On Sunday I visited the Amuri Museum of Workers’ Housing here, in Tampere. It is a fascinating piece of the industrial past of the city. The century old wooden houses of the formerly large Amuri quarter and their accompanying stories create the feeling of time-travel. Upon exiting the museum and coming back to the modern world from the visit to the past, my head was crowded with thoughts about clutter.
There are few things more important to human beings than having food and shelter. The need for a roof above our heads is so fundamental that for most of us, our biggest life investment, and the product of our lives’ work is going to be a home we pay for, in installments over several decades, and own, eventually.
Every society has its own way of viewing where and how we should live. In Finland, young adults become independent quite early. They find their own apartments and start independent lives sometimes even after reaching 18 years of age. In the statistical majority, the desirable home progression goes something like this:
- First independent living is in a rented studio apartment, often in student accommodation, usually shared with other youths.
- Shared apartment with a steady partner – rented, or owned by one of the partners
- First co-owned apartment, often in a terraced house. The clutter starts building as we start making a home out of a property.
- Second co-owned apartment, larger than the previous, often bought while the family is growing, in paired houses (two houses that share one wall)
- Own detached house, on own or rented plot of land. As big as the means (or loans) allow.
As the homes’ square footage gets bigger, the price tag on the property increases and the house loan gets longer in duration and higher in value. Some families don’t do the gradual “upgrading” and often move quite fast to the much bigger (and more expensive) home.
Of course this type of life path is common only in wealthy societies. People who live in developing parts of the world would have a different story to tell. Yet, through the media, they are sold the image of what prosperous life should be like, and it is never in a small home, with modest household or the bare minimum. The economy needs to grow. If we all stopped buying things we didn’t need, for just a short time, the world economy would collapse.
And always, the reason to move to a bigger home is: We need more space. I have heard it so many times from people who live more than comfortably. I have said the sentence myself, too. But is this really true? Do we all really need so much space?
Yes, the families grow, and more people mean that our homes get more crowded. But I don’t think it is people who crowd our living spaces. Recently my family went through the eye-opening project of eliminating the clutter by reducing number of things that we have in our home. During the process of selecting what to part with, I realized that the things we got rid of not only occupied a lot of space in our home, they also occupied a lot of our time: maintaining a home full of objects is a tedious (and never-ending) task. Now our living space is more manageable and we have more time and energy. And we didn’t increase our square meters. We just changed the way that we use the space we already have.
This made me think about how we often don’t blink an eye when we mortgage our future for the next 20 years to buy a bigger home, but we don’t even consider parting with a lot of possessions that just lie around our homes without having much use, really. Yes, this is a blatant generalization, but if we look honestly at ourselves, most of us should admit that we have much more than we actually need. Both space and stuff.
Looking at the homes in the Amuri museum, in which at least four families were living under the same roof, each in one room and all sharing one kitchen, having the chance to see the modest possessions of its dwellers, I cannot but think that we are overindulged in our quest for more space. The museum is divided into several sections, each one representing a different decade of life in the Amuri quarter. As I walked through the carefully conserved time capsule one thing was more than evident: over time the inhabitants of Amuri not only had better heating, kitchens and carpets, which is essential for long and hard Finnish winter. They also had many more knick-knacks, regardless of their social status and wealth. Of course, the wealthier they were, the more personal things they owned. This trend has continued and nowadays our homes are 10 times larger and at least 30 times fuller than 60 years ago. And yet, we still crave space. We are defined by one word: More.
What we don’t see is that our lives are cluttered: Brimful of objects we don’t use, distractions that steal our time and complications that we willingly choose. This is why I am asking us all: How much space do we really need? Or do we need to rethink our possessions and simply try to have fewer things?