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The Gradual Melding of Tech and Homemaking

Woman sitting on a couch with her feet propped on the coffee table and working on her laptop.

In the numerous generational spats that have taken place between Millennials and Boomers in the past few years, one of the most common complaints is that Millennials don’t have any “domestic” skills. When you can hit up Taskrabbit for help building IKEA furniture, Grubhub for sushi, and send a Roomba whizzing across your floors in lieu of vacuuming, it does make you wonder which skills and gadgets are worth keeping and which ones are worth relinquishing to the dustbins of history.

But there’s always stories behind both numbers and platitudes.

We gravitate to tech because it makes our lives easier. Sometimes this has devastating fallout, such as everyone showing their inner Gladys Kravitz on Nextdoor and social media has become a cesspool teeming with toxicity and chlorinated by endless self-doubt even though it’s an important way to stay in touch with your people and meet new ones. Or for the more “analog” side of things, why would you hammer ice cubes by hand like a chump to make smoothies when you can just throw everything in a high-speed blender?

Once upon a time, keeping house was considered totally siloed from technological developments. Separate from the advent of smart home tech and the online world as we know it, activities like cooking, sewing, cleaning, and organizing were considered pretty much offline although they weren’t immune to their own evolutions. Take the stand mixer— it was actually invented in 1914 by an engineer who first made iconic Kitchenaid mixers in 80-quart capacity for the Navy. Only a few affluent housewives in the 1920s and 30s had them, then as the uber-homemaker trope exploded in the 1950s, Kitchenaids shrunk a little and got their trademark colored finishes upon facing competition from appliance makers like Sunbeam. Things like CAKE MIX were totally revolutionary at the time!

But now we’ve melded technology with homemaking, and it happened gradually but it’s here to stay.

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Millennials Weren’t Necessarily Taught These Skills By Our Parents

Removing burnt cake from the oven.

It takes a village to raise a child, and for a vast majority of American Millennials, we were raised in a pretty isolationist state.

This experience varies by household and individual factors, but being taught skills like carpentry, cooking, and other aspects of daily life and home maintenance wasn’t necessarily passed down from parent to child like it was for many Americans in previous generations. Brit Morin, the founder of Brit + Co which is pretty much like a shiny and mint-colored version of the Woman’s Day and Family Circle mags our Boomer mothers kept around, actually dove into this concept in her book Homemakers: that Millennials, especially girls who grew up in the late 80s-early 90s, didn’t really have a road map the way that our mothers did where it was “go to school, maybe go to college if you didn’t bag a husband, pop out some kids, do stuff for your grandkids and around the community so you can prove you’re not a disposable old woman, then die.” Boomer women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and you bet your ass that the 1950s June Cleaver trope went up in smoke.

In fact, if my tenuous upbringing and that of a good many of my peers is any indication, many older Millennials made it to college and their first apartments with no idea how to cook because their Boomer mothers really resented being taught these skills. I mean, my mother would go on about what a great cook she was but we had more box mixes of various dishes on deck than your average doomsday prepper. I thought green beans came from cans for a good 20 years.

As for younger Millennials and older Zoomers, an even larger amount of them come from households where both parents work but also raised in a culture of fear. Older Millennials like me definitely had this on an individual level where our parents were so anxious about us accidentally burning the house down that it’s totally plausible for young people to not learn to cook until they have to. I remember what a thrill it was when I made pizza in my first apartment, and was curious why the yeast fell flat on my dough like sand covering a flip-flop and resulted in a limp yet puffy crust that tasted like spackle. Now I probably use my oven more in a given week more than my mother did my entire childhood. So don’t blame Millennials and Zoomers for being soft and clueless, blame our helicopter parents who were afraid we’d get into accidents well into our teens so we didn’t dare do anything more complex than microwaving some Totino’s.

Man looks shocked as he watches smoke coming out of the microwave oven.

Some of us will still screw that up, too! Though microwave technology also improved because it used to mean “game over” if you threw things like forks or foil in with the food by accident.

If all this seems highly gendered, it’s for a reason: it’s 2020 and women are still stuck doing the disproportionate share of housework (49% of women compared to 19% of men who do these tasks every day). In fact, even though more American moms work today, they’re also spending more time on childcare compared to when Boomers were kids. Despite this, working mothers are still blamed for all the evils of the world. The more things change, the more they stay the same, le sigh.

Do they even offer home ec classes in schools anymore? This was supposed to be an equalizer if you had a household like mine, but in high school these cooking classes were usually electives if offered at all. (I used mine on French and AP government, to be randomly treated to the smell of brownies or eggplant parm in the hall.) I remember splitting into groups in middle school, where the class was about as useful as a Betty Crocker commercial. Unless your roommates or your polycule all like the same foods and are home at the same time, this setup is simply not realistic.

So if you weren’t taught any cooking or other homemaking skills growing up, it didn’t matter though: YouTube came along in the mid-aughts then was bought by Google and turned into a powerhouse, followed by a slew of cooking and crafting blogs, videos and tutorials on Skillshare, and so much more.

Some people have recipes that have been handed down generation to generation or remember cooking being this intimate family bond, I come from a family of New Yorkers who lived for going out and hoarded box mixes that laid forgotten in the pantry so long, they could’ve been buried in Olduvai Gorge. I learned how to properly cook tofu from Recipezaar before all the trendy vegan cooking blogs erupted, so it’s been fascinating watching this space evolve and become even more crucial to how people learn basic skills and make their homes more livable (Unfuck Your Habitat, anyone?)

We Recognize Tradeoffs More Easily Today

Man looks confused as he sits on the floor and stares at the DIY assembly pieces lying on the floor around him.

While this varies depending on which state (or part of the world) you’re from, being a northeast gal, finding the right professionals is simply a way of life. You take your car to a mechanic, you call a plumber when something leaks, and you order takeout for dishes you know you’ll screw up and call for spices that will celebrate multiple birthdays because you blew $7 for the bottle and only needed half a teaspoon.

So for all the bitching that Millennials have to endure from Boomers about how we can’t learn these skills for ourselves? It’s because sometimes it isn’t worth it.

If you’ve got this thing that needs to be done and you get no enjoyment from it, you can easily pay someone else to do it, you have better or more profitable things to do with your time, and/or you lack the physical or mental abilities to do it? You can find someone to take care of building that IKEA desk, do your laundry, or take your car to the shop with a few swipes on places like Thumbtack and Taskrabbit if you don’t have a friend nearby or a local handyman you can call up. (Mom and pop hardware stores are a great place to get a recommendation for one, if you have any in your area!)

Handyman skills also just might not be something you’ll need to rely on if you’re renting. Given that although Millennial homeownership is slowly increasing, millions are still financially unable to buy because of nerfed spending power combined with high housing prices. For those who move constantly in pursuit of jobs, romance, adventure, or some combination of these things, it also might not be worth it to buy despite having the dough for that down payment or even an all-cash deal. It’s one thing to know how to use basic hand tools to put a picture up on the wall, but if you’re getting an air conditioner installed, need a new fridge, or are getting anything remodeled, you’re going with whoever the landlord sends.

Organizing your home? The prospect can be nightmare-inducing if you have severe executive dysfunction and/or poor spatial reasoning. You’ll put it off until actually hiring somebody and setting a date and committing the funds makes you get it together, because yes, professional home organizers are a thing!

Got a basic sewing kit and that button fell off your favorite coat? You might feel confident enough to try it yourself with the kit and watching some YouTube videos from crafters and professional seamstresses, and it might not be the end of the world if it’s a casual coat and your stitching is wonky, and you don’t have the right size needle. But if that was an expensive blazer that needs to look sharp for work and that you’d maybe like to get top dollar for on eBay or Poshmark, you’re taking it to a tailor.

Some people find cooking, sewing, and de-cluttering meditative and want to challenge themselves, and that’s great! But sometimes you just don’t have the time or capacity to do these things yourself, and that’s okay too. We live in a society, not in a cave full of feral cane toads. You can’t do everything yourself and you have to figure out what’s worth learning and buying supplies for versus farming it out.

That’s better adulting than some arbitrary power tool purchase.

“Domestic” and “Handy” Skills Simply Manifested Differently Through a Wifi-Connected Lens

Top view of hands knitting.

The perception of many different housekeeping activities and home goods has changed drastically in the past two decades.

Take bread baking. Baking bread from scratch has become something of a Millennial normality and necessity as we get through the COVID quarantine, but before this whole pandemic mess it was also becoming something of an “artisan” skill. People go to classes at bakeries or sign up for breadmaking classes on everything from Skillshare to Airbnb to get individualized instruction, after watching pre-recorded content from the likes of Tasty, Bigger Bolder Baking, and Bon Appetit on YouTube. What was once a mandatory chore before packaged bread appeared on shelves in the absence of local bakers? Now a meditative activity you do on a weekend, bonus points if you got a status symbol Kitchenaid.

Some guy named Chad at a random startup also decided that all the little things our grandmothers taught us to get through the Great Depression and make housekeeping labor easier should be dubbed “hacks” so all the dudebros would be more amenable to trying them. But cooking has become a desirable hobby for men to have nowadays, and women are getting into carpentry and woodworking. People of all genders are immortalizing their hacks on YouTube and TikTok channels along with Twitter and Instagram memes, as younger folk look for inventive ways to get household tasks done. Notable feats include strapping Swiffer attachments to Roombas and putting water and dish soap into a blender pitcher because you’re definitely asking for a trip to the emergency room if you ever try hand-washing a Ninja’s blades. I have a dishwasher, yet that beast damn near took my fingernail off.

Then you have the community-building element.

Among older Millennials in particular, we’re living single more than ever, especially women. When you don’t have someone living with you to share that fresh-baked bread or amazing dish you made, posting it on social media is the de riguer thing to do. Instagram and Pinterest are where those styled professional-looking photos go to make you hate yourself, while Twitter and Facebook are home to more humble and realistic photos of knobbly cornbread and stews that don’t look very appetizing but probably taste good. Couples and families still join in on the fun, but it’s become a ritual for single people to feel less alone–especially amid lockdowns.

Regardless of household composition, homemaking activities now have apps and communities dedicated to them, such as Ravelry. It started out as a website where you can upload and download knit and crochet patterns, and sell your own. Users can submit their own content not just in the form of patterns and projects, but the lively forums are also a place where knitters and crocheters can find community if they don’t have a knitting group where they live or someone to show them how to knit. My grandmother taught me how to do things like cut up pizza boxes and reuse the bakery string to securely save my pizza for a later date, she wasn’t the type who knitted or could teach me how.

But attitudes towards knitting changed, just like they have towards breadmaking and cookery. I grew up with knitting being portrayed as this thing that grandmothers did, and it was a sedate habit for older people, namely older women. It got lampooned as this “desperate single lady” thing on Sex and the City, when Charlotte copes with the stress from her impending divorce by learning to knit because “The New Yorker says that knitting is the new yoga!” By the time my mid-twenties rolled around, knitting became this cute and quirky geek girl hobby one picked up to make wearable Dr. Who fan art. Mompreneurs then flooded Etsy to knit sweaters, mufflers, gloves, and so forth on spec so you could get that “Grandma made it” aesthetic, but with artisanal yarn of your choosing and at just the right size.

The Internet has actually made younger generations more handy and able to get things done in the kitchen than ever. We just didn’t get the ample and secure housing, and the time and energy, to do it all.