Culture of clutter taking over American families, says new book

A mulit-year study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Connecticut College sheds new light on the culture of clutter taking over America. It's not pretty. The results are coming out in a book, complete with photos, called 'Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century.'

Rick Bowmer/AP
Big box stores like Costco and Sam's Club add to clutter at home, researchers found. Here David Lee shops at a Costco Wholesale store in Portland, Ore. in May of this year.

Raise your hand if any of this sounds disturbingly familiar:

A garage that doesn’t have room for the family car because it’s filled with bikes, baseball bats, rusting tools, old furniture and possibly even a large snow blower. (Arm a-waving over here. The snow blower is a long story.)

Or, how about a hall closet that can’t hold any more coats? Or a child’s room filled with more than 100 Beanie Babies?  Or a fridge covered in hundreds of pictures, magnets (even the free ones that come in the mail, because, you know, you never can have enough magnets), calendars, dry erase boards and shopping lists?

Clutter, it turns out, is a hallmark of mainstream America. (Depressing, no?)  And now a new book coming out by researchers from University of California, Los Angeles, and Connecticut College – “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” – details just how much clutter, and promises to take a sharp look at the impact of all this stuff on daily family life.

The researchers immersed themselves into the daily lives of 32 families in the Los Angeles area, taking tens of thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of video, and copious notes from first-hand observations about how people move through their homes, and what they have.

“People’s homes are a canvas for self-expression, so it is crucial to see what middle-class America buys, cherishes and displays at home, along with, in their own words, what their possessions mean to them,” said Jeanne E. Arnold, professor of anthropology at UCLA and the lead author of the book, according to the Connecticut College news service. “We measured. We photographed. We filmed. We interviewed. We gave parents and older kids cameras and they gave us narrated home tours. We now know what goes on moment-by-moment and, as our book documents, we know exactly what people keep in their homes and where and how they use things.”

Some of the findings:

  • The volume and sheer number of things in our homes is unprecedented. From toys to music collections to books to knick knacks to large quantities of paper towels bought (it was a deal!) from Costco. And managing the volume of possessions turns out to be so stressful that it elevated the level of stress hormones for moms.
  • Most families spent little time in their yards – even if they had spent a lot of money on outdoor furnishings.
  • Seventy-five percent of garages had too much stuff in them to fit cars.
  • And I love this one: The number of objects clinging to your refrigerator may indicate how much clutter can be found throughout your home.

“Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” is coming out in August, but I am already tempted to get a trash bag and start tossing stuff.  Anything.  Because one of the other findings of the authors is that Americans are really bad at getting rid of things – we think that we’ll use them some day, or that it’s wasteful to just toss objects.

And in the meantime, the stuff takes over. 

A good time, I say, to ponder consumption, materialism and how to adjust our way of life.

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