Lifestyle,  Mental Health,  Social Issues

Life in the (too) fast lane

Monica Sharp says her native USA needs to change to become more humane.

It seems many people are unhappy with the turn American culture has taken. But what can we do to bring the culture back to something on a more human scale?

The human scale is a concept I first came to appreciate in Europe as a student. As my time living abroad has increased, my gratitude for the manageable life has deepened in the past three decades. My perspective on America and its culture – and why it just didn’t work for me – has sharpened since our family relocated for employment to Florence, Italy in 2016.

A human scale involves living in a neighborhood that is human-sized for walking and interacting. It involves a manageable day, week, and year. Parks and sidewalks. Community life. Cafes and small grocery stores close by. Basic shops within walking distance. Daily circuits you can actually do without driving 45 minutes in each direction, and sometimes in a multi-destination route, for example: home, daycare, work, daycare, home, spending two hours per day or more in a car. This is not sustainable but it is very normal for many people living and working in America.

Everything about life in the USA has become more extreme in recent years. 

This has happened everywhere; but in America, especially so. The climate. Politics. What passes for news. Elections and recalls. Clock speed. Work weeks. The cost of living. Anxiety. Enmity. Fractures and fault lines in community and culture. The pandemic and public health. There is no middle ground. Where is the firm footing? The ice is so thin. How can everything be getting more and more extreme every day?

American women struggling - stressed by the culture

Do Americans even want the culture to change? I wonder. The majority has to want it in order for this to happen. A social contract is only as strong as the collective goodwill that supports it.

Basic things like free healthcare and education, decent parental and sick leave, guaranteed annual holiday entitlement and workplace protections cannot simply be commodities reserved for the wealthy or the fortunate, for those who are judged to have worked ‘hard enough’ and are therefore deemed to have ‘earned’ these commodities.

Does not every person have a life span which naturally incurs different needs? Pregnancy and parental leave for infants, childcare for working parents, school for the youngest among us. Bodies get sick, both our own and those of family members. Bodies and minds grow old  and cannot work like those of a younger person. We all have bodies. We all know these things will happen. So why does American culture still shame people for being ill, or pregnant, or for having ill or pregnant family members, or small children who don’t raise themselves and need lots and lots of care?

Have you seen a newborn lately? Your home basically becomes something like an ICU until the baby is six months old, and then you’re performing a kind of occupational therapy until the child is two or three years old. Why is this a dirty secret, a reality to be swept under the rug, when it comes to public policy? 

American families are under stress because it is hard as hell to be an American family. The very structure of an extreme system deals almost every hand against you while daring you to survive it.

Maybe fractured American families are broken under the weight of a system which refuses to support them, yet makes them pay and pay for everything, out of pocket and after taxes, with no time off. Unless you’re sick, in which case, you’re using your paid holiday leave to be home sick from work. Does this sound like a recipe for success? It is not. It is insane.

American mum stressed and too busy because of the culture

The US should offer education at no cost to everyone. There are a few private institutions of higher education in Europe, for example, but far, far fewer than we have in the US, because tertiary education costs little to access in continental Europe. Typically a few hundred euros of fees per year, plus books. Sometimes a couple of thousand euros per year, but rarely more than that. By comparison, American tuition and fees run into the tens of thousands of dollars annually. 

The US should make free healthcare available for everyone, of all ages, in all conditions, no exceptions. This can be done for far less than what the US spends on healthcare per capita currently. I can’t believe how no one in the US talks about this. Americans have become so accustomed to their stressful and straitened circumstances that they struggle to demand their basic human rights.

About 20 years ago, all worker sick leave was combined with holiday leave so that we were forced to use holiday pay when ill. Sick a lot this year? No holiday for you! 

Italians are always shocked when I tell them this. I guess I just got used to it in the US. Since employers in the United States aren’t required to provide any paid sick leave to their employees, many do not. About 32 million workers in the US have no sick leave whatsoever, with less lucrative jobs less likely to offer sick days.

The US GDP is almost $23 trillion annually. The US is a G7 country, at the top of a rich democratic heap, and the wealthiest of an elite group of nations. How much of that money is clogged up at strategic points like a blood clot, in massive corporate ventures whose profits become CEO paychecks? Or the defence budget? Our citizens are on the verge of a collective stroke because money and services are not flowing freely through the accounts of individuals. How much would it cost to provide all these things to everyone in our country?

Is American culture truly still so puritanical that we think that the only people who deserve a clean shot at a civil life are those who have worked the hardest, without complaining, eating cold gruel, and weathering numerous setbacks?

Here is my vision for the path forward. If you feel crushed beneath the wheel, vote at the next elections for the well-being and support of every person in America. You might not need that help now, but there is a 100% chance you will need it at various points in your life when you are called upon to confront the reality of your own physiological needs or those of the people in your family, whom you assumedly love and wish to see happy and well cared for. 

And well communities make for calmer homes with happy people in them. Happy people tend to be better parents, and if they’re married or committed to one another, they’re more likely to remain so if every day is not some infernal slog where everything is difficult and respite is nowhere to be found.

American family living the American dream - enjoying the culture and beach

I’m passionate about this topic. Still scarred from medical crises, a few pregnancies, working, babies and parenting in the US, trying to combine two careers and one marriage in a culture where the pieces just don’t fit together, our savings are drained by normal daily expenses, and we never made enough money, while we are somehow gaslit as people and convinced that it is our fault for not working hard enough or making smart enough decisions.

There can be a different way. There has to be, because the way the US is trying to do things – the way things have evolved in the US – is just not tenable.

This is a slightly abridged version of an article that was originally published on Sharp Monica blog.

Enjoy Monica’s article? Read her previous piece on the unhealthy work ethic which diminishes quality of life in the US by clicking here.

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Monica lives and works in Florence, Italy. Her international spirit travels with an American passport but she's long since lost count of all the relevant metrics. She currently moonlights as a legal researcher for a local law firm, and prior to that, pursued careers in international education and software. Her off-hours in Italy are filled with a creative buffet of writing, art, music, reading, parenting, and more. Monica frequently writes about cultural forays, interpretive adventures, and close observation.

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