In an airy showroom studded with designer silks and tweeds, a 38-year-old brunette with a faultless sense of chic was orchestrating a private revolt. A calculator in one hand, guidebooks for Central America in the other, Sanghun Oh was plotting her escape from a life that, until only four months ago, had seemed utterly charmed. Even the Korean-born Sang, as friends and clients called her, thought she had it all—the Toronto townhouse, the BMW, and a husband, jazz guitarist Rob Carroll, who pitched in on day care duties for eight-year-old Grace and Jackson, 5, making possible her career. For more than a decade, she had reigned as the style queen of the city’s trendy Queen Street West, where she counted Traders star Sonja Smits and publisher Louise Dennys among the regulars who flocked to her thriving boutique, 290 Ion.
Then on June 30, a courier delivered a lawyer’s letter. Without warning, her new landlord announced that he had rented the premises to an American sunglass chain and she had eight weeks to get out. “I was in shock, I couldn’t talk,” she says. “I’d been there 12 years, I’d put all my energy and creativity into it and I’d helped put Queen Street on the map.
It was a kind of betrayal.” A doctor prescribed Prozac, but the problem reached well beyond her mood. She had already bought her fall line, leaving her with $100,000 in stock—no joke for a woman who was her family’s chief breadwinner. Still, when offers of other locations flooded in, she found herself demurring. The eviction had called into question her entire existence. “I put in 19-hour days and I thought: is it really worth it?” she says. “You work so hard to buy food, yet I threw half of it out. I was always running behind my lifestyle just to catch up.” This month, having rented out
their house and scraped together $20,000 in savings, she and Carroll are packing up their family to spend a year on Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras, where she is determined to start painting for the first time since she graduated from art college 14 years ago. They chose that obscure location because they knew it would be cheap. “We have to downshift absolutely everything,” she says. “But if I have
to grow my own vegetables and catch my own fish, I’ll do it.”
Now, as others converge on her with envy or tales of their own cutbacks, she has discovered that dropping out of fashion has placed her squarely on the cutting edge of trendiness. Across the continent, millions in the increasingly overstressed and economically insecure middle class are putting the brakes on the treadmill of getting and spending—many of them in a quest for spiritual resonance and authenticity in their lives. Burnt out by 60-hour work weeks and what B.C. counsellor Bruce O’Hara terms the TINS syndrome—Two Incomes, No Sex—they are questioning the often absurd trade-offs in the fast lane of the big city and big business. Suddenly, the ostentation of the Eighties is out, along with Rolexes and Guccis; frugality and fleeing to the boondocks are in. “A lot of people,” says Oh, “are looking for a simpler, meaningful life.”
Some call it downshifting. Others have dubbed it voluntary simplicity, a lifestyle option that sets them apart from the growing army of the downsized and dispossessed who have come to the movement not by choice but by necessity. Indeed, as newscasters recite the litany of continuing mass layoffs—46,000 B. C.
forestry jobs to be clear-cut over the next decade, 35,000 bank and 87,000 civil service posts targeted to vanish—those casualties can comfort themselves with the thought that their enforced attempts to cope are being hailed as the hip social philosophy of the future. “I have a sense that a lot of people’s severances and unemployment insurance benefits are running out now,” says Wendy Armstrong, former president of the Alberta chapter of the Consumers’ Association of Canada. “Before, they were saying, ‘Something will come up.’ Now, they’re saying, We can’t go on this way and maybe the whole purpose of life is not to acquire possessions.’ ”
In her current best-selling bulletin on mass-market behavior, Clicking, New York City’s Faith Popcorn dismissed the distinctions between simplifiers of the voluntary and involuntary sort. Putting her own imprimatur on the subject, she christened it “Cashing out”—“out of boring jobs, bad neighborhoods and, most of all, out of a corporate mind-set that doesn’t appreciate mavericks, applaud loyalty and has no demonstrable will to help us survive.”
But whatever its name or form—whether provoked by a per-
Thousands of Canadians are downshifting out of thp fast fane. rhonsinv to live a simpler life
sonal epiphany or a corporate pink slip—there seems little doubt: North Americans in increasing numbers are rebelling against a lifestyle of overwork and overconsumption, putting their maxed-out credit cards on hold and cutting back in ways both small and large. Fast year, the Merck Family Fund, a private Maryland philanthropy founded by the heirs to one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical fortunes, made headlines around the world with a study of U.S. attitudes to materialism called “Yearning for balance.” In it, 82 per cent of respondents declared that most Americans bought far more than they needed, 62 per cent reported that they wanted to downshift and 28 per cent claimed they had already begun the process. Shortly afterward, a Royal Bank survey of consumer spending confirmed that drift. Conducted by the Toronto polling firm, Environics Research Group, it reported that Canadians would rather invest in their retirement savings plans or children’s education than splurge on big-ticket items other than vacations. “People who have money to spend are spending it on the future—paying down their mortgages or putting it in RRSPS,” says Susan O’Dell, president of Service Dimensions Inc., a Toronto retail consulting firm. “I can’t tell you how much money I’ve socked away in my kids’ tuition account.”
Others among the financially challenged are flocking to the suddenly chic secondhand shops springing up across the country or signing up for local barter schemes. In Calgary, Caroline Connolly, 30, quit her job as a veterinary hospital receptionist three years ago s« when she gave birth to her son, Coleman. “My I husband and I took a vow of poverty,” she says, I “because we don’t believe in day care.” Now, g the $20,000 a year they live on from his work as g a house painter has been supplemented by a £ flurry of unimagined luxuries, all acquired ^ through the year-old Bow Chinook Barter Net-
work. Advertising her skills as a portrait photographer in the network bulletin, Connolly has earned enough Hours, the official Bow Chinook currency, to buy cases of wine and a pine china cabinet. “This month,” she says, “I’m looking for a dentist who wants some pretty pictures on his wall.” Meanwhile, other downshifters are decamping to the country, where the living is cheaper and they can set up their own businesses in the basement or some bucolic room with a view. In the process, they are remaking not only the workplace and the consumer marketplace, but even the landscape itself.
“No question about it, we have never seen a trend as hot as this one,” says Gerald Celente, president of the Trends Research Institute based in Rhinebeck, N.Y., who estimates that 15 per cent of the country’s 9.8 million baby boomers will be practising voluntary simplicity by the year 2000—with no end in sight. Celente sees it not merely as a retailoring of spending habits, but a fundamental transformation of values. ‘This is really a sea change of thought,” he says, “whereby you suddenly perceive you have a greater purpose in life than material gain.” Agrees Stephanie Cooper of Environics: “Now it’s socially acceptable to simplify your life.”
Even in the corridors of commerce, the rallying cries to deconsumption are difficult to miss. On newsstands, the current issue of New Woman celebrates the joys of “Chucking it” while the cover of Utne Reader exhorts careerists to “Just quit!” At The
Book Company in Calgary’s Bankers Hall, titles like Living the Simple Life by repentant Santa Barbara real estate agent Elaine St. James are regularly snapped up by the store’s pin-striped clientele. And for the past seven months—ever since Oprah Winfrey declared it had changed her life—the sleeper at the top of best-seller lists has been Simple Abundance, a paean in praise of shopping avoidance by Washington writer Sarah Ban Breathnach. Its thesis might sound familiar to the generation that survived the Depression: “All you have is all you need.”
implify, simplify,” urged Henry David Thoreau in Walden more than a century and a half ago. “Our life is frittered
'away by detail.” In fact, if voluntary simplicity is trendy, it is not new. Legendary downshifters from Buddha to Mahatma Gandhi have long preached the same anti-materialist message. As Gerald Celente points out, “America always practised thrift up until the end of the Second World War. Then this burst of economic prosperity unleashed the consumer society. Politicians were encouraging people to go out and spend to help the economy.” While the Sixties’ counterculture threw that smug materialism into question, it proved shortlived: within two decades, one of its key rebel commanders, Jerry Rubin, had metamorphosed into a Manhattan stockbroker. “It’s not that the baby boomers lost their values,” argues Celente, who, at 49, ought to know. “They just got diverted along the way.”
Now, if many in the Me Generation have been prodded back to the basics by intimations of their own mortality or the spectre of environmental breakdown, as he suggests, more have been force-marched in that direction by an unprecedented
economic fix. Over the past five years, average after-tax family income has fallen by $80(>—from $43,000 to $42,200—while personal debt has soared to record levels: last year, the average Canadian owed $16,000. Meanwhile, the personal savings rate—traditionally high in Canada—was at its lowest in 23 years. “There’s a lot of research, both psychological and economic, that shows consumers resist any permanent reduction in spending,” says Robert Kerton, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. “What’s happening now is that people are feeling squeezed.”
Still, five years ago, when retail sales began to plummet, most consumer experts dismissed it as yet another cyclical blip. “Initially, we were bamboozled by the economic indicators,” admits Susan O’Dell. “We thought it was because everybody was being downsized. But it soon became apparent that customers weren’t angry about cutting back; they were embracing it, saying, This is the way things should be.’ ” As discount and warehouse outlets changed the suburban mallscape, not only the financially disadvantaged showed up; so too did the denizens of upscale boutiques. “I don’t know how many parties I’ve been to where they serve the Price Club canapes,” O’Dell sighs.
Increasingly, downshifters are taking the rural route out of the rat race
“Instead of saying, ‘I won’t buy it unless people can tell it’s from Holt Renfrew,’ the new one-upmanship is, ‘I got it cheap.’ It’s a shifting of pride and prestige.”
In Seattle—home of that monument to excess, the gourmet cappuccino bar—voluntary simplicity has spawned a virtual industry. More than 200 study circles have sprung up, inspired by the 1990 best-seller Your Money or Your Life by local authors Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez, the latter a onetime Wall Street analyst who retired at 31 to live on $8,000 a year. There too, former lawyer and reformed “kitchen appliance junkie” Janet Luhrs publishes her fouryear-old quarterly, Simple Living, which provides tips and networking opportunities such as the recent ad in the Personals
column which began, “Seeking tall, attractive, penny-pinching female.” Luhrs was wrestling with routine $6,000 monthly credit card bills when she noticed that her two children were amusing themselves, not with their expensive toys, but by rolling rocks down hills. “I thought, Why can’t I do that?’ ” she says. In fact, much of her advice comes out of her own experience. When her kids sulked about her $2,500 used Chevy station wagon, she explained the price of automotive status. “I said, Well, we could have a better car, but I’d have to work harder to pay for it and be away from you more,’ ” she recalls. “Now, they don’t talk about it any more.”
Of Luhrs’ 4,500 subscribers, nearly a quarter are Canadians, including Patricia Johnston, a self-employed Victoria career counsellor who, with a partner, offers downshifting workshops. Once a bureaucrat, at 54, Johnston is negotiating her own trade-offs. Reining her workaholism in to a four-day week, she compensates for the drop in income by not owning a TV, boycotting her dishwasher and hanging her laundry on the line to dry. But honing her skills as a skinflint, she insists, is not the point. “I’m not into suffering,” she says. ‘What I’m trying to do is work less so I can spend time in my garden or swimming and volunteering—those things that feed our soul and spirit.”
As that quest for balance has spread up the West Coast, one of the first to enlist was therapist Bruce O’Hara. “It’s slower catching on up here,” O’Hara concedes, “but Canadians have been slightly less over-the-top in terms of their consumption.” In his own practice, he saw a puzzling contradiction: half his clients were stressed from overwork, the other half were anguishing about their unemployment. To O’Hara, who wrote Working Harder Isn’t Working three years ago, the solution seemed clear: job-sharing through a voluntary four-day week. Now, toiling only three days a week himself, he has become the leading proponent of that movement from a per-
suasive setting—the oceanfront house he built on Denham Island, near Courtenay, where his sailboat preens in the bay below. But promoting work-sharing across the country, he has encountered opposition not only from corporations, who complain the scheme would double benefit payments, but also from workers themselves. Recently hired by a major bank, which had offered its staff 10-hour days in a fourday week, O’Hara discovered that employees were already putting in that many hours five days a week—and branding it “voluntary overtime.” As he points out: “In this climate, people are afraid to risk anything in case they lose their jobs.” Still, he tries to shock his audiences into simplifying their schedules with an arresting statistic: “The average dualearner couple spends a grand total of 12 minutes a day talking to each other.”
Dayle Chambers and Mark Gauley were in their separate cars, caught in Vancouver’s rushhour traffic one morning in December, 1993, when they heard the radio report: a Manitoba hamlet named Rossburn, 153 km northwest of Brandon, had trumpeted its wholesome virtues in a halfpage Toronto newspaper ad, only to find itself swamped with 560 replies (page 49). Chambers was exhausted from her daily twohour commute from their $300,000 house on Boundary Bay, which she had come to regard as a mortgage with a view. And with his sales beat spanning the province, Gauley had calculated that they each spent 10 hours a week on the road. Nor, despite combined $120,000 salaries, did they have any savings left at the end of the month. “Although we were making a lot, we were spending a lot,” he says. “It was sort of hand to mouth.”
Intrigued by the Rossburn story, they sold their house, bought a 32-foot motor home complete with computers and a fax, and set out across the country with their dog, Bacon, in search of the ideal hamlet. Four months and nearly 200 towns later, they doubled back from Newfoundland to New Brunswick, where, for a third of their former home’s price tag, they bought a handsome Cape Cod house with a lawn that slopes down to Passamoquoddy Bay in historic St. Andrews. There, from the database they built on their odyssey, they run Townsearch Information Services Inc., which published a guidebook last year and will launch a Web site on the Internet later this month, to help others like themselves scout the prospects in small-town Canada. “Just the response to the Rossburn ad got me thinking,” Gauley says, “that there must be a lot of people like us who wanted out of the big city.”
In fact, as downshifters in growing numbers are taking the rural route out of the rat race, he and Chambers are tapping into what demographers have branded the Great Population Turnaround. For the first time in a century, censuses reveal that the continent is witnessing a reverse migration from the cities and suburbs to the once-spurned countryside. In a 1991 book called Penturbia: Where Real Estate Will Boom After the Crash of Suburbia, former University of Washington demographer Jack Lessinger predicted that within two decades half the continent’s population will have made
the exodus back to the land, throwing housing prices into upheaval.
After his own research on Ontario’s small towns, Stanley Barrett, an anthropologist at the University of Guelph, confirmed that a similar drift is under way there. “In the United States, most of the studies show that people are moving because they’re ready to sacrifice income levels for a better quality of life,” Barrett says. “But the fundamental reason for people to move to rural Ontario was economic—in order to be able to afford a home.”
In a 1990 Decima poll, 70 per cent of Canadians registered their yearnings to live in a small town. But these days, it is not so much a fantasy as the only way to survive a layoff or loss of salary as an increasing number of women opt out of corporate life. Crick and Lisa Hannaford-Glass landed in Wolfville, N.S., six months ago after his job had twice vanished—first when he was forced to sell his company in Toronto, then when he found himself a victim of corporate downsizing in Halifax. His wife had already quit her career as a reinsurance underwriter to paint and raise their two kids, now 3 and 6. “There was a bit of handwringing at first,” Lisa Hannaford-Glass admits. “The economy isn’t booming here.” But now ensconced in a rambling Dutch colonial just off the leafy main street, where her husband joined an Annapolis Valley firm, she waxes rhapsodic about life in a town of 3,000 where “people don’t care what kind of car you drive. We have a house we could never have afforded in Toronto and you can join the little tennis club for $35 a year. It’s a slower pace, but we haven’t had a moment of regret: we can live within our means here.” Now, when she flies back to Toronto for her annual show, she finds “so much insecurity. I can’t wait to get out of there.”
In the Maritimes and other economically bereft corners of the country, downshifting urban refugees are helping to create what writer Lawrence Scanlan characterizes as a “rural renaissance”— breathing new life, and a new ratepayer base, into declining communities. Where once thousands decamped for Kelowna, the boomtown of the Okanagan Valley, now Kelownans are fleeing eastward in search of less bustle and lower mortgages.
Judy Lake and her husband, a banker, moved back to Nova Scotia in 1989 after selling their Toronto house on the crest of the real estate market. “In order to capitalize on it,” she says, “we had to leave town.” But when he applied for a transfer east, “Everybody thought it was career suicide,” she admits. “Now, he gets calls all the time: ‘how did you do it and how can I?’ ” A former pension adviser with an MBA, Lake had already decided she was not cut out for corporate politics. On a bluff overlooking Rose Bay, outside Lunenburg, she built a half-dozen cottages, which have been booked up by frazzled professionals—many of whom arrive to sightsee and by the second morning are calling a real estate agent. “One of the neat things about this business,” she says, “is that I get to meet all my new neighbors.”
Technology—which has forced millions out of their jobs—has also opened career horizons in even the remotest paradise. “In the Information Age, you can do your job anywhere,” says Mark Gauley. “Geography is becoming more and more irrelevant.” On Nova Scotia’s eastern shore, Ross Finlay, 45, now numbers
among the 15.2 per cent of Canadians who work for themselves— and the 10 per cent who do so from home. Two years ago, when his Toronto human resources firm “cratered,” as he puts it, he founded his own consulting company, Grey Matter Development, on a seaside acre he had bought for his eventual retirement. Where he once used to race between airports, now he merely logs on from his e-mail address—a loft above his garage in Musquodoboit Harbor. “I certainly made a lot more money before,” Finlay concedes. ‘We don’t have cable, and down here petty crimes are big news.
The quest is for manageable mortgages and quality of life
Two summers ago, when there was some trouble in a nearby community, the guys in town put up a sign on a post: ‘If you pull any more bullshit, they’ll be fishing you out of the bay.’ And that was the end of it.”
Still, the Great Population Turnaround has not been without tensions. So many disgruntled urbanites invaded the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island in search of manageable mortgages and heartstopping views that the school system is reeling from overcrowding. Now, one of the fastest-growing educational districts in the province, it has sprouted from 6,700 students to 10,500 in the past decade, leaving teachers to cram the 23-per-cent overflow into portable classrooms. Last year, a grassroots residents group also raised $660,000 for a $1.6-million campaign to buy back a stretch of seafront wilderness from a developer threatening yet another subdivision. Says Anne Gardner, a speech therapist who moved to the area from Winnipeg, via Colorado, 20 years ago: “People are starting to feel the effects of rapid growth, and we want to protect the lifestyle that brought us here.”
In a new book, Heading Home: On Starting a New Life in a Country Place, Lawrence Scanlan warns: “It’s not all bliss in the country, and it’s not all hell in the city.” His own move to Camden East, a village 30 km outside Kingston, Ont., remains fraught after 15 years: now a proposed quarry threatens to send 70 gravel trucks a day thundering through its pastoral charms. But throwing himself into that fight, Scanlan sees hope in the new population paradigm
emerging in small-town Canada—“a hybrid of born-and-breds and come-from-aways.” As he points out: “What happens when city people move to the country is that they bring their city smarts. It may be that the new small town of the future will be more politically powerful.”
On a serene log porch on the shores of Big Rideau Lake, 90 km southwest of Ottawa, Charles Long sits at one extreme of the voluntary simplicity movement—a retailer’s nightmare incarnate. In 1975, he walked out of his job as a senior policy adviser on the Privy Council and, with two toddlers in tow, he and his wife, Elizabeth, retreated to 100 acres outside Rideau Ferry. From the obdurate fields, he culled the rocks that he shaped into a home, which stands as a testimonial to his credo: never pay for anything you can make or scavenge yourself.
At first, he and his wife did without running water, choosing to forgo indoor plumbing and appliances instead of theatre tickets and discoi exotic destinations—their twin passions. And for seven years, he conducted his freelance writing career from a highway phone booth rather than shell out $3,000 to hook up to the local exchange. Even the gleaming cherry-wood panelling in his office is a tribute to both his woodworking skills and quick wits— hewn out of a roadside tree that he salvaged from a township crew’s chainsaw. But voluntary simplicity is a term he detests.
“Living independently without a salary is not simple,” he bridles.
“It takes a lot of work. What it is about is control and freedom.”
For Long, that freedom from a pricey overhead bought time to write fiction. Last year, his initial effort, Undefended Borders, made the shortlist for the Chapters/ Books in Canada FirstNovel Award.
Still, so tempting did Long’s lifestyle look on a sun-dappled Sunday 16 years ago that, after a homegrown lunch and wine ^ from his wild grapes, a visiting 1 teacher friend demanded: “I have 3 to know: how do you survive £ without a salary?” His answer | eventually won him a book conw tract and this fall, after 13 printings, How To Survive Without A Salary, the quixotic 1981 guide that made him the Canadian guru of what he calls the “conserver” movement, has been updated to cash in on the fact that his once-marginal message has gone mainstream. Well, almost. While Long’s helpful hints are in greater demand, some are clearly not for the fastidious. One section is entitled: “Some of the nicest people shop at the dump.”
But one of Long’s preferred detours around the marketplace—the barter system—is flourishing among the middle class from coast to coast. The most celebrated example, the LETSystem, was
founded 14 years ago by a former engineer named Michael Linton in Courtenay, B.C. At a time when the region’s real estate and logging markets had collapsed, Linton realized that the town still harbored the same assets and needs. “It became clear to me,” he says, “that the only thing we were missing was money.” Creating an alternative currency in what he dubbed “green dollars”—invisible promissory notes tracked by a central computerized accounting system and accepted only within the local community—he launched a scheme that has now spread to a dozen communities across the country and nearly 1,000 others throughout the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
In Toronto, one of its most enthusiastic members is 61-year-old
novelist Joy Kogawa, who sits cross-legged on the broadloom of her 26th-floor lakefront aerie rhyming off her recent LETSystem coups: selling off a spare refrigerator, her microwave and a box of books, she earned enough credits for a haircut, the cream jodhpurs she sports and a garage for her car. This fall, she is working with friends to launch a new twist on the system in Vancouver, where she spends half the year. Under its proposed design, companies will be able to donate goods or services to a non-profit organization, which in turn can sell them off in return for cash contributions. For Kogawa, who wrote her first award-winning novel, Obasan, on the commercial graph paper she fished out of company waste bins, the system promises a new economic ethos. “I got involved as part of my spiritual journey,” she says. “I thought it
had a tremendous potential to help people feel hopeful and think of possible employment instead of crime.”
Still, at its heart, voluntary simplicity is profoundly radical, questioning the very foundations of the consumer culture that has shaped the postwar world view. No one is more aware of that than Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Merck Family Fund, who helped put the trend on the media map. Last January, under the umbrella of her freshly opened Centre for a New American Dream, she assembled a gathering of iconoclasts, including Kalle Lasn, the founder of Vancouver’s Adbusters magazine, which is devoted to skewering the estimated 30,000 marketing messages that North Americans are exposed to each year. Plotting ways to redefine cultural values, they pondered one campaign sure to give retailers renewed palpitations. Called ‘Take back the holidays,” its aim would be to strip commercialism from Hanukkah and Christmas.
“We’re not preaching heavy frugality or guilt,” she says. “This is about balance. We’ve put far too much priority on our stuff and not enough on relationships or community.” Still, as downshifters well know, everything has its price, and that call to a new golden mean once preached by philosophers from Aristotle to Christ risks consequences yet unanticipated by the current thinkers extolling voluntary simplicity. “It is tricky,” Taylor admits. “If the thing really took off, you have to worry: what does it mean for jobs and the economy? But,” she shrugs, “we’re a long way from that.” □