Downsizing, Marie Kondo, and all the stuff Americans own

Many older Americans want to downsize (and cash out on their homes), Marie Kondo’s approach is popular, but where will all that stuff owned by older homeowners go?

Auctioneers and appraisers, junk haulers and moving companies all seem to be echoing the same thing: The market is flooded with baby boomer rejects. And they cite a number of reasons our kids are turning down the possessions we so generously offer to them. They rent rather than own, live in smaller spaces, collect more digital than physical items and tend to put their money toward experiences rather than things…

Her kids also rejected three sets of formal dinnerware, including Haviland China; vast collections of Lladro figurines and Department 56 Christmas villages; as well as 3,000 Beanie Babies and boxes of soccer awards she and her husband, who both coached for many years, earned with their children.

The only offer she got on any of her treasures? One son wants her Hallmark Frosty Friends ornaments she’s collected over 37 years “because he knows how much they are worth.”

Two scenarios could develop:

1. There will be a growing market in stuff that older Americans no longer want. Perhaps many millennials or Gen Z do not want stuff from their parents but some other American will want it. It does not just have to go to resale shops; enterprising individuals and firms could shop all these items online to find buyers interested in particular niches. Perhaps this could even expand to international markets and be shipped in bulk around the globe.

2. Much of the stuff will simply be thrown away, particularly items that are more sentimental in nature. Some lucky owners will find people to take or buy their unneeded items but much of the rest will simply find its way into landfills. Decades of consumption will end in the garbage can.

I have not seen any estimates either way of how much money all of these goods could generate or how much waste could be involved (or a combination of both).

Also, consider the implications of such a change: younger generations do not take material objects from their parents and grandparents, creating a bit of a gap in a material timeline. Perhaps the shifting of wealth from generation to generation more often takes the form of helping to pay for housing or student loans rather than tangible goods. How does this change memories and collective understandings of the past?

 

Sociologist Schor on less materialistic American dream

Given the pessimism of Americans toward upward mobility, what evidence does sociologist Juliet Schor see for more Americans moving away from a materialistic American dream?

There’s a more sober attitude to consuming since the crash. A lot of people don’t feel as comfortable. I’m not talking about the 1 percent or the folks, who you know, just ordinary people are kind of less comfortable with showiness and excess at a time when so many people are suffering economically. There’s a kind of solidarity, or at least a sentimental solidarity, that comes up.

What I think we’re seeing is you have groups of highly educated, predominantly white young people living really different kinds of lifestyles. I’ve called it an “eco-habitus” using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of habitus—your sort of underlying sensibility toward things. This is the rise of things like CSAs and farmers’ markets. These are not necessarily low-cost lifestyles, some of them are. It’s a different sensibility. Again, that rejection of mass consumption, which has been there for a while, but rejection of materialism, advertising, people who are saying how do I raise my children in a way that’s not having them just sucked into this dominant consumer culture. That’s really mainstreaming and it used to be pretty niche.

We’re also seeing a validation of some of that kind of attitude among, not so much among the white working class, or the white poor, but more among inner city communities of color who are also engaged in alternative ways of provisioning around food or some of the more community-based approaches to provisioning. There are a lot of parallels with what’s going on with more affluent, highly educated consumers.

I do think there is a movement to transform the way we live to make it more ecological, more economically secure, less unequal, and more economically fair. And out of necessity you’re seeing this in some of the most depressed cities, like Cleveland and Detroit, where you just have a flowering of alternatives.

As noted in this article, Schor has a section on downshifting in The Overspent AmericanBut, it is difficult to get national data on this trend and Schor tends to use case studies or ethnographic work to make her case. (A related topic: if owning big homes is a big marker of a materialistic culture, why can’t we get better statistics on the number of tiny houses?) How many Americans are giving up materialism because they can’t spend as opposed to really are making significant life changes that they will continue for decades? And what exactly are they replacing their old materialistic ways with?

At this point, perhaps Schor’s reference to habitus is most appropriate. It will be within families and smaller groups dedicated to less materialistic lifestyles where these values are passed down and continued. Expanding this habitus to encompass more people is a more difficult task.

Four reasons more Americans are downsizing

Pollster John Zogby gives four reasons he thinks more Americans are downsizing:

“There is a downsizing and downscaling and re-evaluation of values,” asserts John Zogby, a pollster and author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. “It’s not always taking people down to a 600 square foot apartment and wearing a loin cloth, quitting their job and growing your own organic food.”…

• A growing number of Americans are working for less, voluntarily or involuntarily — but mainly involuntarily. In 1991, 14 percent told Zogby’s survey that someone in their household was earning less. By 2007, it was up to 27 percent and it reached 37 percent last year. “Suffice it to say, there is a sort of enforced simplification. People can’t afford to chase that whole American Dream.”

• Upwards of 11 million Americans in the higher income brackets are saying that conspicuous consumption “isn’t what cracked up to be, it’s not producing the satisfaction that I want my life to be about.”

• Baby Boomers, who are coming of age, “are looking for a second act in their lives, those who can’t retire and those who want to make a difference. In effect, they’re saying I want my life to be about something larger than me. I call it secular spiritualism.”

• And the fourth source of this cultural shift, Zogby maintains, is the latest iteration of a tendency among Americans that he says doesn’t get enough attention: “Our tendency to sacrifice to a higher cause.”

There are a variety of reasons here, suggesting this isn’t a monolithic movement. Some people might want more but can’t afford it. Others have lived into middle age and want more. It is one thing to downsize because of economic scarcity or an economic downturn; it is quite another thing to do so because of “secular spiritualism.”

Zogby isn’t alone with this fascination with this trend. This seems to be a popular topic, particularly when contrasted with American materialism and consumption. In a country where people generally want more and the accompanying hyperbole about everyone wanting McMansions, SUVs, and super-sized meals, people who try to make do with less are often looked at positively, especially by vocal critics of consumerism. For example, see the coverage of tiny houses.

Owning a McMansion gives you more of a voice in society

One Iowa resident suggests McMansion owners have more of a voice in society compared to the marginalized:

There are segments of our population that feel isolated and powerless because it seems no one is listening to their message. Unfortunately we even have a name for them, the marginalized. What exactly does that mean? These are the groups that are left out and not listened to. Examples abound such as the homeless, mentally ill, people with disabilities, inmates, children and the elderly.

For a country so rich in many ways, we have lost the luster by treating those without a voice as if they were not worthy. It speaks volumes about what we do honor.

Is it most important how much money one makes or how powerful they are? Who has the biggest McMansion and the most cars?

Who can boast that they have several vacation homes and multiple residences? Who has a golden parachute ready to be opened when the business goes under and many are left without employment?

There is one idea behind this reference to McMansions that is common but one that is not. First, the common idea: that owning a McMansion is about displaying wealth and status. Critics of the homes suggest those who buy them simply want to show off their money and do so by purchasing homes that are meant to impress. This ties in with images of Americans being obsessed with keeping up with the Joneses, consumption, and materialism.

The second idea is not as common. What if owning a McMansion is more about inequality and who has what resources in society? Even critics who argue McMansions are about people chasing status tend to argue that these people should buy more architecturally sound homes that are less garish. What if McMansions are part of a whole system that privileges those who can purchase homes, provide their children with plenty of support, and enjoy some luxuries in life? This idea does not come up very often. Perhaps this is because the idea implicates owning expensive single-family homes more broadly. Perhaps it is because plenty of Americans still like the suburbs and their private spaces. Regardless, thinking of McMansions more as part of the issue of inequality then could get into ideas how money should be spent, how we should build homes and neighborhoods, and what it means for more people to live the good life.

Argument: if you want a Walmart, you have to accept the McMansions and other things that come with it

Henry Briggs argues that the phenomena of Walmart is related to other phenomena like McMansions:

In any event, the idea of paying less and less and buying more and more is a real driver of our economy. As most economists will tell you: unless the US consumer is spending, the US economy tanks.

That is what’s behind the “You deserve it! ” lines in ads, why having a “McMansion” is part of the “American Dream,” and why the American Dream is no longer a dream: “It’s my right, by God!”

That’s why household debt shot up from $734 billion in 1974 to $13.6 trillion in 2009, from 45 percent of GDP in 1974 to 96 percent of GDP in 2009.

We complain about Walmart wrecking communities, even as we go there for the deals, and then we must go there for the deals because Walmart is all we can afford.

If you walk into a house built in the ’50s or ’60s, you’ll find smaller closets, smaller kitchens and smaller garages. This in a time when people were happier, the country was thriving, and the future glowed with promise.

You want things cheaper? There’s a price.

This is a familiar argument about McMansions: they are linked to larger patterns of consumption. But, if the economy really does depend on such spending, can’t buying McMansions, smartphones, and other items and shopping at Walmart be seen as helping American society? Of course, one can choose to buy “better” items than others – instead of a McMansion, perhaps a passive house or a tiny house. Instead of a regular car that contributes to sprawl, perhaps a membership to Zipcar. While some complain about particular kinds of houses, Briggs and others suggest that consumption comes in bundled packages. If this is the case, then McMansions are just the symptoms of a society that consumes and spends too much and likes sprawl.

 

We know a McMansion when we see the outside but what is inside?

A Quora forum member asks a broad yet intriguing question about McMansions: “What do McMansions look like on the inside?” Most of the attention McMansions receive is about the exterior. There are several common issues. It simply looks like a large house. Such homes do not have a consistent design as they can borrow from a variety of architectural styles. The house looks imposing from the street. The garage, at least two cars, can dominate the facade. The home does not fit with the style of the rest of the neighborhood. It may dwarf nearby homes. The front may be well-appointed but the sides and rear have vinyl siding, little brick, and little character. All of these critiques have something in common: houses should fit in with their surroundings and also present a coherent and less-than-ostentatious image. One group who have critiqued McMansions at times, New Urbanists, tend to make this argument that homes should be part of a larger neighborhood and have less to say about the interiors of large homes.

But, there is another aspect to McMansions that seems to receive less attention. I assume the reason for this is fairly obvious: most observers of McMansions, whether they are driving by homes on the way home from work or academics writing about the phenomenon, have less access to the interiors. In other words, homes are private spaces that generally aren’t open to private viewing. We might know some of the broad trends: people in recent years like granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, McMansions can have large foyers, there is a lot of interior space including rooms in addition to the standard ones, relatively more money is spent on the size of the home so less is devoted to long-lasting appointments, and McMansion owners may have little furniture or nice appointments because they spent so much on the house (this is a common stereotype).

There are architects and others who are more worried about the interiors of large homes. Architect Sarah Susanka, developer of the Not So Big House, argues that it is much better to have a home that fits a homeowner’s individual needs than to simply have a large house. She advocates for custom spaces within a home that both reflect the individual tastes of the homeowners as well as their activities. In contrast, McMansions are viewed as soulless homes that homeowners must fit into rather than the other way around. There are also others who argue there should more of a psychological fit between homeowners and their home.

This reminds me of the 1981 book The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. The two researchers spent time observing people’s homes as well as talking to them about how they related to the objects they had in their home. I think there is a lot more research that could be done in this area. On one hand, we often buy into the idea that the products we buy and display say something about us (and we often also view our homes as expressions of our self) and yet, we don’t think too deeply about this most of the time.

Study finds cell phone usage linked to addiction, materialism, and impulsiveness

A new study in the Journal of Behavior Addictions argues cell phone usage can be linked to other concerns:

“Cell phones are a part of our consumer culture,” said study author James Roberts, Ph.D., professor of marketing at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “They are not just a consumer tool, but are used as a status symbol.”…

Roberts’ study, co-authored with Stephen Pirog III, Ph.D., at Seton Hall University, found that materialism and impulsiveness are what drive cell phone addiction.

Cell phones are used as part of the conspicuous consumption ritual and also act as a pacifier for the impulsive tendencies of the user, according to Roberts. Impulsiveness, he noted, plays an important role in both behavioral and substance addictions…

Some studies have shown that young adults send an average of 109.5 text messages a day or approximately 3,200 texts each month. Furthermore, surveys suggest that young adults receive an additional 113 text messages and check their cell 60 times in a typical day…

Data for this study come from self-report surveys of 191 business students at two U.S. universities. Cell phones are used by approximately 90 percent of college students, and said Roberts, “serve more than just a utilitarian purpose.”

New technologies tend to have the potential to allow us to do new things in new ways, often working alongside a narrative of progress, but we need to continually ask whether the use of new technologies can also lead to negative outcomes. We don’t have to be Luddites to suggest that we should evaluate the social changes that accompany technological change.

One question about addiction and mass culture: if a majority or large number of people have more addictive relationships with their cell phones, does it at some point then cease to be addiction and comes to be seen as “normal”?

Generation gap: younger Americans don’t want Baby Boomer’s heirlooms/stuff

The Chicago Tribune profiles an interesting generation gap: Baby Boomers are worried their children and young adults in general aren’t interested in their family heirlooms and acquired stuff:

Passing down heirlooms from one generation to the next has long been tradition. But Copeland and many other baby boomers fear that their children and grandchildren will end up tossing the family treasures like a worn-out pair of gym shoes.

“A lot of young people are so transient; they don’t stay anywhere very long. They rent apartments and don’t own anything,” said Copeland, whose sons live at home. “They don’t want to be tied down to family heirlooms that don’t mean anything to them.”

Julie Hall, a North Carolina liquidation appraiser known as The Estate Lady, said this has become a dilemma for a growing number of middle-age people who are trying to come to terms with a harsh reality: Often what they consider to be jewels, their children and grandchildren see as junk.

“Though they have the best intentions, boomers have a tendency to keep too much stuff for subsequent generations, though the kids have already told them they don’t want anything,” said Hall, author of the book “The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff.”

There are several social factors at work here which are noted in the article:

1. There are generational shifts at work from those who were alive during the Great Depression to Baby Boomers to Millennials. This affects things like consumption patterns, family patterns, and where people live.

2. We now live in a more disposable, cheaper culture. For example, the story talks about Millennials preferring IKEA furniture. Such goods are relatively cheap, come in a limited set of colors that match a number of things, and can be traded, discarded, given away, or sold fairly easily.

3. It sounds like Millennials are looking to have less stuff in general. While Baby Boomers might consider these things heirlooms, Millennials see it as clutter that must be stored somewhere and moved again in the future. Certain items may have value to a family but what good is it if it just sits there without being used much? The article suggests this may be due to younger Americans living in smaller spaces (while Baby Boomers have plenty of room in their larger homes) but it could also be tied to Millennials placing a higher value on electronics like laptops and smartphones. It has been argued Millennials are more interested in these personal electronic devices than cars and houses, traditional American consumer goods. Also, Millennials would be more interested in debating how someone’s digital files get passed down.

4. The article doesn’t mention this at all but I wonder if this reflects changing family structures. Heirlooms matter not because they are objectively valuable but because they hold sentimental value. Perhaps Millennials have less sentimental interest in objects? A positive spin on this would be that Millennials value personal relationships more but a darker interpretation could be that they simply haven’t had the same kind of deep relationships that would give objectives meaning. Plus, more Americans are living alone and this could make it harder to endow certain objects with enough meaning for a family member to feel the same way.

5. Another thing the article doesn’t suggest: perhaps Baby Boomers had too much stuff to start with. Is this the sort of problem that only arises in a culture that revolves around consumption and materialism?

Was the US at a point where “every good American deserved a McMansion”?

I’ve seen claims like this before but here is a great example of a broad description of how McMansions contributed to the American economic crisis:

A worrying and much commented on aspect of America’s Great Recession was that very few people saw it coming.

The autopsy revealed many obvious causes — the artful bundling and trading of bad debt, the notion that every good American deserved a McMansion in the suburbs whether or not he could pay for it, instituting big tax cuts and massive spending increases, pervasive debt, everywhere.

These were mostly ignored until it was too late.

What intrigues me here is not the argument that the construction of and mortgages provided for McMansions and other large houses contributed to the economic crisis. They did. However, the argument here is that Americans thought they deserved McMansions and other goods. Is this true? It is one thing to have the credit available to make such big purchases but another thing to have a pervasive ideology that everyone deserves such an opportunity. The real problem then was not McMansions but materialism and excessive consumption. This is why McMansions are often mentioned in the same sentence with SUVs: both have become symbols of unnecessary but wanted consumer goods.

This is the reason I have wondered repeatedly on this blog whether American consumer patterns will change once (if?) the economy turns around. Because of the downturn, it is more difficult to purchase and build things like McMansions. But, if the economy turns around, will people again turn to unnecessary consumer goods? A number of commentators have suggested spending patterns will change, particularly for younger adults who will have or want to delay purchases like cars or houses. Yet, we will have to wait and see and see whether the economic status of today sticks around for a long time or not and then how people respond.