Long-time readers are familiar with my decade-long war on Stuff. I was raised in a cluttered home. From a young age, I was a collector. (Some might even say a hoarder!) After Kris and I got married, I began to acquire adult-level quantities of Stuff. When we moved to a larger house, I found ways to acquire even more Stuff. I owned thousands of books, thousands of comic books, hundreds of compact discs, and scads of other crap.
Eventually, I’d had enough. A decade ago, I began the s-l-o-w process of de-cluttering.
While I still bring new Stuff into the house — Kim would tell you I bring too much Stuff home — I’m not nearly so acquisitive as I used to be. In fact, for the past decade I’ve purged far more than I’ve acquired. And that process continues, week by week, month by month, year by year.
The Cluttered Lives of the American Middle Class
Turns out, I’m not the only one fighting this battle. Many Americans struggle with clutter. This is one reason for the popularity of the simplicity movement. When I visit my friends who live in tiny houses, they rejoice at the lack of Stuff in their lives. And it’s why books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up become popular bestsellers. (That book is great, by the way. Here’s my review from my personal site.)
A while ago, I stumbled on a video that documents the work of a group of anthropologists from UCLA. These researchers visited the homes of 32 typical American families. They wanted to look at how people interacted with their environments, at how they used space. They also wanted to look at how dual-income, middle-class families related to their material possessions. They systematically documented the Stuff people own, where they keep it, and how they use it.
“Contemporary U.S. households have more possessions per household than any society in global history,” says Jeanne E. Arnold. That’s both shocking and unsurprising all at once.
Her colleague Anthony Graesch notes that our homes reflect this material abundance. “Hyper-consumerism is evident in many spaces,” he says, “like garages, corners of home offices, and even sometimes in the corners of living rooms and bedrooms.”
Graesch continues: “We have lots of Stuff. We have many mechanisms by which we accumulate possessions in our home, but we have few rituals or mechanisms or processes for unloading these objects, for getting rid of them.” All of this stuff causes stress. It carries very real physical and emotional tolls.
One interesting finding? Clutter bothers women more than men. This might be because the responsibility for cleaning the clutter generally falls to women.
“The United States has 3.1% of the world’s children but consumes 40% of the world’s toys,” notes Arnold. In households with children — or, in my case, puppies — the toys can take over the home. Children’s toys and objects spill out of their bedrooms into living areas, kitchens, and bathrooms. The push to become consumers, to value Stuff, starts at an early age.
Why do modern kids have so many toys? It may be because there are so many playthings available so cheaply. There’s more Stuff available for kids than there was fifty years ago, and that Stuff costs less. Plus, priorities seem to have shifted. Modern parents see spending on kids as a priority; parents fifty years ago did not. [Read more…]