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Pioneers or Pariahs?
YOUNG ADULTS WHO CHOOSE TO LIVE SIMPLY
By John O. Andersen
Is simple living just for the well-heeled who've already "made it"? What about young adults without pensions or mortgage-free property? Can they live simply?
A frequent criticism of voluntary simplicity is many of its vocal members are aging baby boomers who took it up only after having high-paying careers, and accumulating at least partial pensions. Critics argue such people's decision to downshift is eased by the fact that they had enough assets to make it feasible. The implication is that the choice of voluntary simplicity by younger, less financially secure adults, presents considerably greater challenges.
By voluntary simplicity, I refer to the decision to reduce clutter (possessions, time commitments, etc.) and consume less. It's not about denying oneself the pleasures of life, but rather replacing mediocre pleasures with better ones. It's about living more deliberately.
More than a few of the books, newsletters, and articles in the past decade on the subject of simple living were written by former professionals in their late 40s and 50s. The unspoken message from these people's lives is the nose-to-the-grindstone-years are generally a prerequisite before moving on to simplicity. Little if anything is said about whether young people could successfully short-circuit the "mandatory" slog and jump right into a simple lifestyle.
I believe it's possible to pluck the fruit of simple living without the benefit of a nest egg. I submit that clever thinking and re-arranging of priorities, can unlock the key to a life of wholeness and completeness from the start.
Granted, it takes a lot of courage, particularly with a growing family, to turn away from the more accessible option of career success and consumerism, toward the uncertainty of voluntary simplicity.
Pioneers or pariahs? It depends on who you ask. Young adults who choose voluntary simplicity will have to deal with many challenges. Here are three common ones and suggestions for handling them:
Financial implications of semi-retiring before having a nest egg
For most people, intentional early career abandonment is a whole new kettle of fish. Not only does it often imply a dramatic drop in income, but also the disappearance of benefits such as insurance coverage, paid vacations and pensions.
Yet the potential payoff in inner wealth is what could motivate a person to take the leap. I suppose in one sense, you could call them "hippies," but that would be too easy. Many of these people are "dropping out" of the career scene precisely in order to more fully embrace (not run from) their responsibilities to their families and communities. It's about parenting with a wealth of time rather than a wealth of toys. It's about demonstrating loyalty through caring service rather than robotic consumption.
Lower income dictates buying less, but doesn't necessarily mean giving up the things you enjoy. It might force us to seek joy through other means than purchasing things. Sometimes in the process of getting over materialism, people discover new interests which they enjoy much more than their possessions. They subsequently decide to clear out the clutter of those less important things in order to make more room in their lives for new and deeper enjoyments.
On a personal note, we've found our relatively modest income (as a result of being a one-income family and intentionally limiting the number of hours I will work for money) has forced us to make some tough choices. For instance, as a family we value taking annual vacations together. We live on the West Coast. We have a passion for travel. My wife's family lives in England. We want our children to have regular contact with their British relatives.
Hence, we decided that affording at least biannual family vacations to Britain and Europe is a much higher priority than saving for a down payment on a home, or paying all of the taxes, insurance, and upkeep associated with homeownership. So instead of buying a home, we rent a small place and put our savings into the vacation fund. We feel good about this choice, and are not uncomfortable with carrying the stigma of indefinite renters.
Dealing with health care expenses is another area which has required us to rethink priorities. Without the fringe benefit of complete "coverage" for the family, we've taken a more pro-active approach. This led to significant improvements in our diet, i.e. less fats, more fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and a heightened sensitivity to the need for proper rest and daily exercise. To protect us from financial devastation due to unforeseen catastrophic illness, we have a major medical policy with a $5,000 deductible.
Though the reality of my daily life currently requires many hours devoted to making money (we are self-employed), I like to think of myself as "semi-retired." At this point I suppose I'm semi-retired in the sense of choosing not to climb a career ladder, and only working enough to meet our needs and no more. In a few years, my semi-retirement may mean working for money just four days a week.
Semi-retirement can be a mind-set long before it's a complete reality. It means turning away from notions such as wanting to "get ahead"--in a financial sense, or striving to "make a name for oneself." There's nothing stopping a 30 something person from living like traditional retirees in their 60s or 70s for whom the games of accumulation, display, and status-seeking are long since over.
People who aren't trying to "get ahead," enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom to speak their mind without fear of losing anything. They minimize financial needs in order to spend as much time and energy as possible in more meaningful activities such as connecting with other humans, intellectual growth, and giving service to causes for which they have a passion.
I see semi-retirement as a viable lifelong alternative. Even in old age, as long as I'm physically and mentally able, I can't imagine not wanting to do some work (however small) for pay. Naturally, with age and accumulated savings, I will likely choose less paid work in order to spend more time in other forms of work or leisure. There need not be a sharp division between work for pay and leisure. They can blend together as one whole with the mix changing from time to time to adapt to new circumstances.
Coping with the loss of social status
Adults in our culture know all too well that their career largely equals their identity. Those without full-time careers can easily feel left out. Particularly unexplainable are those who consciously "throw away" their career for a chance to reclaim balance. Whereas they had once been valued professionals, they suddenly lose their legitimacy, and to some extent become like social lepers. They are no longer listened to, sought after, or called upon.
There are a number of ways to deal with these issues. One is to find other "social lepers" who can, through the example of their own lives, re-assure you of your decision to bail out of the career mania.
Another is to share your gifts and talents (which still exist regardless of whether the mainstream culture recognizes this) with individuals in need. I found this worked well for me in past experiences as a part-time tutor. Officially, I'm not a "real teacher" because I don't possess a teaching credential. However, I've successfully taught algebra to enough teenagers to know I am a good teacher, and those teenagers know it as well. I don't need the sanction of the school district or the state to tell me this. This is just one of many ways in which people (who may not get official recognition) can nevertheless share their gifts with others.
A 1990 military photo just prior to our journey toward a simpler lifestyle (I was still a "teamplayer" at that point)
Don't worry if you never re-gain your former social legitimacy. Some truly outstanding individuals never do. Yet to the people who matter most in their life, they are deeply valued and appreciated. Ironically, this sort of appreciation eludes many of those who did achieve "social legitimacy," at the expense of authentic and close relationships with family and friends.
Giving children "the best" on a tight budget
Although practicing voluntary simplicity can make it difficult to afford the things which society says our children need to be happy, it can induce us to open our eyes to a new vista of possibilities.
We've never felt like our modest income has "robbed" our children of a rich and varied childhood. On the contrary, we believe this situation has prodded us to uncover much more than we otherwise would have if we could have simply purchased for them the standard McChildhoodâ„¢.
Our local community is rich with places for learning and entertainment. For instance, we can purchase annual family passes to the zoo, science museum, and state history museum for under $170. We easily visit at least two of those places every month--there are always changing exhibits, lots of hands-on things to do, and our children love going back. At that rate of use, we calculate that a great afternoon out as a family to one of these places costs us under $7.00.
We're also fortunate to have nearby nature walks, public libraries, a roller rink, a community arts center, and other free or nearly free activities from which to choose. Clearly, we don't have to have a lot of money to give our children the best.
A major fear played up by purveyors of insurance and investments is how to finance college for our children. Certainly, those who buy into the notion that college is now mandatory for everyone if they want to be "successful" adults, would shudder at the prospect of semi-retirement before putting their children through.
We, however, take a different approach. For our children, we model learning as a pursuit of passion and love rather than as a means to "get ahead." Along with practical subjects such as arithmetic, and spelling, we reserve plenty of space for "impractical" subjects such as art, literature and foreign languages which feed their spirit and imagination. If our children choose college, we'll support their decision. If they choose a different path, we'll support that as well. Simply put, we feel strongly that educating mainly for economic success and global competitiveness is narrow-minded, and kills the innate love of learning in far too many people.
Hopefully I've been able to at least partially debunk the myth that voluntary simplicity only works for the well-heeled. I like to believe it's a viable path available, to a great extent, to anyone at any stage in life.
It all comes down to the desire to live authentically; to align your daily life with your deepest values. Once people fully realize they have the power to do such a thing, there is no stopping them.
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"It takes far less effort to find and move to the society that has what you want than it does to try to reconstruct an existing society to match your standards." - Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World