History. As a student I always wondered why during history classes we were focusing so much on dates and battles and who won what piece of land, and less, or zero, on the effect all those terrible events had on people and their habits. What effects did the Second World War have on our grandparents' lifestyle and life choices?
What are people likely to do after a decade of poverty and deprivation? What will they be keen to run after once the economy starts growing again and while the difficult memories of the past are still vivid in their minds? Buy. Stock up. Splurge. Own things. Just for the sake of being able to do it in most cases. We have probably all had someone in the family that after any world tragedy suggests to go raid the local supermarket, just in case the shops run out of food?
Is it a coincidence that post second world war, in a time where - my grandparents tell me – unlike today, white bread was for the wealthy and brown bread for the poor, where people struggled to have decent meals, we had curvy women as icons of beauty? Sophia Loren came right out of that time. She represented the new rich, embodying redemption from years of hunger. Fast forward 50 years, as a teenager I remember only too well wondering why on earth anorexic, bony ladies a là Kate Moss were considered beauty icons. Because we had and could afford anything and had access to great amounts of food, so we iconized what we could not have easily. Add a decade and the advent of the internet as main distributor of quick knowledge (Dr. Google anyone?) and we all are experts when it comes to healthy eating and healthy icons. The Romans had it right all along with their "mens sana in corpore sano" a two thousand-year-old statement. Are we now in a much happier and balanced place and able to edit our own life because of the Internet? Somehow I guess we are.
One of the factors that fueled the prosperity of the Fifties was the increase in consumer spending. The US first and shortly after Europe, enjoyed a standard of living that had never been seen before. In a decade many women across Europe went from hand-washing in rivers to owning a washing machine and being able to hire domestic help.
Spending patterns changed overnight. The adults of the Fifties had grown up in conditions of economic deprivation, first due to the general poverty following World War I and then due to the rationing of consumer goods of World War II. During WWII, much of Europe`s productive capacity shifted to armaments. Everything from sugar to gasoline to tires to nylon stockings was rationed. When consumer goods became available again, people wanted to spend.
How many times have I heard my own grandmother saying that the reason why she has been for so long a devoted boutique client since the day the first one opened in her neighbourhood is due to the fact that while growing up there was no such a thing as buying new clothes: post WWII going to the tailor for new clothes was a yearly much awaited occasion. Her wardrobe is three times mine now and I am probably being conservative. Her generation has witnessed the shift from a production society, focused on meeting basic needs, to a consumption society, which emphasizes customers' wants.
We are now experiencing the next logical – and opposite - step, what has the manic consumerism of the past 50 years led to? Books like All You Need is Less (Madeleine Somerville) or The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: a simple, effective way to banish clutter forever (Marie Kondo) have been best-sellers from the first day they hit Amazon, or the local bookshop if you are the classical type.
How much money do we spend on storage space? In Milan renting a couple of square meters for storage costs nearly two thousand euros a year, the monthly salary of a high school teacher. These storage buildings, picturesquely called La Casa delle Cose (The house of things) in Italy, are popping up everywhere, leveraging on the attachment that we have for our "stuff" and the difficulty we have to get rid of it, to let go of our "possessions".
Since having kids we have often had family visiting. My very personal challenge is not so much getting rid of our own clutter, that I gladly do and a red carpet awaits me at our local second-hand shop every time I go to donate bags of "stuff", but in pushing back on daily presents for the kids, on the amount of clothes and various items that everyone visiting our house seems to be forgetting here. Either because they are flying back somewhere and cannot take liquids back or because they bought so much during their visit that their previous belongings do not fit anymone in their suitcase(s) ("is that OK if I pick it up when I come back in 12 months?") or because they think it is easier to leave entire suitcases of clothes and assorted items in the various places they visit. Especially in my house and in that irresistible one wardrobe I try to leave half empty for guests.
One way or the other, we are all slowly realizing that our own possessions are quickly taking over our life and costing us money, time, space – mental and physical. I now consider luxury and status symbol a half empty wardrobe. Do we own our possessions or do they own us? How do we get back on track and afford opposite luxuries than our post-war grandparents?
Watch this funny TedTalk on the topic "Less Stuff More Happiness".