Two careers, two kids, plenty of time

A Panamanian-American couple invited me over to dinner at their house the other night.  They are both well-educated and have excellent careers.  Their girls are 8 and 9.  I walked in the door to find an impeccably neat household.  No toys cluttering the floor.  Both husband and wife were relaxed and happy to chat.  Eventually an excellent meal appeared, cooked and served by one of two live-in nannies.  The dishes disappeared and the kids came into the room to hang out with the parents.

By dessert I’d figured out what was wrong with the picture.  These people had as much free time and energy to socialize as single childless Americans.  My American friends who are married with children are capable of straightening up the house and entertaining at home perhaps once every two months.  These upper middle-class Panamanians could do that every night if they wished.  Americans with kids are exhausted by the effort of driving them around and reshuffling the clutter.  Panamanians have their chauffeur do the chauffeuring.

All of the magic (two nannies and a full-time driver) happens for $1000/month.  A perfectly lovely house in a nice area can be had for $250,000.

29 thoughts on “Two careers, two kids, plenty of time

  1. Hi Philip
    “A perfectly lovely house in a nice area can be had for $250,000.”
    PLEASE tell me this is a typo.
    Or has your perspective on real estate prices been forever warped
    by life in the Boston area?

  2. So what’s the conclusion here? Subcontract the drudgery of life to others? You can sort of do that in Asia, where I can hire a 7-day/full-time maid for $500USD/mth. But most people just end up working longer hours at something else similarly grinding.

    Think you have to also decide you’re going to live a more relaxed life, too, if you start hiring domestic help and expect your quality of life to improve.

    And of course, issues like this are moot in the USA, where everything is too expensive, especially labor.

  3. There are more lifestyles than what the US has to offer, I assure you. I’m not in the least suprised by what you described – the scary thing is that you had to travel to even find out about it. With all the imagery broadcast daily – somehow many things don’t get through. I can only say: come to Europe, visit people you know, stay out of the tourist patterns, and you’ll see a wider range of plain and human lifestyles than you can shake a stick at.

    To latch on to the previous poster: labor in Europe is even more expensive. That doesn’t explain it. I think the keyword is consumerism. Maybe some things are more important in life than television, goods, perceptions. IMO it’s pretty simple: life is good when you make more than you need. That doesn’t mean you have to spend you time striving to make more…

    Apologies for the ramble. I couldn’t resist responding when Philip voiced his surprise at what I’d call “normality”.


  4. The question can also be posed: what percentage of Panamanians are upper-middle-class in the sense Philip described, compared to a similar cohort in North America? I know semi-rich people in Canada who live a similar laid-back lifestyle, but would there be enough nannies/housekeepers available in North America at wages a larger percentage of us could afford? And how many Panamanians can afford that lifestyle anyway?

  5. Miller got to what I was about to point out before I could. The typical Yuppie couple pulling in $200K a year could easily afford to spend $1000/month on a nanny who could also double as a cook and driver if they are willing to hire an illegal immigrant.

    The thing is that most Americans can retire to Central American and create the lifestyle described by Phil in Panama, Costa Rica, or Mexico. Of course, you’ll never see this type of information in the mainstream media because the American economy depends on people working until they drop, not working just enough to afford a life of ease and sanity in a 3rd world contry.

  6. Phil, you’re singing the praises of a system that is the result of a massive divide between the rich and the poor (even greater than in the US). I would think your travels would have given you a better insight into other cultures but apparently they haven’t. Yes, the rich (or relatively small upper-middle class) have a great life, but the majority (i.e. their cleaners and drivers) have to work so much to make ends meet that they have even less time than the average US family to spend with their kids.

  7. Oh to be a ‘Have’ in a land of ‘Have Nots’. I hear that South Africa was a really great place to live too (for us European types) before the end of apartheid.

    Perhaps you should have chatted with the nannies and the chaufeurs to see if they would prefer their children grow up in Panama or the US.

  8. Um, I just wondered why I would want to pay someone else to drive my kids around to their activities. I keep thinking the whole point in trying to have more free time, is so I could do just that, drive around with my kids, and watch them participating in the cool activities I’m working my butt off just to be able to afford, in my inexpensive house, driving my little Honda (with Air-Conditioning).

  9. Phil, I’m a bit disappointed. “Countries with a small upper class and many dirt-poor people means servants are cheap for the rich.” No shit? That’s got to be one of the more lame observations you’ve come up with.

  10. I should add that you usually have some at least amusing and sometimes interesting observations. I’m not trying to rip on you.

  11. Folks: I’m not sure that the prevalence of nannies in Panama is a simple consequence of the divide between rich and poor. Plenty of Americans could have a nanny for what they spent on their brand-new monster SUV and gasoline at 10 mpg. But they choose not to, just as a middle class Panamanian chooses to drive a 5-year-old compact car and employ a nanny. It is considered normal in the U.S. for a married couple with kids to have lots of stuff and no time. By contrast in Panama people won’t think less of you if your material possessions are few and out of date as long as you have time to hang out.

  12. Most lower, and middle class Americans where both parents work have some form of day-care and pay a small fortune for it while they’re at work. SUV or damn the SUV.

    Maybe its a cultural thing, but the bottom line is that most Americans are pretty darn uncomfortable with having servants in their home full time. Maybe the idea got tossed in Boston harbor along with tea, shot during the Civil War or run from heading west. Maybe we’d rather have an SUV?

    Yes, Americans run materialistic. The trade-off seems to be, as you yourself observe, that we don’t typically aspire to be lord and master of the manor.

  13. I think that there is another compelling reason why Panamanians may prefer small compact cars: car jacking/theft. That is merely a guess on my part, but in much of the world, an expensive vehicle may very well get stolen or call attention to the occupants as good targets for robbery or worse yet kidnapping.

    Philip, perhaps if your friends had more time to socialize with you, you could convince them of how much more fun it is to burn fossil fuel in a helicopter rather than a monster SUV.

  14. Stella: There are plenty of brand-new fancy SUVs on the road in Panama. The place is also littered with shiny new Mercedes and BMW sedans as well as Porsches (rather remarkable considering the mournful condition of most roads outside Panama City). The rich don’t seem to be shy about flaunting their wealth.

    Perhaps I wasn’t making my point sufficiently clearly… a Panamanian with a modest salary, e.g., $25,000 per year, will choose to spend money on buying free time in the form of child care rather than additional manufactured goods and/or real estate.

  15. I think Philip has put his finger on something we in the U.S. are indeed blind to. Not just in Panama, but in many other countries, it is customary to hire a servant if can possibly afford it. The thinking as I have had it explained is that a working person needs their free time, and more importantly, jobs need to be created for those with fewer skills.

    This works out as an equitable trade off for the societies where this is customary. Unskilled persons can find jobs and often affordable housing working for a middle-class family. The family can stay sane, and the kids have other adults to interact with besides their stressed-out parents. Adults, by the way, who have other points of view besides their middle-class parents.

    PhilA also has a good point. Most Americans now feel uncomfortable having a servant around. I think it is our liberal do-gooder attitude, that we are imposing on a person by asking them to clean up or watch our kids for us.

    This is an attitude we should try to get over. It’s bad for our peace of mind and our economy. I have a sister-in-law who works as a part-time nanny. She would much rather you hire her than stay home and scream at your kids. If people don’t want to be servants, they won’t take the jobs.

    And yes, I agree: In our present culture you have more esteem if you have an expensive car or home, rather than a servant or two. Silly us.

  16. I’m still don’t understand why I shouldn’t be trying to buy more free time to be WITH my kids. I would give anything to be able to spend more time taking care of my kids, not less.


  17. On a somewhat related note, to the extent money correlates with happiness, having more than those around you seems to be the key. Doubling your purchasing power while those around you triple theirs does not increase your happiness. People seem to react to relative wealth, not the absolute level. At least, that’s what I read.

  18. I live in Panama and can comment on how things work here with regards to economy. It is very easy for people from US and Europe to get the wrong stick of things when they read something like what Philip is talking about.

    Panama has on paper a more inequal society. However there is a very large middle class, in particular in Panama City. If you live in a two family income earning each $500pm you are middle class in Panama. With that you can easily afford to pay the $80pm it costs to have a live in nanny or maid. You are likely to own a house, a car, PC, broadband etc. You eat out several times a week. My wife studies at the University of Panama. Tuition $26 per semester including everything.

    Lower middle class areas have houses (tiny sure) available for sale for $80pm mortgage payments with $200 down payment.

    Supermarkets are a lot cheaper here than in the US or Europe. You just can not compare it directly. Rich vs poor? Sure there are many mega rich people here, but that is good isnt it?

    And as Rod says the point of the article is about people leaving less stressed lifestyles.


  19. While I could certainly do with less clutter, shouldn’t I raise my own children and spend time with them? Or should I shunt that responsibility onto the hired help so I can socialize? I guess a nice dinner and a clean, toy-free floor is more important than well-reared children and good family relations.

  20. Bryan: I’m sure that every hour you spend with your children is contributing to their perfect adjustment and happiness. But sadly it seems that other Americans are not up to your high standards. The 8- and 9-year-old girls I met in Panama seemed much happier, less bratty, and had better manners than typical American kids of the same age. Apparently though work-obsessed American yuppies consider themselves better care-givers than a $300/month Central American the kids haven’t gotten the message …. (could also be that the Panamanians spend nearly as much time with their kids but the time is spent playing or talking rather than doing chores that the parents dislike and resent)

  21. I live in Brazil, which can’t be too unlike Panama, and believe the servants versus goods issue is based not so much on choices in lifestyle, but on affordability.

    I work in the IT industry, and am quite well paid in my profession given the local rates. My salary is around US$35,000 per year with zero benefits, placing me in the upper middle class. My wife and I have a full-time maid; she costs me around 10% of my salary, of which she only actually receives a little over half, the rest go to mandatory health and transportation benefits. Her job sucks; she works all day, with few breaks, mostly standing up. Yet what I pay her is high compared to what other maids get. She was unemployed for quite a while before working for us and so is quite unwilling to leave, despite the low pay. Such are conditions here: hordes of poor people desperate for any job, no matter how low the pay.

    In contrast, goods are expensive. If I saved what I pay her to buy a car, it would take me four (4!) years to buy a small, compact car – not an SUV, that would take over ten years. The same applies to electronics, clothing, and most other goods.

    Services are cheap, goods are expensive. You get more value for your money here, and contribute more to the economy, by hiring people than you do by buying stuff. In North America, there’s a complete inversion: services are expensive, goods are cheap. Thus, lots of SUVs, few maids.

  22. i thimk the exemple of your American friends
    is such a good think , i learn that withuot money u can’t have no children , thats our problem today as a national americans.

  23. i thimk the exemple of your American friends
    is such a good think , i learn that withuot money u can’t have no children , thats our problem today as a national americans.

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