VS Goes Mainstream

One of the articles in Generation NExT (IC#43)
Originally published in Winter 1995/96 on page 12
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Since my wife Jacque Blix and I were featured in an article in the May issue of Esquire magazine, we’ve had so many media inquiries that we’ve joked we might have to hire a press agent. That article examined voluntary simplicity and those, like us, who have left traditional paid employment and adopted a simple and frugal lifestyle. Since then, voluntary simplicity, frugality, and downscaling have been popping up all over mainstream media, including major metropolitan newspapers, radio, and television talk shows.

Hitting a Nerve

So why the sudden surge of mainstream attention? There is undoubtedly an element of journalistic "follow the leader" at work here, but Vicki Robin, president of the New Road Map Foundation and co-author of the national bestseller, Your Money or Your Life, believes it’s more than that. "We’ve hit a real nerve in this society," says Robin. "People are waking up to the need to take control of their finances – to get out of debt and to build up savings. Secondly, people are really questioning whether the consumer lifestyle they’ve been living is worth the family and social stress it demands."

Several common threads seem to run through recent media coverage of the simplicity movement. As corporate "downsizing" continues its relentless course, many workers are actually finding their involuntary lifestyle change to be a blessing in disguise – a way of escaping the rat race. A recent Portland Oregonian article seems to capsulize this theme in a quote from a downsized boomer, "I don’t want to work for a corporation anymore. I gave them years of my life and lost my job for all my trouble. Now I’d rather work less, earn less, and spend less."

Another common theme is a growing concern over high debt and low savings. Reports of insolvent retirement funds and doubt about the future of social security are making people think about eliminating consumer debt and increasing savings to assure future security. For example, a recent Oprah broadcast featured a Chicago-area couple who, responding to concerns about their financial future, had eliminated $51,000 of debt in three years.

A shared theme of all the media stories seems to be a deep questioning of the high-consumption, high-stress lifestyle of most Americans and a longing to live a more balanced life. Cecile Andrews, Seattle-area voluntary simplicity study circle leader, just began writing a weekly column on voluntary simplicity in The Seattle Times, and has been interviewed and featured in many of the recent articles.

"Several of the writers and editors that I’ve talked to have taken a personal interest in this subject," Andrews says. She finds them trying to slow down and put more meaning into their own lives, and they are seeing voluntary simplicity as a way to reach those goals.

Voluntary Slackers?

One concern voiced about the mainstream media attention is that corporate sponsorship will prevent an exploration of the deeper implications of voluntary simplicity. The "middle-aged slacker" image of workplace drop-outs living a life of coffee-bar leisure portrayed in the Esquire article is an example. Although this unfair stereotype was disappointing, the article led to other media interest. The more recent articles and broadcasts have picked up on the volunteer and service aspects of the voluntary simplicity lifestyle.

Top Ten Trend

Voluntary simplicity is one of the top 10 trends of the ’90s, according to Trends Research Institute of Rhinebeck, NY. And the recent media coverage certainly seems to validate that view. Another indicator is the continued success of Your Money or Your Life, which is rapidly approaching 400,000 copies sold.

So, will this surge of interest continue? Robin sees no immediate end to the wave of attention because "what we’re peddling here, is unarguable – it’s common sense! These ideas are not right or left wing. Living frugally and simply, saving money, spending more time with family and in the community, protecting the environment – these are things that almost everyone agrees with."

To meet the increasing demands for information about voluntary simplicity, Robin is working with the likes of Donella Meadows (co-author of Beyond the Limits) and Alan Durning of Northwest Environment Watch to form a national network. Perhaps as more and more people adopt this way of living, voluntary simplicity will cease to be a news event and become instead the standard for living.

For more information on voluntary simplicity, contact the New Road Map Foundation, PO Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115.

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