Minimalism: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

kongobujiBack in 2008 I began writing occasional posts about minimalism. I wrote about why I don’t like television, even though I’m a media scholar (or maybe that’s why); about the emotional strain of going through my very non-minimalist mother’s possessions after her death; about objects  and ownership in terms of magical thinking; and about the relationship between photographs and fear of ephemerality. Then in my early 40s, I explained why I found extreme minimalism  — often touted, it seemed to me, by young men and women in their 20s  — problematic (my post pissed off ex-minimalist blogger Everett Bogue) and listed my own moderate “rules for stuff“. I also pointed out that minimalism isn’t necessarily all those great things that minimalist bloggers like to tell you it is.

I haven’t blogged much about minimalism lately, in part because one of my own minimalist choices has been to avoid blogging if I have nothing significant to say. However, recently I’ve been thinking about how the minimalist lifestyle movement has changed in the last seven years and what its future might be, and I’d like to offer my reflections to others for consideration.

I believe the minimalist lifestyle movement has matured quite a bit since the ’08s, in part because those early, extremist minimalist bloggers have either moved on or mellowed out, and in part because a greater diversity of voices have joined the discussion — people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, and marital and parental statuses are now blogging about their experiences (Miss Minimalist’s Real Life Minimalists feature is a good way to get to know some of them). I remember when Joshua Becker and Leo Babauta seemed to be the only minimalist parents who were blogging — and not surprisingly, both were moderate voices among the extremist majority. Now most minimalist bloggers happily acknowledge that there’s no one-size-fits-all minimalism. Lifestyle choices that work well for young, single professionals, such as digital nomadism, tiny houses, and bare rooms, may not seem as attractive when spouses, children, and/or dependent parents enter the equation. Moreover, extreme minimalism doesn’t work well for certain jobs, hobbies, or choices; for example, art, sewing, canning/preserving, home-schooling, and the like all require a fair amount of paraphernalia, even though those pursuing them may still be minimalists in all other respects. (The book Essentialism reminded us of the importance of organizing and streamlining one’s activities to achieve one’s goals and offered a useful term, “essentialism,” that sidesteps some of the “stuff” baggage tied up in “minimalism.”)

Over the years, the minimalist lifestyle blogosphere has also engaged in healthy self-reflection, some of it occurring early but more kick-started by Everett Bogue’s infamous 2011 “Fuck Minimalism” post. Various writers, minimalist or not, have noted that obsessing about stuff is in itself a form of materialism, and that minimalism may be counterproductive for the creative. Some minimalists have realized that discarding objects that don’t “spark joy” is problematic if they discard so much that they don’t have what they need anymore — for example, it’s not cheap to replace an entire wardrobe. Other critics have suggested that minimalism is a bourgeois perspective promoted by several powerful corporations  or pointed out what appears to be a class/wealth bias among minimalists. Numerous minimalists have reflected on these criticisms, some objecting to the characterizations and others cautiously agreeing that adopting a minimalist lifestyle implies the choice to not adopt that lifestyle, a choice denied to the poor. We are seeing the movement catch on in different countries and hearing more about downsizing/rightsizing as Baby Boomers enter retirement and begin to shed their possessions — which, it seems, their kids don’t want.

The beginning of the (neo)minimalist lifestyle movement is often pegged to the Great Recession of 2008; that’s certainly, from what I’ve seen, when it really took off as a lifestyle choice in the blogosphere. Now that the recession is over (or so I hear from the news), will the minimalist movement wane? Is the move toward moderation correlated with the gradual easing of the recession?

Despite the fact that this year Millennials (now 18-34) overtook Baby Boomers as the U.S.’s largest living generation, they are still underemployed and saddled with more debt, much of it education-related. That ought to pose some challenges for advertisers; they will want Millennial dollars, especially as Millennials enter the family-building, house-buying ages, but they may find that Millennials don’t have the dollars to spend. Those Millennials who do, though, will need to brace for the upcoming onslaught of messages aimed at them and at their children. Minimalism may be hard to sustain under those circumstances.

On the other hand, Baby Boomers (now 51-69) are entering retirement, most of them with nothing near adequate savings to maintain the lifestyles to which they’ve become accustomed. This suggests first, that they will no longer be attractive to advertisers (which is why I think the advertising shift will move to Millennials), and second, that they may become minimalists whether they like it or not … leading us back to that issue of minimalism vs. poverty. They may find minimalist writings useful, but those minimalist bloggers who are still relatively young might need to take into account the fact that the elderly may have physical limitations and health conditions that preclude extremely Spartan living conditions (climbing up a ladder to a bunk bed in a tiny house, for example, might be impossible).

And then we have Gen Z (now 0-20), which grew up with the Great Recession and has internalized economic uncertainty. Will this generation embrace minimalism as one strategy for ensuring financial safety? Possibly. The oldest are only now starting to enter the workplace, so we’ll have to see what happens, but I’d guess that many may swing toward their own version of extreme minimalism, just as a number of Millennials did at that age.

The minimalist lifestyle movement isn’t going to die out  — there have always been people who’ve chosen to be minimalists  — but I believe we may see fewer Millennials espousing it as they enter their thirties and forties, traditionally ages of accumulation. Those who blog about minimalism might want to more proactively address both Baby Boomer and Gen Z readers, two demographics that will soon be looking for help dealing with their differing, but equally challenging, financial prospects.

(….And in the meantime, we skeptical, self-reliant Gen X’ers [now 34-54] will make do, as always, kthxbai).

Photo Credit: Bell tower of Kongobuji, Japan, by Dru Pagliassotti

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