One of the first startling, but repeated retirement experiences I encountered was finding out that almost everything I needed, I already had, in multiples! Previously, there was always a never-ending shopping list of necessary items. Now, this was no longer necessary. Everything I required was already in the house!
I felt like a fairytale character who just awoke from a long slumber. This dream was somewhat like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of buckets of water or reliving the same 24 hours, my life included purchasing similar items again and again. The pandemic had a coincidental effect on those who used their time inside to clean out closets. Marie Kondo through her book The Lifechanging Effect of Tidying Up, encouraged a nationwide purge of items which flooded every thrift store from coast to coast. Note to reader: I discovered this phenomenon well before the pandemic.
What was in the Archives?
In the first few months after retirement, I found that I had every favorite cosmetic and cream in duplicates and triplicates, at least. Ditto on over-the-counter medications. I had enough day and nighttime cold medicine for a large, extended family. There were enough scarves in my closet to accentuate every color on the spectrum. I had handsome table and silverware in storage, that could now be repurposed for daily use. My closet held just the right jeans and jackets, purchased and rarely worn, that were now ideal for my weekly plant and animal volunteer duties. There was almost nothing needed that I did not already have! This bounty reminded me of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story I often taught to third graders about a man who traveled all over the world looking for gold, when it turned out it was already hidden in his oven at home.
How Did this Happen to All of Us?
A look at the history of consumerism in America might provide the rationale for my previous behavior, and millions of others. There is actually a “theory of consumerism.” It states that “progressively greater levels of consumption are beneficial to consumers.” This idea, which pervades America today, was the result of the industrial revolution when goods became available for reasonable prices in large quantities. It was perpetuated after WW2, when consuming was perceived to be patriotic. No doubt Americans have reached the saturation point in this theory causing our collective environmental tragedy, spurred on by the incessant intrusion of targeted advertising on every electronic device.
Before the industrial revolution, all goods were made by hand, and people did not go shopping. The wealthy had more items of better quality, and the lower classes had only what they needed, if they were lucky. All of that changed with the advent of stores.
At first, people were happy to purchase quality products that would last, such as ovens and washing machines. Shortly thereafter, appearance became the commodity, not the function, as in striving to own the newest automobile. Shockingly, since the 1950’s, globally, we’ve consumed more than all of the humans who came before us! The plastic garbage in the oceans and the electronic waste piles in India remind us of this calamity.
Greedy Corporations are not Solely to Blame
There are psychological reasons for over shopping, as well. We humans like to give in to temptation without thinking. Buying something makes us feel good for that nanosecond. We like to prove our self-worth by flashing our stuff. We like to maintain a certain image in our style of dress, our homes and our cars. We get bored. Shopping becomes a habit
There are other explanations, as well, which are out of our control. We are unknowing victims! We watch HGTV. Many live in houses that are too large and need to be filled up. We might have too much expendable cash. We are also victims of our own faulty thinking. We rather buy something to make us feel better, than do the hard work of solving difficult issues.
It’s a Generational Issue
Our generation has lots of excuses for excessive consumerism. We grew up when malls were the “Cathedrals of Capitalism.” We’ve seen the evolution of Costco, Walmart, and Target. Our spending habits have been nurtured by the media to run on autopilot. However, the tectonic plates are moving. Millennials love tiny houses and prefer experiences rather than things. The pandemic has forced all of us to look at how we consume and its effect on the planet and its residents.
Where does this fit into retirement? I would say this movement is perfect timing for us! Since status is a thing of the past, there is no great need to polish your social persona. Having better clothes, cars, and household items is not a goal at this stage. However, what makes us different, is that we’ve earned the right to be discerning. If so inclined, you could do the ultimate de-accession of all your worldly goods, and move into a spare one bedroom apartment. For some, this would feel right.
For others, discernment and Marie Kondo’s idea of “what sparks joy” could be a guide. Since you already have more of everything that could ever be used in the next 20 or 30 years, purchasing in the future should have a very practical purpose. To create a pleasing environment and personal image, practicality should also include aesthetics.
After clearing the clutter, taking a hard look with a discerning eye will chart your future course in the material world. Take note of your prior value of quality, design, and function. Have any of these elements been neglected? This is the time to create a physical world that is discerning, modest, and reflective of your values. That is the ultimate revenge for rampant American consumerism.