When you think of the classic suburban American home, a vivid picture likely comes to mind.
That picture probably consists of a modest home with an attached garage and American flag beside the front door. There are likely a couple small children and a dog running around on a large, incredibly green, lawn right out front or just around back.
Well, nowadays that home is growing — and that suburban American yard is shrinking.
According to data collected in the United States Census Bureau’s Characteristics of New Housing report, it’s been shrinking consistently for a number of decades.
In 1978, the average new home was just over 1,600 square feet and sat on a plot a quarter of an acre in size.
Over the course of just 37 years, that average American home has grown by 66 percent to a whopping 2,500 square feet. And those homes contain far more bedrooms and bathrooms than the average American family could ever put to use.
In 2015, the median American yard was 25 percent smaller than it had been in the early 1980s.
In other words, American children have substantially less yard space to play in today than ever before.
And that may sound like a ridiculous concern at this moment in history but be assured this revelation is representative of a far larger problem at the heart of modern American culture.
Getting Richer or Getting Poorer?
As of last year, America is likely the largest crude oil producer on the planet. The stock market is seeing record growth. Jobs and production plants outsourced in recent decades have been returning to the U.S. under the current administration and unemployment is at historic lows –particularly in communities of color.
Consumption is also at all-time highs. A majority of American homes have food on the table and modern amenities like computers, televisions, refrigerators and washer-dryers. Estimates also suggest that the vast majority of Americans — even the poorest — own cell phones.
America is outrageously wealthy in terms of capital. Of that, there is no question.
Unfortunately, however, the nation’s social and civil capital are declining at a staggering rate.
In fact, as American political scientist Robert D. Putnam summarized in his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” Americans have been growing less socially and civically engaged since the early 1950s.
To this day, American involvement in what Putnam called “civic organizations” — religious groups, sporting leagues, book clubs and recreational, political or charitable organizations — is still on the decline.
Despite an increase in gym memberships — and obnoxious social media posts from the gym — this past decade, obesity in the U.S. is at all-time highs. Meanwhile, physical activity is at historic lows with 67 percent of said gym memberships going unused and less than 22 percent of American children exercising at doctor recommended levels.
And judging by what we see every day on the news, faith in the democratic process, the institution of marriage, the family structure and the strength of our bonds with the local community are also taking major hits.
The Bettering of a Nation
This is particularly concerning considering most beloved figures in American history often spoke of the family unit and local community as the foundational and fundamental building blocks of the American system and culture.
Just as importantly, they also understood that the means by which those fundamental units of society would build and sustain an exceptional nation, exemplary of the best mankind had to offer, was through personal betterment, communal bonds and faith — not government or material wealth.
Thus, the generations that came before us bettered themselves, pursued their faiths and strengthened communal bonds the only way they could: through social and civic engagement.
In other words, they took part in all manner of recreational activity.
As defined by Merriam-Webster, recreation is the “refreshment of strength and spirits after work” or “a means of refreshment or diversion.” And that refreshment came to past generations of Americans in many forms.
At the time of the nation’s founding, recreation came in the form of reading and debating the classics, the Bible and various ponderings from the period’s great thinkers. People gathered at church and in one another’s homes to break bread, play cards and discuss the issues of the day.
Similar activities persisted throughout the 1900s, with Americans gathering for cookouts and dinners with their neighbors. Those generations also attended church together on Sundays and engaged in political and volunteer organizations. They held book clubs, joined local sporting leagues and religious or fraternal groups, once again bettering themselves and their communities through recreation.
America’s Recreation Problem
Yet, over the course of the last 40 or so years, America has turned away from such activities and community traditions. As a result, the nation has also lost the happiness those activities and traditions brought to American life and culture.
Just like that, Americans created what can only be described as a recreation problem.
Rather than encouraging children to play outside, pick up a new skill, read a book, learn an instrument or engage in competitive team activities, society has chosen to trim yard space and coop them up inside with a screen in their face from playtime to the dinner table.
And how could those children be blamed for growing up to be less socially and civically engaged than past generations? Their parents and siblings likely were not either.
Constantly “connected” with a 24-hour news cycle and the ability to access every form of entertainment and communication imaginable with the click of a button, modern parents spend their time playing phone games or perusing social media.
People are far too busy staring at screens or putting on a façade for social media to be engaging in their local communities or participating in civic organizations.
We have effectively replaced social capital with mere material wealth, self-betterment with self-gratification and recreation with simple “relaxation.”
And for what? With all this material wealth and constant communication, we are statistically more unhappy than ever before.
In which case, maybe Americans just need to start pulling themselves away from their expensive technology and meaningless material pleasures.
Maybe Americans just need a return to true social interaction and self-betterment through outdoor sporting endeavors, studiousness, community and faith.
Maybe Americans just need smaller houses and bigger yards.
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