The piano tuner cocked his head quizzically to the side and fixed me with a curious look. I could sense what was coming. He had just discovered that I work as a potter, and he’d seen examples of my work on the shelves at my mom’s house. He considered me in my work clothes, his eyes flicking from my sturdy jeans covered in glaze residue to my ratty T-shirt. I smiled defensively, hoping to dodge the conversation, but his mouth was already opening.

“So…do you do this full time?”

I sighed internally and resigned myself to the inevitable.

I get this question a lot. Like, a lot a lot. The piano tuner, the dental hygienist, my parents’ landlord, the customers who walk into my booth during a craft show: they all want to know the answer. Different things are implied, depending on who’s doing the asking. For some, it’s a hopeful question: they want to hear that some people manage to “make it” doing something they love, something that stereotypically doesn’t pay well. These people are excited when I say yes.

Others ask in order to write me off, or to make me fit their expectations about the “artist’s life.” They expect to hear that I just do this as a hobby.

A small fraction of people seem to ask in an attempt to make themselves feel better about the unrealized creative dreams that they deferred in favor of something more practical or profitable.  The guy whose screenplay has sat untouched in his desk drawer for the last two and a half years desperately wants to discover that I’m in the same boat- that I haven’t creatively “made it” either, despite significant effort.

Regardless of what people want to hear, they always seem surprised when I answer this question in the affirmative. The “starving artist” stereotype suggests that making a living in a creative and non-traditional field such as writing, music, graphic design, or visual art is difficult, if not impossible: filled with long hours, high stress, and a bank balance that’s always on the edge of “alarming.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t work insane hours in the studio and I never struggle to pay the rent on time. I don’t have an impressive retirement account, but unlike 80% of Americans I also don’t have any debt. I usually work seven days a week, but often only from 9am to 1pm. Some years I’ve taken extended (1 month +) international trips during my “slow season.” Mid-afternoon on a weekday often finds me swimming laps at the pool, drinking tea with a friend, studying Spanish, or going for a long hike in the woods.

I’m not the only one, either. Many friends, especially those in the “Millennial” age range (born between ~1980 and 2000) enjoy similar lifestyles. So how is this possible?  (If you guessed “trust fund,” you’re wrong.)

In fact, we’re practicing a certain kind of lifestyle: one that I mentally refer to as “Millenimalism.” We combine a limited number of hours of paid work with intentional simplicity, frugality, and minimalism. The net result? A low cost of living and a surplus of free time for pursuing passions, hobbies, long term travel, volunteer work, health, and relationships.

The net result? A low cost of living and a surplus of free time for pursuing passions, hobbies, long term travel, volunteer work, health, and relationships.

Contrast this lifestyle with your average full-time employed worker. Let’s call him Chad.

Chad just turned 30. Growing up, he had a passion for science. In his sophomore year of high school he won the state science fair with his project about whale migration patterns, and he majored in biology in college. Unfortunately, Chad graduated a few months after the financial collapse, and he struggled for over a year after college to find full time work related to his degree. After a stint working behind the sushi counter at Whole Foods, Chad finally landed a job as a lab technician. The pay is decent and the job comes with full benefits, but he frequently works more than 40 hours a week, and he’s tired when he gets home. He lives alone in a one bedroom apartment, and he pays $1000 a month in rent and utilities. He earned a scholarship in college, but he still graduated with student loan debt, so he has a monthly student loan payment of $300. He lives in the suburbs of a large city because the rent is cheaper there, but he needs a car to commute to work, so he also has a car payment of $250 a month, plus $60 in car insurance. He’s trying to save money to buy a house, but somehow he rarely has much leftover in his bank account at the end of a pay period, so the process is moving slowly. He often doesn’t have the energy to cook after work, so he eats out or orders in several nights a week, which adds up both financially and calorically. His metabolism is slower than it used to be, but he doesn’t usually feel like hitting the gym after work, so he’s gained a few pounds in the last couple of years. He still feels passionate about science (he often entertains his tinder dates with stories about whale migration) but he lacks the time to pursue his interest. Maybe next year he’ll take time off work to travel to Alaska and attend that whale watching tour he’s heard about, if he could just save enough money…

I believe that the Millenimalist lifestyle has emerged in the past decade as a needed response to the problems that “Chad” and many other Millennials face. For example:

  • We’re the first generation in the modern era with worse job and earning prospects than the generation before us.
  • Undergraduate degrees cost more, but they’re worth less. Graduating school without debt is difficult.
  • “Full time” means more hours a week than it used to, leaving employees with little time or energy to pursue interests, relationships, or health outside of work.
  • Full time jobs are difficult to come by. Many people can’t afford Chad’s (fairly simple) lifestyle, even if they wanted to.

That’s where Millenimalism comes in.

To be clear: the Millenimalist lifestyle is simpler for some people to achieve than others. It would be easy, and not unfair, to levy the criticism that Millenimalism is much more readily available to the privileged. And it’s true that this lifestyle is easier to achieve if you’re educated or moneyed or you have white skin, because almost every practical thing is easier in those circumstances.* I don’t want to ignore that reality, but I do want to make the plug that a lack of privilege does not make this lifestyle impossible. Moxie, curiosity, and a willingness to learn new things are equally important and available to all.

Additionally, if you’re locked into a high cost of living for any reason (maybe you have a mountain of student loan debt, or you just bought a new Maserati, or you’re providing financially for your parents, or you have a kid who’s really into figure skating) transitioning to a simpler lifestyle with more free time will be more difficult for you than for someone without those expenses. Working fewer hours will probably also prove difficult if you work a very low-paying job, like a job in the fast food industry. Finally, if the idea of driving a used car really bums you out, you might balk at the principles that I’ll outline in future blog posts. On the other hand, for many people (especially young people without a lot of debt or a family to provide for) this lifestyle is not as difficult to achieve as it appears. How to get started is the subject of my next blog post.

*My friend Frank first articulated this idea so succinctly, in the context of a discussion about unschooling. I think he originally said something like “every practical thing is easier if you’re rich!”

3 thoughts

  1. although she was not a millennial, my mum would definitely say HUZZAH!! and interestingly, the studies that we thought correlated happiness with income turn our not to be as accurate as we thought…so the next gen. studies that well up to a certain level it is but after a certain level of income it isn’t — well they turn out not to be so accurate either…(which is NOT to say that health and home are not critically important) Happiness is an internal state we can embrace or run from — YOU GO GRRL!!


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