National Edition

Let it go: Creating new family traditions to end clutter

Published: Monday, April 28 2014 4:05 p.m. MDT

A study by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families looked at how 32 middle-class families in Los Angeles lived in their homes.

J. Arnold, UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families

It keeps coming into homes with the full backing of traditions, holidays, celebrations, rituals and even the search for happiness. Millions of marketing dollars encourage it. The economy depends on it. Kids demand it.

It fills rooms, closets, garages and storage units.

It is stuff — the possessions that increase with every birthday, holiday and retail therapy jaunt.

"We are at this unique point in western civilization," says Anthony P. Graesch, co-author of a major study on possessions in America titled "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors." "The individual household, the individual family, has never owned more stuff than they do now."

Anthony P. Graesch is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Connecticut College and is an archaeologist — so his approach to clutter is a bit more academic than that of, say, a hoarder-exploitation reality show. He says one of the main reasons people have so many possessions is because contemporary society has many traditions and rituals to collect stuff but none to get rid of it. So it just accumulates until the day when kids have to sort through their deceased parents' homes — what Graesch calls "large containers full of stuff."

"We've never been here before as humans in general," he says. "It's fascinating. It is going to have some pretty dire consequences, but there is no touchstone of tradition by which we can look back for practices. There is no model for dealing with the mess we've gotten ourselves into now. There is none of that.

"So we are left with trying to think up ways to invent new traditions."

It's beginning to look a lot like clutter

One good example of a strong tradition is gift-giving on Christmas. People expect gifts — a lot of gifts. "We measure the overall value of Christmas, the merriment, the cheer, oftentimes in terms of the quantity of presents that are actually under Christmas trees," Graesch says. "I think our children are expecting a lot more. And regardless, a lot more actually flows in, so it cultivates those expectations. Birthdays are no different."

In the past, there were some traditions, such as spring cleaning, where people would clear out and clean up. Even today, life events such as moving, marriage, going to college and leaving behind childhood encourage some assessment of possessions. But old ways are not enough, Graesch says, to deal with the degree of things people own.

One of the culprits preventing clean up is just modern life.

When parents and children do spend time together, their time is limited. Americans compensate for that limited time by buying things for each other, not working to clean it up, Graesch says. "We spend this limited amount of time together trying to recover from work and school and all the jobs that we have to do," he says.

People have a desire to clean out their garages, basements and bedrooms, he says. They intend to have garage sales or sell things online.

"People will talk about it, but in reality, it rarely happens," Graesch says. "And in middle-class families, dual income parents with children, they are working a lot and there is not a lot of time in the day for leisure as it is. ... So that when it comes time that you get a little leisure time on the weekend, finding more work by actually purging some of your possessions, I think, is just untenable for many. You would rather hang out with your kids and have fun."

And so the stuff keeps flowing into homes.

Slow the flow

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