Jarvis makes are the various ways in which families juggle the commitments of work and home and their differing coping mechanisms. One extreme example of routine juggling was an interviewee who had devised a series of colour-coded charts identifying days and times of the week when each family member had places to be and tasks to perform, which was displayed on the kitchen wall.

Five distinct types of family emerged during the study, detailed in the book, which range from the households where both parents have demanding, often high-income, careers that are their first priority, to others where mother and father were determined to resist the treadmill and moderate their working hours to enjoy more of a home life.

One of the considerations in the book is the effect certain lifestyles have on society as a whole. Dr Jarvis suggested that the time-constrained lives of the dual-income families lead them to make decisions which make their life easier but are collectively detrimental to the wider world. She calls this phenomenon the 'tyranny of small decisions'.

For instance, these families are more likely to be reliant on two vehicles and extensive car travel for work and home commitments, which creates a negative impact on the environment. They were seen to have increased consumption of convenience goods like ready meals, and they are too busy to contribute to the various social networks of their neighbourhood. These families are more inclined to employ domestic staff like cleaners and nannies who have to travel from areas of town where housing is more affordable, thus increasing the reliance on cars and other transport methods.

Dr Jarvis, of Newcastle University's School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, suggests that families should be more aware of their collective responsibility when making lifestyle decisions: "Pressure on the environment is one of the unintended consequences of the increased 'workfication' of our culture. I observed that the harder we work, the more we are pushed towards this damaging consumption that supports our lifestyles. We are subject to the tyranny of decisions, meaning that our individual lifestyle choices begin to impact in a great way on society in general.

"The problem is that our culture continues to measure success in terms of economic and material goals. This breeds ruthless competitiveness amongst people and pushes them into an individualist mindset where they are only looking out for number one.

"The findings of my research suggest that it's about time that we consider the repercussions of our actions and the decisions we are making on the world at large. I don't mean that we have to turn the clock back 50 years and suggest that mothers should stay at home and that we should grow our food on allotments, for example, but some adjustments need to be made."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost