More Americans ditch the upscale life for emphasis on family, environment THEY'RE FRUGAL - BY CHOICE

July 27, 1995|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

Iona and John Conner are downwardly mobile and loving it.

They've joined the small but growing ranks of Americans eschewing the pursuit of possessions for what's called "voluntary simplicity." They've traded secure government jobs, comfortable homes and a lifetime of collected clutter for pared-down lives.

"It's good for the earth and good for the soul," Ms. Conner says of her new life. "I've never been happier."

The Conners' relatively Spartan lifestyle is taking root even within the fast-paced, consumption-driven Baltimore-Washington corridor -- a region associated with high ambitions, high incomes and high costs of living.

In their two-bedroom Columbia apartment, there's no TV, microwave, or cordless phone. Their furniture is second-hand or hand-made. Ms. Conner reads by candlelight to conserve energy and hold down the electric bill.

It's a long way from the New Jersey waterfront home where Ms. Conner once lived, let alone her yacht club membership, 10 boats and two Jaguars. She ditched it all -- and a previous husband who thought that was the good life.

"It was a sick lifestyle. I wasn't happy," says the 49-year-old former community relations officer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "I am very much into simplicity now."

Some may view the Conners as retro-hippies, retreating from the stresses and strains of the '90s. Others who've opted for simpler lives may have been pushed into it by corporate downsizing and then embraced it, rather than rejoin the rat race.

But whatever the motivations, voluntary simplicity is gaining enough followers around the country that author Duane Elgin -- a former researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, a California think-tank -- asserts they're at the forefront of a major social shift.

"We are at the beginning of a socio-economic transition that will be at least as great as the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society," Mr. Elgin says. "Down-scaled lifestyles will be a key element of a new way of life that people are inventing now."

This is "what most people will do naturally 30 years from now," he says.

There's no firm count of how many U.S. residents already have opted for simpler lives. But a 1994 report by The Trends Research Institute, of Rhinebeck, N.Y., concluded that voluntary simplicity would emerge as one of the top socio-economic trends of the next decade.

The institute estimated about 4 percent of 77 million baby boomers, or 3.1 million people, are pursuing a pared-down lifestyle these days. During the next eight years, it predicted, the number will grow to about 15 percent of all boomers or 11.5 million people.

The movement already has given birth to several newsletters. The quarterly Voluntary Simplicity has attracted 3,000 subscribers in just three years, says Seattle publisher Janet Luhrs. She says she receives a steady stream of inquiries for guidance on how to lead simpler lives.

Study circles spring up

Another Seattle-based simplicity apostle, Cecile Andrews , who runs workshops for professionals who want to pare down, estimates at least 150 study circles have sprung up around the nation in recent years among devotees of down-scaling.

"They are tired of working too much, spending too much, and rushing around too much," says Ms. Andrews.

But Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute, cautions that the movement hardly qualifies as "a waking up of consciousness or anything like that. Some of these people are just aging hippies who want to return to the ideals they had

during the Woodstock era."

For the most part, he says, the move to simplicity stems from the economic realities of the '90s: job cutbacks and slow-growing wages. But a new aspect, Mr. Celente says, "is that people no longer look down on you if you are scaling back like they would five, 10 years ago. There is a perception now that there is a lot of sanity behind it."

Baby boomers, growing reflective about life as they mature, began the movement. But Mr. Celente predicts that today's college students -- already accustomed to low expectations of achieving high-flying lifestyles -- will embrace simplicity in large numbers.

Down-scalers tend to place importance on enjoying small pleasures, building stronger relations with family and friends and protecting the environment. There's a decided aversion to wasting time on rat-race jobs, excessive consumption and TV.

Negatives of modern life

These aversions shouldn't be discounted. Another simplicity guru -- William Seavey, a former New York City ad writer who founded the Greener Pastures Institute in Pahrump, Nev. -- says simple living is gaining popularity because "the scales of modern life have become too far tipped with negatives."

"Boiled down, voluntary simplicity is a pursuit of the experience of real happiness," says Mr. Elgin, author of a 1993 book, "Voluntary Simplicity." "And the experience of happiness for most people is a lot different than the images of happiness

we've been handed by Madison Avenue."

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