was it easier to be simple in the past?

70s bike

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..