Book Review: Life at Home in the 21st Century

Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century

Imagine that a team of anthropologists made a study of your neighbourhood and immersed themselves in your daily life. What would they find?

That’s just what happened to create the book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (Jeanne E. Arnold et al., Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, UCLA, 2012).

Here’s the premise. The team recruited 32 families, all home owners in the Los Angeles area. Each family had two parents working full-time, and at least one child between the ages of 7 and 12. Their goal was to see how the families interacted with their possessions: how many things they owned, and how their belongings affected their behaviour. The study took place from 2001-2005, just before the advent of smart phones, tablets, and flat screen TVs.

They used some cool techniques: they asked every family member over the age of 7 to conduct a tour of their home (captured on video), they inventoried the visible objects in every room of every house, they took over 20,000 photos, and they recorded what each family member was doing every 10 minutes.

I bet most people’s reaction to this would be, “OMG, I wouldn’t want anyone to see my house,” or “I’d have to do a major cleaning first!”

Photo from book: garage (page 24)

Photo from book: garage (page 24)

Here are some themes – and some random stats – from the book, along with some comments about my house.

The number and arrangement of items posted on the refrigerator is a good indicator of what you’ll see in the rest of the house!

The front of my fridge is aluminum so it’s completely clutter-free, being non-magnetic. Everyone who visits is taken aback by that!

Each family creates a kind of cultural museum in the public areas of their house, showing visitors what they value. They display treasured belongings from their home country; items showing their heritage and religion; items showcasing achievements with trophies and certificates; and each family had an average of 85 photos on display throughout the house. The authors noted that this “personalization” of the home is mainly a North American phenomenon and is not usually done in Europe or South America.

Photo from book: toys (page 34)

Photo from book: toys (page 34)

One recent change is that’s children’s pop culture has spread to all areas of the house, with kids’ toys in every room. Almost all parents play video games with their kids, most take pride in their kids’ toy collections, and a lot of parents like to display brand name items such as Disney or Barbie.

I used to keep my living room free of pop culture; but taking a second look, we now have a poster of my favourite rock star, Amanda Palmer, prominently displayed; a poster from the Toronto musical production of The Lion King; a Star Wars X-Fighter LEGO model; several of Rom’s Hero Clix toys; a metal Slinky toy; and even a hello Kitty Soap dispenser in the bathroom! I have only 6 family photos on display, all in one room, which I am now thinking is highly unusual.

At the time of the study, all families watched a lot of TV and played a lot of video games, but adults didn’t have much time to use computers. I bet that has changed now that each family member is likely to have their own smart phone or tablet. You probably read the news story that 90% of adults under 30 sleep next to their cell phones, as do 70% of adults ages 30-49. And that was 3 years ago!

Almost all the families stockpiled food and half had a second fridge. The researchers noted that using frozen and prepared foods saved only 10-12 minutes in the evenings, compared to what they would have made from scratch, but it saved time in meal planning and food shopping, such as fewer trips to buy fresh produce. It also requires less cooking skill. It was noted that having packaged food on hand made it much more likely that kids would ask for something that wasn’t served that night, and family members would each have a different meal.

Fathers cooked meals 1/3 of the time, but the mothers always ended up being involved somehow in cooking those meals, whereas when the moms cooked, the dads were doing something else!

Notice I have not commented on that 🙂

Everyone had well-equipped back yards with patios, barbecues, swimming pools, play structures and so on, but they were virtually never used, even in LA with their beautiful weather.

Speaking for myself, I never use my yard except to maintain it, but I like taking care of the plants and seeing them from my windows. Realistically, the only reason I like my big yard is that it provides some privacy and distance from my neighbours 😦

Another big trend was spending a lot of money on master bedroom suites. The researchers thought the parents were trying to get the feeling of a luxury hotel. Despite the expense, the master bedrooms were never used for anything but sleeping. In fact, the larger the room, the more likely it was that children and dogs slept there, too! The researchers wondered why the families didn’t expand and remodel their kitchens instead, because 50% of everyone’s time was spent there.

Life at Home: Home Office (page 28)

Photo from book: home office (page 28). This reminds me so much of my home office which you can see here.

Unsurprisingly, 90% of garage space was used for storage and not for cars. Home offices and garages were both used as catch-alls for items that weren’t being used or didn’t fit anywhere else.

The main conclusion of the study was that US middle class homes have an unprecedented amount of stuff and that living with it is stressing people out! In particular, mothers’ well-being is seriously impacted through buying, maintaining, organizing and cleaning a whole household worth of stuff.

I loved this book. I think it will be seen as the perfect snapshot of an era of “affluenza.” The majority of homes I’ve visited are like this. They may have a “staged” public area, but the rest of the house is packed with stuff.

Since 2005, American homes have changed dramatically due to the recession, foreclosures, job losses, and a new focus on frugality and minimalism. Meanwhile, I think families are spending even more time eating separate meals, going to separate activities and viewing separate electronic devices. It would be great to see a follow-up study on how the 32 families’ lives have changed since the recession and since their kids have grown up (the study was finished 8 years ago).

As for myself, the book points out to me that I am not a minimalist, and I can, at best, claim that my clutter is clean and organized. That will have to do as I continue to declutter and complete my home inventory. If you are also in the process of decluttering your house, be sure to look up this book: it is both thought-provoking and motivating.

Do you think that the amount of stuff you have in your home is typical? How do you compare with other family members and your neighbours?

I was excited to find a 3-episode video series by the researchers at   Only 5-7 minutes each!


  1. Wow… That book looks great, and I’m ashamed to say that we are probably “average” as well… Especially when it comes to toys & electronics! *blush* Going to have to find this book & take a peek!! Thanks for the links as well… going to watch those now! 🙂

  2. Pingback: My household contents vs 21st Century US houses. | livetolist

  3. There’s was so much I wanted to say on this, that I went and wrote a post on it – I hope you don’t mind. of course I linked back to your post.

  4. Jocelyne

    This sounds like an interesting read! I read an article in a magazine recently about a couple who decluttered their home by only allowing each person in the home to have 100 items each. I’ve been wanting to try this since I read it. I hate clutter…especially toy clutter.

    • I read a book about someone who did a “100 things” challenge. It got a little dicey when he started counting “all his books” as 1 item! I often think a good way to declutter would be to think of all the things you would buy if you had to start from scratch. Maybe another way would be to have a pool of all the items that are needed for the household to function, and then add 100 personal things for each person? Not that I would do it…I wish I weren’t so attached to my stuff!

      • Oh just think if you started off again there wouldn’t be all those ‘things’ belonging to deceased rellies (that are so hard to pass on to others) filling up all the cupboards and drawers lol

      • I didn’t think of that – if you were starting over, you’d have no sentimental items and no feeling of obligation. I wonder how long that would last!

  5. Book sounds so Los Angeles: garages, master suites, back yards and patios….Thanks for sharing this trip south, Dar!

    • True – there was definitely a sense of sprawl about it…as you know, it is not that typical for houses in Nova Scotia to have a garage or a patio, but on the other hand, the housing density is low and there are fewer apt buildings and condos.

  6. EcoCatLady

    I LOVE this! I’ve often wondered what future archaeologists would think if they could excavate my house. They’d probably assume that, much like ancient Egypt, this was a cat-worshiping society! 🙂

    Anyhow, I watched the videos and LOVED them! Made me feel like perhaps my clutter isn’t so bad after all!

    • Yes, you could make a case that if everyone else is doing it, it can’t be that bad! You raised a good point, though – the book did not comment at all on the family’s relationships with their pets, how much stuff was purchased for them, and how much time was spent with them.

  7. That sounds like a really interesting book. I like to think that I have less stuff than most single people my age – mostly because I have moved around so much (something crazy like nine times in seven years). Most of my clutter is books and food, but I try to stay on top of them. I bought the biggest bookcase, but have a rule that when it gets full, I have to get rid of some books. I do like to stockpile food though!

    My ex boyfriend would never ever get rid of anything, and I found that very stressful. He also refused to use anything he had been given as a gift, like soap or aftershave, and just wanted to keep everything forever. When we were moving house I found a box of toiletries that one of his (female) previous housemates had left behind, which he had packed up and moved house with, instead of throwing away.

    The result was a very cluttered house, plus a garage that was also full of junk he never used. When we moved house we had to live somewhere with a lock-up garage just so there was enough room for his stuff, which meant slightly higher rent. His solution was always to buy more storage, rather than get rid of anything, and I basically felt the opposite and it was really hard. So now I am trying to be as minimalistic as possible and loving it!

    • I have seen that the way partners deal with possessions and clutter is a significant area of conflict and stress. Just like day/night people and clean/messy people, minimalist tendencies versus hoarding tendencies can be a real deal breaker. I am glad you are having your way now!

  8. laura

    I think I probably have less stuff than the average person (although it’s become easier since the children left home!).

    Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  9. Fiona

    What a fascinating book/discussion! A definite “must read” for me. Took a good double-take to realise that there’s 3 kids among the clutter in the garage photo (and might be 1 or 2 more I missed!)

  10. todadwithlove

    Fascinating. I have just moved into my own house, so cluttering has not as yet begun. This book might just be what I need as a deterrent. 🙂

    • I think everyone’s goal is to look like they just moved into their house, when they’ve found a place for everything, and clutter hasn’t piled up yet! This book might help.

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