I was born in 1965. Technically that makes me a Gen Xer, but barely. A year earlier and I’d be among the last of the baby boomers. Because I have lived a relatively long life, so far, I can understand what life looked like for Americans like my parents much better than my FGCU students can.
Both of my parents grew up poor and were raised by remarkable single moms. And both were raised in poverty: one in Appalachian Pennsylvania and the other in rural Indiana.
Because their own family lives had their shares of bumps along the way, they did their best to provide a stable home for me and my younger brother, and they made sure that we remained connected to our extended families on both sides. In one stunning instance, I was introduced to my mother’s father when I was already a young adult. It was hard for my mom to do—he was an alcoholic—but she thought it was important that I meet him. And I am glad I got to, once, on that Indiana summer afternoon.
Because my parents grew up poor, I got occasional glimpses of what life looked like for families poorer than mine as I grew up. We were a working-class family (I qualified for reduced-price lunches in school), but many of my cousins lived even more difficult lives economically. I remember visiting the home of one of my dad’s brothers and being stunned at the sight of a wringer washing machine (not an automatic one). And the absence of a clothes dryer meant they really did use those clotheslines outside. At the home of another uncle, I was introduced to going “down the path”: a euphemism for leaving the home to use the outhouse in back.
And these observations were from the relatively modern 1970s. Yet, in that period, housework remained work for most American families—not just poor ones. Even in my own family, where I was blessed with a caring stay-at-home mom, housework was a chore. Literally. I remember keeping my mom company while she worked through piles of ironing, accompanied by the heavy breathing of the steam iron that she manipulated expertly. And dishwashing: We never owned a dishwasher until I was off to college. And my father’s mother—who lived with us full time—washed dishes each night in a wonderful labor of love. She claimed the warm water soothed her arthritis, but I don’t really know.
Yet today, most American families are blessed to possess many modern conveniences, like washing machines and dishwashers, that either didn’t exist in earlier generations, or were luxuries owned only by the rich.
Even earlier generations had to deal with household tasks that today seem unthinkable: chopping wood to fire the stove to cook the evening meal or beating rugs rather than vacuuming them. Or planning carefully so the giant block of ice in the “icebox” didn’t run out at the wrong time.
While the dishwasher and the electric iron, the gas stove and the automatic washer may not seem like thrilling advances, they are. They’re thrilling because advances like these have liberated families, of all shapes and sizes, to explore options that would have been impossible when housework required far more hours of labor than now—and when the labor was much harder. And they have given women, in particular, the opportunity to participate in the labor force at levels that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.
Entrepreneurial discoveries give us all more choices to live the lives that fit each of us best. Being a stay-at-home parent is a wonderful calling; I’m glad my mom was a stay-at-home mom for me. But in 2022, I’m thankful that modern inventions give all of us more opportunities to discover the best work-life balance possible.
Victor V. Claar is an associate professor of economics in the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he holds the Truist Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise. He also serves on the Research Advisory Council of the James Madison Institute, and the board of the Freedom & Virtue Institute.