Pioneers or Pariahs? Young Adults Who Practice Voluntary Simplicity

by John O. Andersen

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A frequent criticism of the voluntary simplicity movement is that 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 that 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 in order to achieve greater focus. It's not about denying oneself the pleasures of life, but rather replacing mediocre pleasures with better ones. It's about trying to live 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 that 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 simpler lifestyle. Rather, the assumption is that most people will have to work in conventional careers for a period of time until they achieve financial independence.

Yet, there is a younger group of adults without years of career success and accumulated pensions, who question whether or not they truly have to "serve their time" before plucking the fruit. They suspect that clever thinking and re-arranging of priorities, can unlock the key to a life of wholeness and completeness from the start. It takes a lot of courage, particularly with a growing family, and in the case where there is a high degree of professional competence, 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 built a nest egg

For most people, early and intentional 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 motivates people to take the leap and join the sparse ranks of the young semi-retirees. 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 it doesn't necessarily mean giving up the things you enjoy. It means seeking joy through creativity rather than credit cards. Sometimes in the process of re-examining their lives, 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 that 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. My wife's family lives in England. We want our children to have regular contact with their British relatives and we also have a passion for travel.

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 home ownership. 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. Perhaps in the future our priorities will change and we'll put more emphasis on owning a home. Who knows?

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 to our health. This has 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. Currently, we are putting $50 a month into a special account which will cover all medical expenses under that 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 when I finish paying off the debt to the former owner of our business, my semi-retirement may mean working for money just four days a week.

So 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." It has to do with living in my 30s 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 their 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 legitimacy

Adults in our culture know all too well that their career largely equals their identity. Those without full-time careers often feel distinctly subhuman. Particularly unexplainable are those who consciously "throw away" their careers 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. Their peers, on the other hand, continue to rise in stature and influence, often becoming self-appointed judges of their "misguided" former friends who fell from grace because of their enthusiasm for voluntary simplicity

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 that 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 example of the many ways in which people (who may not get official recognition) can nevertheless share their gifts with others.

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 McChildhood™.

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 just a means to "get ahead." Along with practical, career-oriented subjects, we make a place 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 soul-destroying. We prefer educating not only in how to make a living, but also in how to make a life.


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 that 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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