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More Americans ditch the upscale life for emphasis on family, environment THEY'RE FRUGAL - BY CHOICE


Iona and John Conner are downwardly mobile and loving it.

They've joined the small but growing ranks of Americans eschewing the pursuit of possessions for what's called "voluntary simplicity." They've traded secure government jobs, comfortable homes and a lifetime of collected clutter for pared-down lives.

"It's good for the earth and good for the soul," Ms. Conner says of her new life. "I've never been happier."

The Conners' relatively Spartan lifestyle is taking root even within the fast-paced, consumption-driven Baltimore-Washington corridor -- a region associated with high ambitions, high incomes and high costs of living.

In their two-bedroom Columbia apartment, there's no TV, microwave, or cordless phone. Their furniture is second-hand or hand-made. Ms. Conner reads by candlelight to conserve energy and hold down the electric bill.

It's a long way from the New Jersey waterfront home where Ms. Conner once lived, let alone her yacht club membership, 10 boats and two Jaguars. She ditched it all -- and a previous husband who thought that was the good life.

"It was a sick lifestyle. I wasn't happy," says the 49-year-old former community relations officer for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "I am very much into simplicity now."

Some may view the Conners as retro-hippies, retreating from the stresses and strains of the '90s. Others who've opted for simpler lives may have been pushed into it by corporate downsizing and then embraced it, rather than rejoin the rat race.

But whatever the motivations, voluntary simplicity is gaining enough followers around the country that author Duane Elgin -- a former researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, a California think-tank -- asserts they're at the forefront of a major social shift.

"We are at the beginning of a socio-economic transition that will be at least as great as the transition from an agrarian society to an industrial society," Mr. Elgin says. "Down-scaled lifestyles will be a key element of a new way of life that people are inventing now."

This is "what most people will do naturally 30 years from now," he says.

There's no firm count of how many U.S. residents already have opted for simpler lives. But a 1994 report by The Trends Research Institute, of Rhinebeck, N.Y., concluded that voluntary simplicity would emerge as one of the top socio-economic trends of the next decade.

The institute estimated about 4 percent of 77 million baby boomers, or 3.1 million people, are pursuing a pared-down lifestyle these days. During the next eight years, it predicted, the number will grow to about 15 percent of all boomers or 11.5 million people.

The movement already has given birth to several newsletters. The quarterly Voluntary Simplicity has attracted 3,000 subscribers in just three years, says Seattle publisher Janet Luhrs. She says she receives a steady stream of inquiries for guidance on how to lead simpler lives.

Study circles spring up

Another Seattle-based simplicity apostle, Cecile Andrews , who runs workshops for professionals who want to pare down, estimates at least 150 study circles have sprung up around the nation in recent years among devotees of down-scaling.

"They are tired of working too much, spending too much, and rushing around too much," says Ms. Andrews.

But Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute, cautions that the movement hardly qualifies as "a waking up of consciousness or anything like that. Some of these people are just aging hippies who want to return to the ideals they had

during the Woodstock era."

For the most part, he says, the move to simplicity stems from the economic realities of the '90s: job cutbacks and slow-growing wages. But a new aspect, Mr. Celente says, "is that people no longer look down on you if you are scaling back like they would five, 10 years ago. There is a perception now that there is a lot of sanity behind it."

Baby boomers, growing reflective about life as they mature, began the movement. But Mr. Celente predicts that today's college students -- already accustomed to low expectations of achieving high-flying lifestyles -- will embrace simplicity in large numbers.

Down-scalers tend to place importance on enjoying small pleasures, building stronger relations with family and friends and protecting the environment. There's a decided aversion to wasting time on rat-race jobs, excessive consumption and TV.

Negatives of modern life

These aversions shouldn't be discounted. Another simplicity guru -- William Seavey, a former New York City ad writer who founded the Greener Pastures Institute in Pahrump, Nev. -- says simple living is gaining popularity because "the scales of modern life have become too far tipped with negatives."

"Boiled down, voluntary simplicity is a pursuit of the experience of real happiness," says Mr. Elgin, author of a 1993 book, "Voluntary Simplicity." "And the experience of happiness for most people is a lot different than the images of happiness

we've been handed by Madison Avenue."

That's what attracted Mr. Conner, 60, a former administrator for the Baltimore City Housing Department: "I am using the energy and the resources available to me in a way that I think will benefit others and the earth, so in that sense I feel a far deeper sense of personal fulfillment than I've ever felt before."

He began scaling back after he left his city job in 1986 to start a nonprofit group, the Grassroots Coalition for Environmental and Economic Justice, to educate school and church groups how to get involved in environmental causes.

Mr. Conner eventually sold the dream home he'd built, a new log-cabin style house near Oella in Howard County.. "A simplified life allows you to focus your energy on your purpose for living," he says. "Having a lot of expensive, nice things doesn't make you happier or more fulfilled."

In Catonsville, Constantine and Peggy Bitsas also have found personal renewal with fewer possessions.

Two years ago, Mr. Bitsas held a well-paying job as an administrator for a mental health clinic in Washington, D.C. He fought heavy traffic back and forth to his home in Fairfax, Va. With 60-hour work weeks, he rarely saw his wife and young child.

Family time sought

And he found himself dogged by the question that propels many to down-scale: How did I get here? "Things were pretty complicated," he recalls. "I hated it."

The couple wanted a simpler life and more family time. So Mr. Bitsas, 37, took a part-time job as the director of Careerscope, a nonprofit career counseling service in Columbia, where his initial salary was 70 percent less.

They also moved to Catonsville where their mortgage was much lower than in suburban Washington, decided not to buy a new car and cut back on such expenses as dining out and movies.

"I've found that family is more rewarding than climbing the career ladder," says Mr. Bitsas. "My personal satisfaction and happiness are not based on my salary or what I can and can't buy."

Mr. Elgin, the author, says the Bitsases and Conners fit the classic profile of those choosing voluntary simplicity: well-educated, progressive thinking and willing to take the risk of inventing a new lifestyle.

Fear of change

But the number of those only dreaming about down-scaling far outnumber those who actually make the switch, notes Mr. Seavey, at the Greener Pastures Institute. The main reason: Fear.

"Change is an intimidating thing," he says. "People tend to want to stay with what they know, even though it is not making them happy. They have difficulty imagining a different life."

He and others who've made the transition say down-scaling is best done in stages, often over several years. Perhaps the hardest bridge to cross, they say, is breaking free of the notion that staying on the treadmill is the safest and only path.

For most of her adult life, Lyn Raabe bought into that logic. But in six years, she has shed a large home in western Howard County, a hectic schedule as a volunteer and home-based seamstress, and her habit of "buying anything I wanted."

Today, she shares a two-bedroom Columbia townhouse with a sister, works as an administrator for a group of doctors and tends a small flower garden. "I've stripped away a lot of the annoyances," she says.

Gone is her newspaper subscription, her weekly trips to shopping malls and her numerous volunteer commitments. "There are a lot of little things you can do that add up to a simpler life," she says. "I feel more peaceful than I have in my whole life."

But as some down-scalers admit, not all old habits are so easy to sweep away. "Every now and then," Ms. Raabe says, "I get a Hecht's attack and just have to cut loose."

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