Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simple Living: Predicted Twenty Years Ago. Again.

I have just a few items in print that I can't seem to let go: the 20th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, Abbie Hoffman's obituary, and a story (and cover) from the 1991 issue of Time magazine entitled, "The Simple Life." Setting aside discussion of the first two for some other day -- more likely, never -- let's examine the third. I'm simultaneously disheartened and heartened to read it again, almost twenty years after its publication. And, at the time it was printed, I recall feeling simultaneously disheartened and heartened to read it some twenty years after those of us who came of age in the late '60s and early '70s had professed the identical ideals: "a simpler life with deeper meaning."

Here are quotes from the article, which was written by Janice Castro, with reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington, Melissa Ludtke/Boston, and William McWhirter/Chicago, with other bureaus:

These are the humble makings of a revolution in progress: Macaroni and cheese. Timex watches. . . . Bicycles. . .

See the pattern? It's as genuine as Grandma's quilt. After a 10-year bender of gaudy dreams and godless consumerism, Americans are starting to trade down. They want to reduce their attachments to status symbols, fast-track careers and great expectations of Having It All.

In place of materialism . . . having time for family and friends, rest and recreation, good deeds and spirituality.

In a Time/CNN poll of 500 adults, 69% of the people surveyed said they would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life" . . .

In scaling down their tastes, most Americans are making a virtue out of necessity. Contrary to perceptions, the past decade was an era of downward mobility for the majority of U.S. families, who kept up their spending by borrowing and relying on two incomes. Only the wealthiest 20% of Americans significantly increased their real income during the Reagan era, and the poor slipped further behind. . .

Not everyone believes America has changed its stripes, however. "If the present generation has learned anything, it is that talk is cheap. But are they really doing anything different?" asks Stanford economist Victor Fuchs. "The baby boomers are just growing up and playing out a predictable life-cycle change." . . . John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent liberal economist, dismisses the trend as a bicoastal fad among fast-trackers. . .

The beginnings of the new mind-set probably go back as far as the stock-market crash of 1987, which had little immediate effect on the overall economy but gave many people an uneasy feeling about the Roaring Eighties." . . . Many people were awakened by individual experience: the plight of a homeless neighbor, the collapse of a bank, a friend's job loss. . .
The article continues with talk of "cocooning" (remember that buzzword?), the importance of spending more time with family, and:

. . . another reason for rejecting rampant materialism: its impact on the environment. . . Recycling has taken hold as a voguish and satisfying pursuit . . . Gilded '80s [TV] shows such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest are gone, swept away by . . . Roseanne, The Simpsons and Married...with Children . . .

In their search for more enduring gratification in life, many people are seeking spirituality, if not a born-again commitment to organized religion . . .

And the article concludes with:

Is the simple life just a passing fancy, a stylish flashback of the 1960s? Not so, say people who have studied both eras. Contends Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah: "It's no longer messianic, the way it was in the '60s, but relatively pragmatic. That may give the present mood a greater staying power." That's good, because the American generation now reaching middle age has a lot of promises to keep -- not to mention mortgages to carry, tuition to pay and lawns to mow. No wonder they want to keep it simple.
Sound familiar? Yes, indeed. But it's different this time around.

In the '60s, the counter-culture revolution was bolstered by children of some privilege. It's easier to rebel if you know you can always go home and do laundry. I know; I was there. I was in school, then worked for a non-profit.

And after the '70s, what happened? The "Roaring Eighties," as the Times article called it. The era of "real gold," "L'Oreal...because I'm worth it," and, most famously, "Greed is good." The stock market was the place to be and if you weren't in it, you were missing out on a "sure thing." At least until 1987.

Then, in the '90s, the urge to simplify and cocoon was championed by people who were exhausted by their demanding jobs that had allowed them to spend enormous amounts of money on luxuries. And it's easier to simplify if you've got money in the bank. I know; I was there. I was in show biz, then became an artist.

What happened in the '00s? Financial lunacy. This time it was real estate. If you didn't own property, you were missing out on a "sure thing." And this time, even the big boys, the banks and brokerages, were so caught up in the madness that when the market collapsed, it brought them down right along with the individual investors. I know; I was there, but on the sidelines. I was fortunate not to have overextended in real estate and not to have trusted the stock market with everything else. I'm enormously thankful for that because you never know when life will throw a curve ball in some other way.

So where are we all now, with yet another decade behind us? There's still some talk about the benefits of simple living and lots of talk about protecting the environment, but today, for so many, simplification isn't by choice; it's being imposed on a lot of people who have been caught by surprise. When simplicity is a result of a lack of other options, it's doesn't feel so virtuous. It just feels like you're poor.

Bad financial decisions are at the root of the problem for many people, but for some -- many who were in the vanguard in the '60s and '70s -- age discrimination is now part of enforced simple living, too. Limited jobs mean limited opportunities. Scaled back expectations are the new reality for almost everyone, but especially for those who are too young to retire and too old to be considered employable, even if they have impeccable credentials. We live in a society that too often devalues experience and has never particularly valued maturity. There's an example of a curve ball thrown by life and it's clear that not everyone was prepared for it.

The obviously disheartening aspect of reading that Time article is reflecting on the fact that today's mess is just another example of the rather painful economic cycle that our society seems to repeat so predictably. What's heartening about it? It reminds us that we do manage to get through the hard times eventually. Society survived the Great Depression; why not the Great Recession?

So, with the blessing/curse of optimism, let's consider what's the best bet for getting through today's challenging time. Other than the obvious financial reality check that's required for most people, there's an attitude change that would be helpful and at least part of it relates directly to being a thoughtful, uncluttered consumer.

First, believe that less really is more, just as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said over fifty years ago. I'm not advocating embracing the concept of "less" because it's frugal, or sensible, or necessary; instead I'm advocating embracing it because it offers us not only beauty, but also flexibility. Beauty gives us joy in the moment and flexibility is a highly valuable commodity during a period of change.

What if you made buying choices that would simplify your life by resulting in fewer possessions, but more appealing possessions? What if you chose to keep only those things you already own that are beautiful or useful, just as William Morris advised over a hundred years ago? (Beautiful doesn't necessarily mean expensive; it means pleasing to the eye, your eye.) What if you kept only the sentimental items that had true sentiment, not just history attached?

What if you emptied your home of all of your unnecessary stuff, not because you were panic stricken and felt obligated to have a garage sale, but because you wanted to make space to actually live in your home? Or because you wanted the flexibility to move if you needed to or chose to do so?

Then, what if you embraced the concept of change? What if you were bold rather than timid during these difficult times? What if you had faith in yourself and your ability to do whatever is necessary to stay afloat? What if you took this opportunity to remake your life the way you'd like it to be? I doubt that you'd be lugging around all of the stuff you currently own because you'd see much of it as a burden. I doubt that you'd be clinging to everything you've ever owned because you'd see that now is what matters and planning for the future makes more sense than seeking (false) security in the possessions of the past.

What if you embraced the goal of "a simpler life with deeper meaning?" I doubt that you'd be who you are at this moment, but I bet you'd become who you are in this life.

What if you did that?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: © Time, Inc.

8 comments:

Dinah Sanders said...

Though there has definitely been a recurring cycle that goes back to William Morris, I don't think we can take the past twenty years as typical to it. We're undergoing the biggest cultural shift since the printing press. The ability for everyone (provided their local library is still open) to access most information in the world and, more crucially, to add to and influence that pool of information is fundamentally changing how we do most things. As we go forward I believe on of the biggest positive influences on the practice of simplification will be the culture of sharing. It's not just open source software and the Maker Faire, it's generations growing up with the notion that 'when I have something good I can share it with you at no harm to myself'. The flipside of that belief about the way the world works is that 'when I need something someone else will probably be able to share it with me, so I don't need to hoard everything'.

Jo said...

“In a Time/CNN poll of 500 adults, 69% of the people surveyed said they would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life" .”

I wonder what that poll would show today. I suspect the results would be similar. The thing is “simple living” seems to represent an ideal to most people rather than a sustainable quotidian lifestyle. When it comes to An Ideal vs. The Latest Shiny Consumable a lot of people exhibit poor impulse control. Magazines and TV see to it that ideals get lip service but the consumables get pushed, pushed, pushed. I wonder what the advertisements were that surrounded that Time article…

Your comments are always thought provoking and ring true with how I want to live my life (and do for the most part) but sometimes I still have those “poor impulse control” moments. I’m working toward deeper meaning. Can I still keep my iPad? ;)

Cynthia Friedlob said...

@Dinah: You bring up an interesting point. In a conversation not long ago with a friend who was despairing of society's situation, I argued that technology would lead the way in getting us out of this mess. I like your belief that the concept of sharing will contribute positively to the process. Thanks for commenting!

@Jo: Yes, you may keep your iPad! See above! But you've also brought up an interesting issue: even when one embraces the concept of simplification, there's still insidious pressure to buy stuff that will (supposedly) help us simplify or will demonstrate to others just how darn simplified we are. I talked about the commodification of spirituality in another blog post way back in 2006 ( http://bit.ly/am55CK ) and I think simplicity can be, and often is, commodified the same way.

Also, we are so vulnerable to the human urge to create a hierarchy within our larger society and within our smaller social groups. The "cool" factor. Advertising plays heavily into that urge. Is the guy who's contentedly living a simple, unobtrusive life by choice (maybe gardening, taking the bus to a regular job, having a limited wardrobe, eating meals at home, watching regular TV with his family, etc.)as "cool" as the guy who owns a Prius, wears only organic clothes, buys only organic food from the farmers' market and high-end stores like Whole Foods, sends his kids to private schools where they learn about the impact of recycling on the planet, and has a high-profile job that gets him public attention and acclaim? Well, technically, yes, the guy living the comparatively unobserved simple life is definitely as cool, but in reality, most people want the more expensive trappings of the "simple" life. ~ Ah, I'm beginning to rant!

All we can do is the best we can, at whatever level of awareness we have. ~ Thanks for your comment and your kind words about the blog!

Cynthia Friedlob said...
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Cynthia Friedlob said...
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Cynthia Friedlob said...

Whoa! Somehow my comment got posted three times! Thus, the deletions.

LauraBrennanPHD said...

This is a wonderful topic that really resonates with many people. I was certainly touched. Thanks so much for posting. I look forward to learning more.

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Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for your comment, Lauren, and for the information about the book.