Meet “Tony,” the 31-year-old author of “Hey, big spender,” a personal essay in Toronto Life that sent Twitter into convulsions last week:
My mom does my laundry and makes my meals. And, yes, I can already feel your contempt. But hear me out. I’m not lazy, dumb or deluded. I’m a pharmacist, and I work hard—sometimes six days a week. I sleep roughly five hours a night. I make $130,000 a year, and I spend the vast majority of it on experiences—wild, rare, unforgettable experiences.
Tony forgoes a mortgage and the other usual adult trappings, he explains, because it allows him to partake in the best of what life has to offer: spending on luxury travel, fine dining, and assorted bro activities with his bros. Among his “wild, rare, unforgettable experiences” is the opportunity to drink wine:
I’ve tasted more than 170 different wines in the last year—I keep track through an app called Vivino. Lately, I’m finding there are downsides to education; back in the day, when I was a neophyte, I could drink just about anything. These days, I know exactly what I like and what I don’t. Tasting a Rothschild is on my bucket list.
The experience of reading the essay is uncannily like being on a less-than-successful blind date. The reader gets to that wine-app bit and suddenly remembers an urgent prior appointment.
What’s interesting about Tony’s manifesto, though, isn’t that yet another millennial has written an autobiographical think-piece around his lack of self-awareness. Rather, it’s that Tony is doing exactly what all the right-thinking advice-givers of our age suggest: He’s valuing “experiences” over possessions. But his gutless confession—he remains anonymous, after all—illustrates the danger in automatically assuming that, to use one of his examples, backpacking through Guatemala should take precedence over stuff. Yes, dinner with loved ones is more spiritually uplifting than ordering shoes online. But is patronizing “the rooftop restaurant featured in The Hangover Part II” and getting “the obligatory Thai massages” somehow more admirable than renting or owning one’s own place?
The superiority of experiences has become our era’s reigning banality. Consider last year’s Time profile of American anti-stuff advocates: “Minimalists like to say that they’re living more meaningfully, more deliberately, that getting rid of most material possessions in their lives allows them to focus on what’s important: friends, hobbies, travel, experiences.” We hear much the same from more recent awestruck portrait in The Guardian of the new Japanese minimalism, from a man who owns just “four pairs of socks”: “Spending less time on cleaning or shopping means I have more time to spend with friends, go out, or travel on my days off.” It’s hard for me to picture how having enough socks to last an entire wash cycle could possibly impede a social life; the reverse seems more likely.
There’s some evidence that U.S. “consumers” are turning away from stuff, and even more convincing evidence that Americans are at least gesturing at minimalism: Marie Kondo’s two guides to tidying up—that is, “Japanese art of decluttering and organizing”—have become bestsellers. This new minimalism doesn’t just promise improved leisure time, but professional success, too. Thus the spate of articles and posts (some explicitly pro-minimalist) about how amazing it is that Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama wear the same thing every day (as themselves, not as each other). Uniform dressing is meant to be a brilliant way that Great People (men) get ahead in the world. Pare things down, and rid yourself of, if not possessions, then at least the more frivolous (that is, stereotypically feminine or domestic) ones, and you’re on your way to a more meaningful, ethical existence.
There’s nothing magical about favoring experiences over things, and there’s something subtly sexist about the refrain—especially in cases where the “stuff” is still plenty present, but is being dealt with by the women in a man’s life.
Tony’s essay in Toronto Life inadvertently highlights the sexism underlying the minimalist trend. It’s not just—as Ruth Whippman brilliantly demonstrated at The Pool—that the cool new tidying advice is aimed, much like older housekeeping advice, at women. It’s also that the very idea of experiences mattering more than things is a way of valorizing the stereotypically masculine. “While men are conditioned to dream big—to see their happiness in terms of adventure and travel, sex and ideas and long nights of hilarity—women are now encouraged to find deep fulfilment in staying home to origami our pants,” she wrote.
Whether women are being encouraged to rid our homes of useless belongings, or urged to shop for new ones, the result is the same: Society continues to associate women with the home and the material, men with the outside and experiences. While the enjoyment of domestic life, of stuff, isn’t inherently negative, it is dismissed precisely because of its associations with the feminine. An orientation towards stuff over experiences, moreover, gets cast either as recklessly materialist or, as Tony perceives it, an impediment to enjoying life. The only constant is that what women prefer, or are imagined to prefer, is thought inferior.
Tony’s behavior isn’t specific to his particular Canadian subculture. Pride in non-ownership exists across demographics (of wealthy or wealthy-ish men), as came through in a recent New York Times item about filmmaker and preppy icon Whit Stillman. The story’s gimmick is that Stillman’s “aim, largely successful, has been to reduce his possessions to those that would fit in a small rolling duffel bag.” Thus the headline: “Whit Stillman and His Duffel-Bag-Size Life in Paris.” Much like Torontonian Tony, Stillman—as presented in the piece—is a man on the go, too wrapped up in the excitement of life to concern himself with homemaking.
As for whether Stillman’s life is actually minimalist, judge for yourself: He lives in “a series of rooms on the top two floors of a 17th-century apartment building in the Marais district,” a home “[s]parsely furnished with” his partner Marianne Monnier’s “family antiques.” (Green never spells out who pays for what, but refers to the home as “the apartment of his girlfriend.”) And as envy-inspiring photos of the gorgeous apartment confirm, “family antiques” isn’t a euphemism for second-hand IKEA, for “like Mr. Stillman, Ms. Monnier can trace her patrician roots back for generations…” Stillman might not have much stuff by his peer’s standards, but this situation—“imagine no possessions” paired with living in an aristocratically furnished Parisian duplex—is today’s macho minimalism in a nutshell.
We’re meant to admire the experience-lovers for their indifference to stuff, which implies they’ve got their priorities straight: to live life to the fullest. It’s no coincidence, though, that these experience-lovers are so often male, as it’s a stereotypically male aspiration not to be “tied down”—that is, not to have domestic responsibilities. But these men do have roofs over their heads. The bourgeois life they’re rejecting is simply one they’ve outsourced. After all, Tony hasn’t rejected the material life. He’s just got a woman—his mother—tidying up after him.