My daughter’s friend Jodi was normally a happy and friendly kid, but one day she left in the middle of the school day. When my daughter handed me her phone, I saw an incredibly cruel group text message: “Jodi’s naïve,” one student wrote. “Who would want to be her friend?” Another chimed in: “She’s so annoying.” The phone kept buzzing for hours with new contributions to this group text.
This is the kind of bullying that would crush most adults. Jodi was 14.
Concerned for her friend, my daughter walked to her house after school. Jodi’s parents were not home, and neither had answered her calls all day. Jodi’s mom and stepdad loved their kids dearly, but their work lives be brutal: One a government job that involved many daytime meetings and the other worked for a small private company that demanded long hours and intense loyalty from its employees. Both were dream jobs for her parents, but their demanding work schedules meant that Jodi had to wait until 8 p.m. for them to come home that night. By then, her little siblings were also home from daycare, and Jodi never got to show her parents the text messages.
A full week passed before Jodi mustered the courage to return to school.
The teens I meet through my daughter live in an economically, socially, and racially diverse community just north of Washington, D.C. This community has many symptoms of workaholism – sometimes voluntary, sometimes by necessity owing to financial circumstances. Many parents work long hours and commute long distances. Thus, their time is spent not in the local community but at workplaces that are often far from home. Although this area of the country may be extreme in its work tendencies, the same problem applies more broadly to American work culture in general.
What teens – like Jodi – experience today is a social version of the tragedy of the commons. In the tragedy of the commons, individuals make free use of a commonly shared resource in a way that is contrary to the common good. In this case, the resource is the social support formed by informal and formal structures, habits, and activities, and it relies on the time and energy of individuals. This time and energy are constantly drawn away by economic forces.
This chipping away of our common social life is more difficult to measure than economic productivity and efficiency. As more people work full time and fewer people work at flexible, self-directed jobs close to home, family and community life are stuffed into smaller and smaller chunks of time in early mornings and late evenings.
Now, it is true that every family is different. Perhaps there are some families that manage to thrive even while every member is intensely engaged in work, school, or daycare for long hours each day. However, it is unlikely that this is the norm. There is a point – difficult to measure but still discernable – at which a family simply does not spend enough time together. There is a point when the communal life of a neighborhood or church will collapse due to the lack of engagement of their members.
To avoid drawing upon this common resource, people need to be cognizant of how their work patterns pull from the time and energy that could be put to good use elsewhere. When thinking about working overtime, for example, the benefits need to be weighted over the true detriments. Spending less time outside chatting with neighbors or volunteering with the local scout troop is a true and real cost, even if it is difficult to measure.
One indicator of the amount of time and energy available for kids is the percentage of stay-at-home parents. Not surprisingly, stay-at-home parents spend more time caring for their children every week than parents in the workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1967 49 percent of mothers were stay-at-home mothers. Now the percent of mothers who are stay-at-home is hovering around 29 percent. Men are not taking making up for the difference. Only one percent of fathers are currently stay-at-home dads. However more parents tend to stay-at-home during the young childhood years, so the percentage of parents who stay home during their children’s teen years is even lower.
Single parenthood is another issue contributing to the depletion of time and energy available to teens. In some populations, children living with a single parent is the most common family structure. Single parents are often superheroes, doing the remarkable task of raising a child while working to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, families led by single parents are more likely to be impoverished, making it much more likely that one parent is working a blue-collar job in the evening when their kids are home from school.
“As more people work full time and fewer people work at flexible, self-directed jobs close to home, family and community life are stuffed into smaller and smaller chunks of time in early mornings and late evenings.”
My friend Misty’s financial struggles as a single mother demonstrate how economic realities strain family life. Her marriage fell apart after a cancer diagnosis years ago, and she was left with three kids to raise on her own. She considered joining either the Catholic or Mormon churches because both of those local churches had scouting programs and she wanted her sons to have positive male role models, but she is tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt and could only find work as a waitress with a non-negotiable work schedule that always includes Saturdays and Sundays, so church attendance on the weekend is impossible. For Misty, severe financial strain along with the expectation that poor Americans will work evenings and weekends prevents her from taking basic positive steps to improve the social environment of her teens.
Stories like these are even more tragic than they appear on the surface: Teens benefit enormously from meaningful and ongoing interactions with other people in the community, but many people who could form a support network are also absent in the lives of teens. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1900 only 19 percent of working age women participated in labor force. Most women gave their time and energy to the local community and were unpaid. Now women participate in the labor force almost as much as men: 57 percent of working age women vs 69 percent of working age men. While plenty of good may have come from women’s entry into the workforce, it is also true that this shift has created a void where the community’s social supports used to be.
And children – especially teens – carry much of the burden of these societal changes. An American study sponsored by the global health insurer and services company Cigna revealed that young people are much more likely to report being lonely than the elderly. According to one study by the University of Indiana, 25 percent of teens who have considered dropping out of school said a significant factor was that no adults in the school cared about them. As many as one-third of kids report very little or no interaction with teachers. Although the study dates from 2007, it included responses from 81,000 students in 26 states and is not easily dismissed. Since 2008, the student-teacher ratio has increased, making it unlikely that high-school students receive more personal attention from their teachers today than they did in 2007.
Obviously, teens are not a uniform group who all need the same things. Certainly some teens thrive with high levels of solitude. However, the lack of meaningful interactions many teens face can be overwhelming.
Think about what teens face: What if there are two or three caring adults interacting with a teen? Will this teen be happy, healthy, and able to participate in communal life for years to come? Now cut back from several caring adults to only one. If a teenager spends 30 minutes a day with only one loving, caring adult, how will they fare? What happens to the teen who spends less than 5 minutes with a loving, caring adult each day? What are the long-term implications for this teen and for the rest of his community? These complex cause-effect relationships in community life are not a science, and that is why they are often neglected. This neglect is a serious problem.
While we should be grateful for the positive changes we have made thus far, we need to be cognizant of the economic forces that threaten to pull families and communities apart. We have made enormous strides in the quality of life of American workers in the last century – workplace injury and deaths have been dramatically reduced, the poverty rate has declined significantly in some areas, women have far more opportunity today to participate in meaningful ways in the labor force – but amidst the undeniable good, we must also realize that the natural push and pull of our economy is taking a significant toll on the family.
That means that we need support structures so that more low-income parents can choose to do the important work of being at home. We need to enable community minded folks to make the choice to be present in the neighborhood instead of in a rigid workplace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a stay-at-home mom is almost three times as likely to live in poverty than a working mom, which means that choosing to exit or opt out of paid employment is a risk many parents simply cannot take. Programs like the new Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan can provide a cushion, allowing parents to feel an extra level of security, but with a maximum credit of $250 monthly for children ages 6-17, they are unlikely to be enough that families on the low end of the economic spectrum can choose to have a stay-at-home parent. Therefore, we need to do more, working towards a society where more people can make a living doing work that is flexible and close to the family. Parents who can work flexible hours close to their kids are more available when their teens need attention.
Small locally owned businesses, which are sometimes called “mom and pop” shops, are inherently more family-friendly than large chains. In family-owned restaurants, for example, it is not uncommon to see a couple of kids doing homework at one of the tables while their relatives finish work. Privately-owned stores can arrange themselves to provide space that is friendlier to family members of all ages. Recently I visited a non-chain store with an entire corner converted into a mini living room and kitchen for the family members in the shop. The employees of these kinds of small, locally owned stores do not have to go through a corporate bureaucracy to ask permission for their teens to be close at hand after school.
My husband’s grandparents had 12 children and more than 30 grandchildren. The spread of the kids was such that there were always teenagers present. The oldest grandkids had aunts and uncles that were teens. By the time the youngest children became adults, there were teenage grandkids. The presence of teens was a part of life. The situation in modern day America, though, is such that many people do not have close proximity to teenagers and have little experience to draw on. Thus, in order to thrive, we must go out of our way to foster social situations where the explicit goal is fraternization between the generations. In a sense, we need “matchmakers” to intentionally seek out isolated teens and help them connect in deep and meaningful ways to the broader community. Teens need to know with certainty that they are cherished and that there are people who are committed to helping them figure out where they fit in.
But all of this will require us to re-prioritize in ways that give America’s deeply-ingrained culture of workaholism a backseat to the needs of the children in our care.
Laura Evans Serna is a philosophy graduate student with a background in mathematical modeling. As a military spouse she has lived and worked in three states as well as the UK and Japan. She currently lives in DC with her husband and four beautiful daughters. She blogs at laura-evans-serna.com.