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What Happened to Self-Reliance and the Do-It-Yourself Ethic? (Part 1 of 2)

Americans used to be known for ingenuity and self-reliance. We knew how to fix up our homes and our possessions, and we had the inclination to do so. But this ethic has been diminishing over time. Are we losing what was once an integral part of our character and culture? And can we (or should we) do anything about it?

An American Tradition

Not that long ago, young men in America learned skills like carpentry, mechanics, and electronics repair from their fathers and other male role models, or from shop class or magazines like Popular Mechanics. Women similarly learned practical skills—from food canning to dressmaking—from female relatives or friends or from home economics courses, which, rather than “keeping them in the kitchen,” offered a critical pathway into higher education.

But few of my peers today have these options: intergenerational skill-sharing is waning, and secondary and vocational schools across the country are cutting home economics and shop classes for budgetary and other reasons. Yet the absence of training isn’t the only explanation for the decline in DIY in American culture. Another key obstacle is changes in the goods and products themselves.

“Electronization”

Many consumer goods are now electronic, or come with electronic gadgetry. Appliances like stoves and dishwashers that were once simply mechanical now have expensive control boards that require professional repair or replacement. The control board on my family’s stove broke a few years ago, and the repairman casually told us we needed a new one for $200, which he would gladly install for us (installing a control board is actually not that difficult, though acquiring the right part can be a real challenge). Forget the average consumer—even the repairman did no real “repairing”! That’s because these complex boards cannot really be repaired, only replaced.

Similarly, many of today’s automobiles include electric doors, windows, and seats controlled by microchips rather than relatively straightforward mechanical parts. On our minivan, one of these functions decides to stop working every few months. The solution is bringing it to the dealer to “reset the chips.” I don’t know what that means, and I certainly can’t do it myself.

Electronic gadgets themselves are perhaps the worst offenders. Old-fashioned electromechanical telephones, like the invincible Bell System phones, have been largely replaced by computerized and often disposable cell phones. Cameras were once mostly mechanical and comprised a distinct category of goods—today, digital cameras have entered the realm of “consumer electronics.” Photographers used to cherish their cameras but now talk about “upgrade paths” as cameras undergo the same yearly “improvements” as other electronics.

Miniaturization also contributes to the struggles of the DIYer. Many items are smaller today, have less space inside, or use smaller parts, making them harder to open up and work on. It used to be possible to make electronic repairs with a soldering iron, but today—assuming you could get the item open—internal parts may be too small and complex to attempt a repair. In the old days of vacuum tubes, you could open your radio or TV, take out the tubes, and test them at a tube testing machine. Now, every electric item comes with a “no user-serviceable parts inside” warning sticker.

Declining product lifespans

Another impediment to the DIY ethic is the shortening lifespans of consumer goods. When items become “outdated” or simply break more quickly, there is less incentive to spend money on a repair, which may even cost more than buying a replacement. According to the environmental group Greenpeace, the average lifespan of a computer dropped from six years in 1997 to only two years in 2005. In fact, one of the engineers who designed the original IBM PC now believes personal computers are obsolete, having been crowded out by tablets and other more interactive devices.

A study by the National Association of Home Builders and Bank of America showed that most major appliances have seen their lifespans decrease markedly. The average refrigerator now lasts a mere 13 years, the average washing machine 10 years, and the average dishwasher only nine years. Even a central air conditioner—not an inexpensive investment—can be expected to last only 15 years on average, meaning that most homeowners should plan to replace their ACs at least once. Meanwhile, a relative of mine still happily uses her 1950s Frigidaire as a garage refrigerator.*

A key reason for shrinking lifespans is that modern appliances contain more electronic and plastic components than in the past, and fewer durable materials like porcelain and copper. The more features and electronics your appliances have, the more things there are to potentially break down.

People have less time

Sadly, many of us may not even notice the disappearance of DIY. We’re just too darn busy. Americans are the hardest working people in the developed world. Our work-life balance is increasingly tilted toward work. In families today, it is common for both parents to work full-time jobs. This means there is less time to do home maintenance or repair broken items; it’s easier to just call in a company or buy a new one. Certainly not everyone has the desire to do this work themselves, nor does everyone need to. But even those of us who do want to repair broken items often find ourselves short on time.

The loss of DIY isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. The United Kingdom’s Automobile Association reported in 2011 that “the boom in technology in the 1990s saw the interest in learning DIY wane,” continuing an already sharp decline. In the 1970s, 71 percent of British men learned DIY and home maintenance skills from their fathers; but if the current decline continues, home maintenance skills in the U.K. could be headed for extinction by as early as 2048, resulting in a nation of “no can do” homeowners.

Creating dependence

The implications of all this go much deeper than a few more sales for appliance companies. The decline of DIY also means that we’re increasingly dependent on our jobs—i.e., money—to fulfill our needs. We make money so we can buy the stuff we want, but we also have to make money to cover the expenses of repairing or replacing these items as they increasingly malfunction or fall apart. It’s a vicious cycle in which we’re increasingly reliant on someone else’s expertise, and the overall consumer market, to get things done. Ultimately, the decline of DIY threatens our ability to be self-reliant and independent citizens.

The good news is that this decline is not inevitable. In fact, there’s already much evidence that we may be turning around, and we can be even more hopeful because this evidence is diverse and multifaceted. News articles about the revival of old music formats, television shows like American Pickers, and a renewed interest in DIY and product repair all suggest a possible shift back toward our old American ideal. If we want to restore the American self-sufficient, can-do ethic, we certainly can—while still embracing the benefits of innovation and technology. I will discuss these solutions in my next blog. Please stay tuned!

Read Part Two

Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and an intern with the Center for a New American Dream.

*I should mention the issue of energy efficiency here. Perhaps that Frigidaire still works fine, but it certainly is an energy guzzler. This is often cited as a reason to replace older but working units with new energy-efficient models. But it’s not always clear that this is the most energy-conscious option, considering the costs of manufacturing a new unit and safely disposing of the old one. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition notes that, for computers at least, 80 percent of the total energy consumed is during production, not use. For some items, buying a new energy-efficient model may actually use more total energy.

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Comments

What about the Maker movement?

Posted by Joyce at June 22, 2012 at 12:52pm

While the nation focuses on employment rates and loan rates, that most people have no control over, families are faced with finding ways to meet their needs. Whether they have a job or not, they are looking ways to “stretch a buck, save a buck or make a buck.” They are looking for some way to have some sense of control and comfort in moving forward in these uncertain times. Here at North Country Sustainability Center, Inc. in rural Central MA, we are working to answer those concerns. We have started a craft boutique, farmer’s market outlet, clothes recycling center, art gallery and educational programs on small scale farming, sewing, food safety, and more. But there’s so much more we want to do.

We have found a foreclosed set of buildings on land that has been tested clean for growing. There we can create educational, therapeutic and community gardens. In the buildings we can create a commercial kitchen and a micro-creamery, studio space for arts, textiles, performing arts and other activities, a shared use woodshop, and in the indoor arena, 4H kids can practice and show, dog owners can train and exhibit their dogs, and we can rebuild our local economy. Who teaches all these activities? Residents from our region who are using their skills and knowledge to supplement their income, and help others master the traditional skills that make it possible to “keep living here.” Cooking, sewing, community, economy, home maintenance, the arts, and food, are all integrated into the sustainability of every city or town. If we are successful in purchasing this site, we will be able to integrate alternative energies and water conservation into our model. But we haven’t been able to get national, or even regional attention.

Could you please bring www.northcountrysustain.org to the attention to others that will care. We can purchase the 5.4 acres and 4 buildings for $200,000, but we need to be able to have some additional funding to start rehab, so additional funds would be better. This is a national model of people taking control, working together and really rebuilding the “American Dream,” and it works for urban, suburban and rural models, if people just knew about it. Thank you.

Posted by Pat Stewart at June 22, 2012 at 12:22pm

Great article.

I think about this a lot in terms of a whole range of areas. People I know (in NYC) have to pay for everything: babysitting, dogwalking, repair (as you mention), housecleaning, premade food, the list goes on and on. So although they are making more and more money, they’re spending it on everything. Some people have very little money, but are rich in resources — extended family to babysit, share meals, fix cars, help with moving, etc. The loss of community and extended family means you always need actual dollars for all these services that used to be “free” or part of a community/family model.

Posted by Rachel at June 14, 2012 at 10:57am

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