I had a visit from two men on Monday morning, and they gave me a dark prophecy. Thus spake they: “Soon, you will be replacing your refrigerator.”
The appliance in question was purchased less than eight years ago, shortly after we moved into our house. It replaced a landlord special in that peculiar shade of brown that shouts the 1970s. There was nothing wrong with the old refrigerator except that it was tiny enough to be dubbed, during the brief time we spent with it, the “My First Fridge”.
In came a 26-cubic-foot column of stainless steel, equipped with all the modern conveniences, including water and ice dispensed through the door. I’d like to say that over the years, I’ve saved enough time not fiddling with ice-cube trays to write a novel, or learn Esperanto. But the truth is that it was a fairly minor convenience — as we discovered 18 months ago, when the whole apparatus broke.
Ice can be made in the freezer and water drawn from the tap. But we do expect that the refrigerator will keep our food cold and not make horrible noises at random intervals. Those expectations are no longer being met. Two men arrived from our local appliance store, fiddled a bit and announced that we were in need of roughly $1,500 (Dh5,517) worth of parts.
Hopefully, I asked the nice repairmen for tips on more reliable brands. I got but a regretful shrug. It turns out that refrigerators like the My First Fridge — the kind that quietly chug along decade after decade while needing only minor repairs — really are a thing of the past. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average lifespan of a refrigerator is now just 13 years. And the German environmental agency found that between 2004 and 2013, the proportion of major appliances that had to be replaced in less than five years due to a defect rose from 3.5 per cent to 8.3 per cent. These days, we do not so much own our appliances as rent them from fate.
How did we become renters in our own homes? Peruse the Web, and you’ll discover a variety of explanations: Outsourcing to suppliers who opt for cheapness rather than longevity; fancy computer-controlled features that add fancy problems; faster innovation cycles that leave inadequate time for testing; and government-imposed energy-efficiency standards that require a lot of fiddly engineering to comply with. But essentially, all of them boil down to one word: Complexity. The more complicated something is, the more ways it can break.
When you are standing over the corpse of an appliance that died too young, it’s tempting to long for simpler days. But then, simpler isn’t the same as better. Replacement cycles may have shortened, but we can afford to replace our appliances sooner, because prices have fallen so dramatically. In 1979, a basic 17-cubic-foot Kenmore refrigerator cost $469 — or in today’s dollars, $1,735, which would have taken an average worker about 76 hours of labour to earn. It came with an ice maker, automatic defrost and some shelves. The nearest equivalent today has an extra cubic foot of storage, offers humidity-controlled crisper drawers and costs about a third as much to run. At $529, it represents under 20 hours of work at the average wage.
Frequent replacement also allows us to keep up with changing trends — no more are we stuck with the Avocado or Harvest Gold appliances that seemed so chic 20 years ago. Given the choice, we might well opt for quasi-disposable appliances that offer more features while we have them.
But of course, we aren’t being given that choice. As I’ve begun to eye replacements, I’ve noticed that if I want certain features, such as French doors that won’t block my small kitchen, I must also have an appliance that is internet-ready, in case I wish to email rather than speak to the refrigerator in person. Nor can I decide that I’d like to trade higher electricity bills for a longer lifespan; the government has already made that decision for me. Frustratingly, it’s not even clear that this is good for the environment, because it takes quite a lot of energy and materials to manufacture the appliances we’re regularly throwing away.
That’s the irony of modern life in so many ways, multiplying all our choices while taking away the most fundamental one: The ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure. Those things don’t mesh well with the ever-more-intricate world around us, so we have to learn to like an on-demand life in which nothing is permanent except the tyranny of the temporary. And, in truth, there’s much to like — but that’s rather irrelevant. Love it or hate it, welcome to the future.
— Washington Post
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and the author of The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.