Millennial minimalism

Naming American generations and characterizing them is a fanciful exervise but can yield some points for thought. Here are a few with likely themes.

Great Generation (WW2) – “The world is a mess and it’s everybody else’s fault.”
Boomer Generation (50s & 60s) – “The world is a mess and we could have/should have/would have/almost/ fixed it.”
Generation X, “Me” generation (70s-90s) – “The world is a mess and I’m hunkering down with what’s mine.”
Generation Y, “Millennial” generation (2000s) – “The world is a mess but there are so many cool things going on.”

Today’s millennials (Y generation) often describe themselves as minimalist, though not as art or aesthetics but as an entire lifestyle. The degrees of minimalism vary in kind and consistency, but is largely based on the economic and technological backdrop of 21st century life in developed countries.

Previous generations to that of the last two decades were accustomed to locally-based manufacturing, production, communication, and travel. Millenials no longer see any of this with the dominance of outsourcing, outdated technologies, disappearance of labor replaced by service jobs, and a world as tense and violent as ever.

The dominance of the Internet and social media has dominated and displaced communication technologies. The millennials’ argument for fewer possessions is as much based on increased capacities of modern technologies that at the same time are physically smaller than ever. The multiple functions of a smart phone or tablet displace many previous technologies. The application of new technologies to everything from automobiles to banking to shopping to learning foster the illusion of simplicity even while increasing dependence on larger infrastructure, corporate control, and easier surveillance. But the marketing of consumption continues and grows even while touting a new simplicity in getting rid of objects — or rather miniaturizing them.

Thus millennial limiting of possessions such as books, clothing, and furniture can be lauded when based on values of simplicity, but less so when motivation is ease of replacement via web-based vendors, two-day delivery, easy credit and downloadable access. In this case, minimalism is resistance to the temptation to buy too much because of minimal living space rather than the virtue of abstinence.

In this millennium, many professional jobs have been outsourced in developing coutries, leaving an information and economic gap between professional-level jobs and service jobs that basically “service” the professional classes. The college graduate serving at the coffee shop is a typical example. Such an economy is then bolstered, complemented, or designed to limit labor and benefits of job stability, and stability of residence. Such mobility in jobs and residence used to be the provenance of upwardly-mobile professionals, but in this century it characterizes the millenial with less money and fewer prospects for better work. Hence debt and the hustle to work become full-time concerns, and the aspiration to minimalism a motive that is primarily economic.

Simplicity in the stable (middle) class was and remains an effort to declutter life, closets, and garages from too many attachments, possessions, and gratuitous clingings. The millenial has necessarily passed this stage from sheer economic pressure and technological capacities. The millennial does not have mutiple shoes, multiple coats, and multiple CDs and DVDs because technology and apartment rental (they are either mobile or cannot afford a house — or both) doesn’t make it practical or economical. At least this is a millenial aspiration though doubtless not all share it.

Today’s generation may find its way nimbly while an older generation simply adds the new technology to its clutter. The angst of the boomer is surpassed by the gluttony of the “me” middle-agers, and now succeeded by the cautious millennials. May their minimalism resemble neither a Beckett stage nor a Potemkin impoverished village but a reconciliation to the future, which is certainly dim and foreboding, as the millennial knows well — or ought to. The assault on nature and the destruction of sustainability makes simplicity not only a necessity but a strategy, which, hopefully can be reconciled to the deeper and sustaining values that every generation of sages has practiced.