In colonial America, kids died young. No matter how unwelcome, Death was a frequent visitor at family firesides from Boston to Savannah, where parents could expect to lose, on average, up to half of their brood before they reached adulthood.
According to 17th-century Puritan minister Cotton Mather, “a dead child [was] a sight no more surprising than a broken pitcher.”
Things didn’t get much better until the 20th century, when the Industrial Revolution brought cheap, abundant food and modern public health measures like municipal water and sewer service.
Thus, those famously large families in early American history, whether in a pioneer cabin on the prairie or in an immigrant tenement on the Lower East Side.
And it wasn’t just because the pill hadn’t been invented yet or there were a lot of Catholics. Parents had lots of kids in hopes that at least one or two would survive long enough into adulthood to provide for mom and dad in their declining years. Big families were the oldest form of social security.
This gave parents a different attitude than we have today about their kids.
“Parents loved and nurtured their children, but did not have the time to completely dote on each one, and felt restrained in making a full emotional investment in them, given their chances of being prematurely snatched away by death,” as Brett and Kate McKay write in “Why Growing Up is Hard to Do (But Why the World Still Needs Adults).”
On the farm and in the forge
However much or little they loved their children compared to today, parents in agrarian America greatly valued their kids economically. But children weren’t just a retirement program, an investment in the future. From an early age, children were also productive members of a family that was still the primary productive unit of the American economy.
Before factories and offices became the norm, most American parents worked at home on farms, in workshops and in small retail stores. Their kids worked alongside them, starting with simple chores at age seven or even younger.
Even when public education became widespread in the late 19th century — but before soccer practice came along in the late 20th — kids came home from school and fed fed the chickens or helped Dad whittle a stick into a chair leg before dinner. Farm and craft work gave children practice for supporting themselves as adults, teaching them valuable skills and a work ethic that gave them confidence.
Factory and then school
Meanwhile, industry was coming. After the Civil War established the Northern industrial economy over the Southern agrarian one as the model for the whole nation, factories and mines opened across the country, hungry for workers. Big employers started to pull more Americans away from family farms and businesses, including the kids.
This took kids out of the home. But stories of horrible conditions spurred Progressive Era reformers to pass laws against child labor. Trade unions also wanted to kick kids out of the workplace to reduce competition with adults for jobs and raise wages for union members. And that gave kids time to attend the new public schools starting class all over the place.
Conveniently, the family began to die as a place of production just at the time when mass production made store-bought goods cheap and widely available, helping families outsource much of what they used to do themselves at home to consumer-product companies selling everything from ready-made clothes to bars of soap wrapped in paper.
The growing consumer economy also brought public health benefits. “As both family size and childhood mortality decreased in the 20th century, parental investment in children rose. With only two or three children to raise, parents could afford to cherish their little ones and lavish them with attention,” the McKays explain.
Lower child mortality combined with the decline of family employment led to a profound change in how parents valued their children. Instead of workers expected to contribute to the family business according to their abilities, kids morphed into mere adornments — something like pets with a promising future. The McKays explain that this attitude started to harm the kids themselves:
As sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer observed, children “became economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless.’” This consuming focus on one’s children led parents to place an understandable, but inflated, value on their kids. Because children were the center of their universe, their kids seemed infinitely special and talented, and were raised to see themselves that way. Taught that they could do anything they put their minds to, when these children reach the threshold of adulthood, they can feel paralyzed as to which field they should apply their numerous talents.
Old people: Also free-riders, but less cuddly
What’s happened to kids, promoted from more-or-less capable home workers to mere consumers not expected to do much except develop themselves, has also happened to the generation at the opposite end of the age scale — the elderly. But in their case, you can hardly call it a promotion.
As children did before the industrial era, grandma and grandpa also used to provide economic value to American families. Like the kids, old people could perform tasks around the house, farm or workshop, from cooking to quilting to fixing things. But unlike kids, elders could share knowledge gained from life experience to the next two or three generations while entertaining the whole family with stories, songs and wisdom on subjects from religion to affairs of the heart.
Today, the American nuclear family gets its education from school, its entertainment from movies and TV and its advice from social media. That leaves old people with few economic roles in the family outside of cheap babysitters and providers of (hopefully) expensive gifts at birthdays and Christmas.
“I have stories,” one elderly woman told author Lewis Richmond. “A lifetime of them. But I can’t get my grandchildren to stop texting and watching their iPads long enough to listen.”
In contrast to most of American history, today both the elderly and children are free-riders in the family economy. But while parents lavish adoration on even the brattiest kids, those same parents are more likely to show annoyance to their own elderly parents who may need help.
That’s because children carry the promise of future career success that today’s ambitious parents hope will reflect back prestige enough on themselves to make all their parental sacrifices worthwhile. But the elderly lack this future potential and thus, in the cruel logic of American capitalism that has no need for their traditional skills and abilities, old people become worthless both economically and emotionally.
American oldsters today know that their best hope is saving enough money to take care of themselves when their productive years are finished.
The lucky retiree can look forward to a couple decades of leisure living in Miami Beach or Phoenix, which, from an economic standpoint, is just a high-class form of human warehousing. The unlucky old person will find herself widowed, living alone in a small garden apartment, her days spent flipping through the cable channels and waiting for the next visit by the nurse or Meals on Wheels.
But whether comfortable or poor and lonely, today’s older Americans know that expecting their adult kids to support them merely out of affection or duty promises about as much security as planning to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Peak oil and a return to the productive family
Only in an industrial economy where energy is cheap and corporations provide most of a household’s needs can families afford to turn two generations, the youngest and the oldest, into economically unnecessary people — Two generations of mouths-to-feed who don’t carry their own weight.
In a future where oil, gas and coal depletion makes makes energy more expensive, the consumer economy will shrink and fewer families will be able to afford microwave dinners and home cleaning services. That means more families will surely have to go back to the old model of doing more for themselves. Then we can expect that both seven-year olds and seventy-year olds will be put back to work chopping wood and carrying water at home.
And returning them to work in their families might be the best thing that’s happened to both young people and old people in a long time.
If they know their families rely on their diligent help, our children might start to really grow up again. And bringing our elders back from the golf course or senior living facility to do important work at home might restore them to the place of honor and dignity that they’ve held in families across the history of our species.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice