LITTLE ROCK, ARK. — When the Gentry family sits down to dinner, it's a rare occasion. If the meal involves a stove rather than Styrofoam, it's even more spectacular.
Like many families today, Larry and Carol Gentry are ever on the go, carting kids to soccer and church, balancing two jobs, and going to the gym. Carol spends her free time buying 1950s furniture. Larry rides his motorcycle.
And they eat out often. "We eat out more now than we ever have," says Carol. "It's more convenient. No dirty dishes."
It's a function of compressed schedules but also expanding wallets. Fed by the platinum economy, more Americans are turning from simply getting by to getting what they want - whether it be weekly massages or kick-boxing classes. Increasingly, this has meant eating out.
It's a change that has emboldened restaurants - with some chic bistros charging $40 an entree - and led to layoffs among grocers. Moreover, as time in the family kitchen erodes, it has raised questions about the value of dinner time as family time.
"There is a wealth factor with the economy doing well that hasn't been here before for such a large segment of society," says Richard Martin, managing editor for Nation's Restaurant News. "With more disposable income, you see people eating out more and enjoying life more."
Indeed, the restaurant business is one of the thriving economy's big winners. Last year, restaurants were a $370 billion industry with a nominal growth of 3 to 4 percent. Ethnic restaurants have also become increasingly popular in middle America as more people have the income to travel abroad and gain exposure to exotic cuisine. Even sports arenas are responding to consumer demands and offering Thai or Indian food to supplement traditional fare such as corn dogs and cotton candy.
But this current consumerism doesn't bode well for everyone. With so many people dining out, grocery stores are suffering from a lack of business. Last month, Winn-Dixie announced it was eliminating 11,000 jobs, or about 8 percent of its total work force, and other chains have reported drops in sales.
"When you are in good times, people tend to eat out more, and the grocers will suffer," says Tom Olson, publisher of Food People, an industry publication. "If we had a little recession, they'd be flying again."
Some scholars wish that were the case - at least for America's cultural well-being. They wonder if America is on a spiral away from the family meal and shared time.
"Each day it gets harder to get everyone together for a family meal, which used to be one of the few times families could get together to talk, update, plan, and problem solve," says Patrick Stern of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
Carol Gentry, however, doesn't think the parent-child bond is disappearing.
"I spend time with my children," she says as her cell phone rings. "It's a different day now, and we live a lot faster. Who has time to cook? And besides I could never cook as good as the food I can get in a restaurant."
Eating out is just one way 20- and 30-somethings are living lifestyles that used to be more common for retirees than for couples who still have college loans.
Disposable income signals spending sprees on an array of items - from cruises to cars with global-positioning systems - that might be considered off-limits during a sluggish economy.
For example, John, a salesman in the South who asked his last name not be used, says he makes a good salary selling manufacturing parts. Times are so good that he has become an art collector, buying Blue Dog art by Cajun artist George Rodrigue and even acquiring a Peter Max original.
Like many of his peers, John has invested wisely and started a small side enterprise, selling used watches on the Internet to Japanese eager to get their hands on anything American. His business savviness affords him and his wife a country club membership - a treat he didn't expect until retirement.
"What you are seeing are people spending but investing," says John. "It's not like the 1980s, when only the rich had money, and they were the only ones who could make more money. The opportunity is here now for anyone who wants to take it."
Some sociologists counter that people who invest, especially in stocks, only do so to make more money to spend now, rather than save for later, craving instant gratification.
Dr. Bill Gustafson, director of the Center for Financial Responsibility at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says there's a dark side to current spending habits. He says many boomers, and even Generation Xers, are addicted to credit cards. One taste of luxury deserves another. Soon, the retirement savings are gone.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society