After many brushes with this encounter, I have come to realise that middle class people in affluent societies hate people asking them to consider taking a cut to their standard of living for their own benefit. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean moving from an apartment to under a bridge. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I don’t mean because the government has sanctioned this with reductions in welfare benefits or the lowering of the minimum wage or workers rights. By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily doing so, and doing so in a way that brings more pleasure than suffering.
My blogging pal, Jessie, also known as Rabid Little Hippy, wrote a superb piece the other day on ‘insourcing’. Insourcing means the opposite of outsourcing. Whereas outsourcing is about palming domestic tasks off to somebody else, e.g. lawn mowing man or house cleaner, insourcing is about bringing those tasks back and doing them yourself as a way of saving money and seeing them as meaningful elements of life.
Insourcing is a vital component of the voluntary simplicity movement. Voluntary simplicity, according to one of its champions, Melbourne-based environmental philosopher, Samuel Alexander:
“Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’ The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are accordingly considered an unfortunate waste of life, certainly not deserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.”
By taking a cut to their standard of living, I mean voluntarily simplifying or downshifting their life. Usually, it’s the material trappings that get the flick first. Perhaps moving into a cheaper, smaller, less fancy house is the right approach. Perhaps cancelling the Foxtel subscription is a good idea. So why should your average lower- or middle-class Joe or Josephine consider downshifting or simplifying their life? The most compelling reason I see is cost of living. Whether cost of living is in decline or not–many economists say it’s in fact on the rise–it seems to be the thing hassling most. They are struggling to make ends meet. A lot of these people do live affluent lives whether they like it or not. They have big houses filled with material possessions that cost a lot of money to procure and maintain. One only has to see what constitutes “affordable housing” in the Australian landscape to know this is true. My point is, most of us live well beyond our means and could easily and happily live well below them.
It’s easy to require less than require more. People that are struggling tend to want more rather than less. They might get a promotion or a higher paying job, which based on their current standard of living should make their financial life easier. But what tends to happen is they increase their material life to match their income, however the material life usually goes that little bit further to ensure there isn’t much breathing room. Imagine you did depart your life and opted to live under a bridge and forage for food while maintaining your income. Finances would not longer be a problem but your standard of living certainly is. Well, thankfully I am not suggesting we go to such extremes. It might mean just downgrading the house a little. It might mean getting rid of the extra car and cycling some of the time instead. It might mean cancelling the Foxtel or magazine subscription. It might mean less visits to the salon. It might mean growing more of your food. All these things have a tangible impact on your budget.
I had conversation with somebody on Twitter earlier today, who inspired this post with his resistance toward such a suggestion. He is struggling to make ends meet and blames the economy, government, capitalism and the overall paradigm. Don’t get me wrong, I am with him. I believe that the current system quite deliberately affects the lives of the ‘99%’. However, I suggested to this chap to consider insourcing more of his life. Perhaps he could grow some of his own food. He lives in the inner suburbs of Sydney where growing space is tight, but there are all sorts of options available to him–taking up guerrilla gardening, joining or establishing a community garden, and so on. He wasn’t interested in my suggestions as they “don’t pay the rent”. If your saving $50 a week on your food bill that’s absolutely $50 you have to put towards your rent or something else. Such seemingly trivial gestures do have a tangible, monetary impact.
Unlike what some will have you believe, ‘downshifting’ shouldn’t be punishment. It doesn’t need to lead to suffering. Benefiting from free entertainment like visiting the art gallery or museum or going for a hike in a national park can be just, if not more, fun as paid options. Since when did tomatoes in June and having somebody clean your house hold the monopoly on pleasure and success? Sure, growing your own food isn’t for everyone–for some it might be considered punishment–but when put in perspective and seen for its many benefits, it might just be the thing to make one’s financial life and thus, overall life, that little bit better.
 See, e.g., Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901); Juliet Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer (1st ed, 1998). The term voluntary simplicity was coined by Richard Gregg, an American lawyer and committed follower of Gandhi. See Richard Gregg, ‘The Value of Voluntary Simplicity,’ in Samuel Alexander (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture(2009) 111-126.