was it easier to be simple in the past?

70s bike

Minimalism and frugality* have been hot topics since the financial crisis of 2008 dropped the US into a deep recession, a shallow recovery and now apparently the beginnings of a second recession. As I’ve read about the minimalist, frugal lifestyle and thought about my own childhood, I’ve wondered about whether the ability to achieve a simpler lifestyle is more influenced by the times in which you live versus your own desires, regardless of the times? In medieval Europe, people lived a simple lifestyle, for example. In the future, I am sure in 2085 there will still be people living in cabins in Montana without Smellovision or AI robots whose lives will still be far less simple than ours because of the advances in technology. And just by the accident of my birth in America, my life was inevitably less simple than someone born in a remote part of Indonesia.

My childhood in the 70s USA was fairly simple. There were no answering machines/iPads/cable TV/DVRs/Starbucks/organic foods/etc. etc. to waste money on even if you had the desire. So all of the posts from people like myself who cut cable television only bring us back to the status of, well, everyone in the world, pre-1980. When Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegel and Gordon Bowker sold their coffee shops to Howard Schultz and he created what we now know as Starbucks, he didn’t create a new product, but he did create a new way to make people pay for something that used to be, for all intents, almost free (the same thing happened with bottled water). So these types of products – which are now frequently used as examples of things you can quit consuming in order to save money/become more environmentally responsible/etc. –  just weren’t on the table 30 years ago. Nobody was making a smart choice in avoiding these items; they just weren’t available. People didn’t use credit cards widely or get deeply in consumer debt because credit cards weren’t easy to obtain and once you did, few stores accepted them. The only ones that did so widely were gas stations.

My dad was in graduate school until I was 10, and my mom didn’t work. They had limited money and therefore did many frugal things: lots of vegetable gardening, only one car, simple clothes and so on. Some of that was rooted in my parents’ moderately hippie-ish lifestyle choices, and some of it was based on lessons passed down to them from their Depression-era parents, but part of it was simply the way things were – you couldn’t buy a bottle of spring water or diet Coke. You couldn’t waste money on cell phones. You didn’t need to buy organic meats because feeding animals with corn, which then requires they be pumped full of antibiotics, was not a widespread practice.

So I’ve argued with my parents and other people from earlier generations that their simplicity, frugality and more natural/organic lifestyles were often the product of the era in which they lived. Our choices are both more complex and more difficult, particularly concerning food and debt. I am glad we have some of these choices, of course – I love the internet and technology and some (but not all) of the food choices we have today that were either prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable 50 years ago. But the challenge to be simple or to live a natural lifestyle is much greater today, and finding the balance requires more knowledge and a more critical attitude (maybe even paranoia) than it did in the past.

*I know minimalism and frugality and simplicity are not all the same thing, and I often use the terms interchangeably, but let’s assume for the sake of this post that we’re talking about some vauge point in the overlapping part of a Venn diagram of the three. I’ll use the term “simple” or “simplicity” to cover all three.

 Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by NJ..

8 Replies to “was it easier to be simple in the past?”

  1. I’ve thought of this too — when I think of my 70s childhood, it amazes me how different it was to today, even though to me, of course, it’s not that long ago. And I didn’t have a hippie-ish childhood either, I had a working-class one, both parents worked full-time. Until I was in junior high, we lived in a series of apartments and townhouses, finally moving to a single family home in the ‘burbs when i was 12. Now I’m a single mom living in an apartment and it astounds me all the time how much it costs me to live, considering I have no car payments, no cable tv, only two people (and a dog) to feed. I do pay for several things that my parents didn’t have — cell phone, internet — but I consider them replacements for things they DID have but I’ve chosen not to have — land line, cable (eventually — no cable when I was a kid). They didn’t pay exorbitant amounts for childcare — but then, they DID have to struggle constantly to figure out what to do with me after school and in the summers, there was no easy out of after school care — if it has existed back then, they’d have used it. I was a latchkey kid by 10 because there weren’t any other options, so this was not considered strange, I was hardly the only one — now a fourth or fifth grader walking home all by herself and hanging out alone watching cartoons for a couple of hours until mom came home would be very suspect indeed, which pretty much forces parents to pay for the expensive childcare. On the other hand, as you say, there are a lot of things available to us today that I am very glad for. But still, I’m making a salary now that my dad later supported our whole family on three decades ago, which just seems all out of proportion.

  2. To answer the question in the post title – YES! I grew up on a farm in the 1970’s. There was the big garden, we had a well and burned our own trash. The things we pay for today – cell phone, trash service, water, computers/internet, cable tv (the worst thing ever was forcing everyone to go digital with the television) just amazes me when I think back to how much simpler it was. I, too, love the choices and the “convenience” of these electronic marvels we all use daily, but I do get sad when I look at my budget and try to find ways to scrimp and save and there is not much which can be cut now. Recently our city went from bi-monthly to monthly billing for water and in two months time we water will has gone up over $100.00 due to the new tiered rate system. Sigh…..and this is “progress.” We no longer water the back yard and have a brown mess back there. Our neighbors are stopping watering their lawns very often and some are talking about taking out the grass altogether. When I call the company to see about dropping a service (phone or television – we have a triple-package deal of phone, internet,television), they jack up the prices so much on the remaining services it is cheaper to keep all three than to drop one. Can’t watch local television without buying a converter box and then there is no thing to see there anyway. In many ways we have advanced, but we have also lost something in the quality of our lives with these advancements.

  3. I grew up very similar to Chris. We got 60-70% of our food from the farm (large garden, cows, chickens, ducks, rabbits) and hunting (a deer is a significant amount of meat). The farm was only for our needs and we didn’t use it as income. We didnt’ have any cable, so only 4-5 channels. In fact, the cable company still won’t go out far enough to get to my parents house.

    Overall, I like the improvements made since then. The only one I would like to reduce in my life is TV. It’s just too easy to watch stuff you don’t really like. But, I don’t think life was simplier back then. Different, yes, but not simplier on a day to day basis.

    “Our choices are both more complex and more difficult, particularly concerning food and debt.” – I don’t think they are more complex or difficult, but just that we have more choices. It’s still easy (actually easier with excel or the internet) to run the numbers on an auto loan and determine if it’s a good idea or not. However, now we have 50 different places to get the loan instead of the 3 local banks in 1975.

    My grandfather always comlained about people looking back. People his age always said, “I wish they made cars like the used to.” Of course, he would say with a laugh, “Bullshit. Cars last much longer now. You’re just sentimental.”

    History is a great teacher, but I think it’s dangerous to look back longingly. There are always hardships associated with every time period.

  4. I think the answer is yes. Everything has grown, costs more and above all, we want more of everything now.

    Look at real estate. What was an adequate house back in the 50’s or 60’s that provided 2 or 3 bedrooms and if you were lucky a carport, are now being torn down to build 2,500 sft. with 2 or 3 car garages to fit all our “stuff”. The temptation to have more and buy more is now stronger than it has ever been.

    The means to also be able to have more are ever present too, albeit with debt, but nevertheless there isn’t a single home in the US that has to live without a flat screen TV because financing is everywhere available to everyone.

  5. I grew up in the 90’s and me and my brother were talking about our childhood.

    Well we decided you know your old when you start your sentences with “Kid’s these days…” or “When I was that age…”.

    I was at a work conference and a speaker made an interesting point. What is one generations luxuries is the current generations necessities or something along the lines of that. I couldn’t agree more.

    You being a child of the 70’s, I’m pretty sure someone who grew up in the 50’s said “Kid’s these days…” or “When I was that age…”, lol.

  6. I have a different view on this topic due to my own experiences. I grew up in suburbs/cities my entire life. I have lived in other countries as well. I think that generation after generation, things change, but those changes occur for the last 2000 years. At the end of the day there are basically 5 reasons why things are more simple than they were 40 years ago and I will dedicate a paragraph to each:

    1) Constant marketing and the pressure to buy “stuff”. Everyday people are hit with marketing stuff and adverts about products, and how they will save our lives from XYZ. Must you have the latest and greatest? I don’t know but when you see the latest and greatest every day, 10 times a day, for many months/years, you will eventually begin to want it. I don’t care how hard core frugal you are, you will eventually find something you cannot live without and that will become your vice for spending on something. This constant marketing may or may not be truthful, and also they sell things directly to customers that they never did in the past (prescription drugs, etc.).

    2) New “products” to help us every year. Every year, new products come out to the market, and they help us out. Bottled water is a great example, I have purchased in my life time, 2 cases of bottle water, and they are currently unopened in my basement. People I know drink 3-5 of those a day because they cannot stand tap water. This was a solution looking for a problem instead of a problem looking for a solution. With the plethora of choices of products, you have to store them and do something with them, needing more room. When I was a kid, you wanted water? Go to the faucet. Not taking up an entire shelf in the basement is our bottled water or taking up 1/2 a shelf in the fridge is the britta pitcher.

    3) Corporations willing to do anything to lower costs. This I think is one of the biggest reasons people are in debt today. Corporations used to value quality parts, craftsmanship, and dependability for years. When you hear people talk about CD players, radios, and other cheaper consumer electronics, what do they say? My son has gone through 5 sets of headphones in the last 2 years. Not because he is especially rough on them, but because they are cheaply made. I have the same set of in ear headphones I got when I was 12 years old. They work, they last forever and they are good for what they do. Food is another one of these. Companies used to use “good wholesome ingredients”. Now you canonot pronounce 1/2 of them and the rest are made up in a lab. Look at a loaf of bread sometime, they have been making bread for thousands of years, and it is only 4 ingredients (flour/wheat, water, sugar and yeast). Same with beef or other foods. Everything is done to make things cheaper to make, and forget the quality or possible impacts on the customers as long as they are legally covered and cannot get sued.

    4) People forcing “values” onto other people. This I think is actually the biggest one on this list. When I was a kid, both my parents worked, I was a latch key kid at 8. I had a 7 and 6 year old sibling and I had to watch them. When my homework was done, I was able to play with my friends, as long as I left a note on the chalk board where I was, and I did not leave the apartment complex, and was back at 6:00 for dinner. Today my parents would have been thrown in jail for child neglect and they would have had to pay for 3 kids in child care after school so they could work. Car seats, bike helmets, insurance (home, health, car), etc. All of these things are laws in some places due to people telling other people what to do. While some of these things are no brainers, they are also things that can be a choice and not forcing people to buy an item for the items sake.

    5) People have more things to do with less time. This is pretty simple, people have to do more things (due to #4 mainly) thus they need things that will make life easier to handle and do tasks quicker. Timmy has soccer practice, but god knows we cannot make Timmy ride his bike to practice and back – a parent has to drive them, each way, and thus they cannot spend as much time making dinner, they are chasing the kids to activities. When I was playing baseball, I wanted to play, not forced to play. I took the city bus to the practices. I rode my bike. I drove myself when I got old enough. My parents NEVER ONCE took me. They came to my games and supported me, but never took me to practice as that was an activity I wanted to do. Same thing goes for people working more hours (due to #3 and requiring more work and productivty per dollar spent on employee). So what do people do when they are busy, they buy things to make life easy. Pizza from Pizza Hut, frozen dinners, bottled water, etc.

    Notice the trend. Each of these items listed above make you buy more things. I have 100 things to do, no time to do it in, why not get the latest things to make my life “easier” even though I know the item wont last long, it is so cheap I can buy another in 6 months when this breaks (or if I am lucky – it might last two years).

    Now to answer the question. I think that yes, things in the 70s were a heck of a lot easier. I did not have the government, neighbors, etc. up in my face every day telling me I am a good/bad parent for raising my child the way I want to, because they push their lives/values on me. My dad could take the three kids and my mother in his corvette to white castle and we all sat in the back “trunk area” with no seats or seat belts. No cop would pull him over since he was driving carefully, and guess what – we had a good cheap time. Now this would require a minivan (as 3 kiddie seats wont fit in the back seat of a sedan), and what ever other precautions and costs just to do a family outing.

    1. I am so with you. While I do think that many of our safety items are good things — I wouldn’t go back to no car seats, for instance — I do think that #5 is responsible for a lot more of a family’s time and money than they think. As I said in my post, I was a latchkey kid too, and this was not a strange thing; my parents didn’t have to spend — and therefore work longer to earn — hundreds of dollars a month for before and after school care. Yes — HUNDREDS. In the evening while Mom made dinner, I was outside playing with a neighbor, she didn’t have to be out there supervising, she was busy. I didn’t have to be taken to the park, I just went.

      And re: #3 — too often, even if you WANT to be frugal and own something for a long time, you can’t. I might be satisfied with my old computer, but after a few years it’s a doorstop no matter what upgrading you try to do. I’ve been fine for years watching over-the-air tv, but then was required to get a digital converter box — which flamed out after TWO years, so I just had to spend $50 on another one. My tv, on the other hand, is from 1999 and cost me $10. Fortunately all I have to plug into it is a DVD player, but if I had a game system or something to stream videos off the internet, it wouldn’t have the right connections. It’s never ending.

  7. @Big-D: I agree too! I was born way after the 70s but looking at things my parents and even grandparents owned makes me think they were much better made. My grandmother who worked in factories all her life and still managed to pay off a 20-year home loan in 18 years gets so sick of hearing about jobs being lost to places like China and India. The reason being America is moving into a digital economy and foreign countries in Asia are (stereo types aside) the places where these industries are spreading like wildfire. Which is also because American companies keep laying off American workers in favor of cheap labor. I wonder if the currency conversion has anything to do with that, like a cool mill in the U.S. is worth a cool buck in Beijing, and vice versa.

    @Dahlia: And I agree with you too. ^_^ Even though I was born so much after the 70s (like Steve here) I don’t mind not having the latest and greatest of everything. I don’t need a new computer bc it runs what I need to (Word, Media Player and stuff) and I don’t care about FB or Myspace or Youtube with some stupid thing called FlashPlayer. So many people my age have a FB or a Myspace or are on Youtube or something and there’s just so much drama and hating on people that it makes me think “why would I ever want to do that?”

    The reason people get new computers and TVs is so they can keep up with new content, like some new show on the fall TV schedule or some new website bc they are always online. I’m hardly ever online so I don’t need to use FB or FlashPlayer (what is this? is this a virus?), and everything on TV sucks today, like Kardashians and Real House Wives and American Idol aka idiot. People get the big screen hidef a lot so they can watch football or 3D movies which suck too. Seriously we still have an old CRT (the big puffy screens lol), and even watching the ballgame doesn’t show the whole field a lot, but imho all of sports today is only about making money with ads and stupid billboards which probably are also on steroids. America’s new pastime is making the rich richer and forcing everyone else to feed into it because they feel like they’re “missing something” or “out of the loop.”

    We just had Hurricane Irene where I’m from and nobody was watching TV or online bc we were all helping each other get back to their way of just living, and bc a lot of folks still don’t have power. I’d rather be out of the loop and helping people rather than watching stupid Justin Beiber or trashy Kardashians or acting stupid on FB or Youtube and hating on people who are different or saying something dumb. People actually went out and bought whole new TVs and entertainment systems to stream the stupid Princess wedding. Last wk, though, the long lines were at the market getting necessities like food and water. Bad and destructive as Irene was, or any natural disaster, I’d like to think that something like that causes us to take a new look at what are really the most important things to be “connected” with. Not dumb celebrities or money or stupid gossip on FB but each other and Mother Nature. imho it’s not never ending but ends when you want it to, when we decide to be “frugal” and satisfied and quit trying to keep up with trends and with everybody else and be true to ourselves and the spirit of simplicity. Which is why that song still means so much and is so true, Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free. 🙂

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