Like many of our late-middle-aged peers, we have too much stuff. The garage is full of tools, utensils, scraps of wood and metal, bicycles and bicycle parts, coolers, boxes of old magazines and newspapers and stacked storage bins filled with things I couldn’t bear to get rid of. Alas, there’s no room for our cars.
And then there’s the house and basement. We have about 4,000 books, more than 250 prints, paintings, ceramics and sculptures and the usual array of furniture, electronics, clothing, appliances large and small and enough kitchen stuff to equip a medium-sized restaurant.
It wasn’t always thus. During my 20s, I lived on a medium-sized sailboat, and had no stuff. There was space for everything necessary and no space for anything else. It was great until real life intervened and I found myself married with kids, living in Rockrimmon.
And so began the era of acquisition and accumulation. We bought stuff and replaced it with better stuff. We moved into a bigger house, and bought bigger furniture. Marie Kondo had yet to tell us that we didn’t own our stuff — it owned us.
We were obedient consumers, doing our part to fuel the stuff-based economy. At the time, it seemed like an endless and beneficent cycle — buy things, keep the good stuff, preserve tangible memories, care for treasures passed down from past generations and eventually give everything to the kids and move to Florida.
But what if the kids don’t want any stuff? Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z seem more attracted to uncluttered lives, reduced carbon footprints and the freedom and flexibility of stuff-free lives. They prefer clean, spare spaces without much visual clutter. They don’t want to be burdened by oriental rugs, shelves of books, antique furniture or gilt-framed 19th century landscape paintings.
Their preferences may combine with other trends to reconfigure our economy locally, as well as nationally. Downtown’s explosive growth has been strongly influenced by minimalist adults who prefer urban amenities to suburban commutes. Automobiles are seen as expensive pains in the butt, not buoyant symbols of freedom and mobility. And climate change? It’s real, it’s happening now and we have to radically alter our lifestyles to prevent it from destroying civilization. Every one of us ought to travel less, walk and bike more and temper consumption.
Consider FIRE, the movement to combine frugal living and savings rates of 50-70 percent of income to achieve financial independence within 10-15 years and retire early. The concept, first framed by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez in their 1992 book Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence, is to stop trading your time for money to buy consumer goods.
“You’re buying back your life,” said Robin, “Your one wild and precious life.” Minimalists remind us that time is irreplaceable and that “We spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t even know.”
Do these related phenomena signal a major cultural shift?
If so, legacy companies like Ford may go broke and our easternmost suburbs may stop expanding long before they reach the Kansas line. Amazon may hire a couple thousand folks in Colorado Springs, but many more may lose their jobs as retail outlets continue to close or shrink.
Given our military/military contractor economic base, we’re well positioned to avoid the worst of the coming cultural storm. And if Americans follow Greta Thunberg’s example and avoid international plane travel, our visitor industry should thrive. Forget Rome, Paris and Bangkok — come to COS!
Cultural shift or not, it’s difficult to believe that a country headed by a luxury-loving billionaire from Queens would ever forsake the high life.
Yet as tastes change, so do the prices of the baubles once prized by wealthy American strivers. Less-than-pristine collector cars haven’t drawn much interest at recent auctions, while second-tier Midwestern regionalist art from the 1930s has cratered.
And unlike the FIRE folks, I didn’t make good investment decisions. I sold my 1969 428 SCJ Mercury Cyclone for a few thousand bucks before the prices of rare muscle cars exploded and am still holding on to my Midwestern regionalists, although they’re worth a lot less than I paid 30 years ago. Meanwhile, I’m trying get rid of the junk. Anybody want some old newspapers?
But first I have to reread them all…