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Move Over, American Dream, Boomers Are Downshifting

Trends: Movements toward anti-materialism, concern for the environment and yearning for quality of life may be signs of a major social restructuring in this country. Maybe.


Laura Cutler launched her new School of Sustainability last month with a party that attracted an overflow crowd of 400 to an Oakland auditorium for a program of guitar strumming, multicultural prayers and talks on living in harmony with the Earth.

The celebration had been planned to recruit students, but the enrollment was filled, "so we just had a good time," says Cutler, who created the school's five-month curriculum (tuition $350) titled "It's All In Our Hands: a Course in Doing More With Less." Its lectures and workshops include urban organic gardening, starting a small business and designing self-sufficient city neighborhoods.

Cutler had set a goal of 25 students for the course. With 35 signed up, and a waiting list of 15, she believes she's on the right track. "People are really interested in finding out how they can quit commuting for two hours a day, not have to work 60 hours a week at a job they feel alienated from, and figure out ways not to mess up their credit card debt and spend the rest of their lives paying it off," says Cutler, 33, a former Wall Street lawyer.

Cutler and her husband recently sold the idea to We the People, an Oakland-based grass-roots group founded last year by former California Gov. Jerry Brown to promote self-reliance and environmentally sound living.

In becoming apostles for a simplified lifestyle, the couple have joined the growing ranks of a baby boomer-led movement that registers on the public consciousness but is too fragmented to measure. Concentrated in the eco-sensitive Pacific Northwest, it is variously described as "Simple Living," "Voluntary Simplicity" "Involuntary Simplicity," "Sustainable Living" or "Downshifting."

Participation may be as far-reaching as trading a corporate career for organic farming or as mundane as really cleaning out a closet. Most activity is somewhere in between, propelled by a common unease with too much "stuff." Whether it is sparked by economic, environmental, spiritual or family reasons, there's a longing "to reduce stress and get more balance in life," says Harvard economist Juliet Schor, author of "The Overworked American" (Basic Books, 1993).

A major 1995 survey released by the nonprofit Merck Family Fund found that a majority of Americans, alarmed by materialism and greed, rank among their deepest aspirations such nonmaterial things as more family time and less job stress. While they may reject commercialism, most practicing downshifters are not neo-Luddites; they're gobbling up computers and faxes with which to telecommute or operate home-based businesses.

"More people would downsize if they could," said Tanya Brubaker, a project director for opinion pollster Roper Starch Worldwide. In her recent consumer study on simplicity, she found an elitist group leading the trend.

"Almost everyone is overwrought with stress, worn out, and slowing down in any way they can," she said. "We find a trend of people giving up high-level jobs for less stress and moving out from cities to the country, but that is a luxury."

Statistics show that one in 10 executives and professionals have simplified by cutting back in work responsibility or taking extended time off, she said, compared to 3% of blue-collar workers.

"The caveat is that most people can't achieve simplicity in its purest form even though they may want to," Brubaker says.

The variations on implementing a simple life are multiplying.

Carol Benson Holst, a Glendale early childhood educator, directs "Seeds of Simplicity," a new national support organization for a child-centered simplicity program. Its educational agenda includes "building consumer willpower" by turning off the TV, downplaying the commercialism of holidays and encouraging national "Buy Nothing" days.

At the heart of the lifestyle transition, most analysts agree, is a generation that's beginning to realize the American dream of ever-increasing prosperity may be dead.

"This movement is being engineered by the baby boomers," says Gerald Celente of Trends Journal in Rhinebeck, N.Y. "They're getting older and taking stock, they're not happy with their jobs, their boss is a jerk and now comes the big downsizing trend in every industry that forces them to look at what they are spending and how they are living."

Celente, 50, who predicted the current voluntary simplicity movement in a 1994 Journal issue, points out that "Yankee thrift" was considered a virtue until the post-World War II boom years and that economic uncertainty may have brought it back into fashion. "The 1987 stock market crash was pivotal," he said. "The bottom fell out of the excessive '80s."

Cecile Andrews agrees that '87 was a wake-up call. A Seattle adult education director, she offered a course in voluntary simplicity in 1989 and only four people came. When she offered it again in 1992, she says, 175 people showed up. Enrollment has been booming ever since.

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