Renovating Culture: Rise of the New Domesticity

By Anneke Vo

 

When my mother and grandmother were my age, they knew how to cook, clean, sew and garden, while I grew up on Disney cartoons and microwaved pizza, beheading barbie dolls and pressing complex buttons on a machine. Despite the yuppie conditioning imposed upon gen-Xers and Millennials to equate self-actualisation with technocentric careerism and “having it all”, the pull of re-skilling in the domestic arts has never been more alluring.

In Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing The New Domesticity, Emily Matchar (Matchar, 2013) talks about an emerging generation of “radical homemakers” who are reclaiming family values, frugal living and DIY culture in the name of sustainability and self-sufficiency. According to Matchar, the New Domesticity is less about traditional gender roles, but rather a call to embracing historically undervalued women’s work in harsh economic times.

Motivated by a growing distrust of corporate and government institutions, progressive, educated middle class professionals, with the financial means to opt out partially or permanently from the system, are taking matters into their own hands. They’re organising “knit-ins” at the G8 summit and “yarn-bombing” Wall Street. They’re speaking out about spiralling greenhouse gas emissions, rising sea levels, radiation-contaminated crops and waterways, and the integrity of their children’s future. Concerns over food safety are inspiring backyard vegetable gardens and organic “locavore, slow food” diets. Lack of stable, meaningful careers is encouraging people to get creative with their crafting projects and start up home businesses. Distaste for advertising in schools and understaffed daycares is leading parents to home school and spend more quality time with their kids. Growing fears that we are being profitably over-medicated by the medical establishment is giving way to a more holistic approach to health; turning to natural therapies, conscious eating, bodywork and meditation.

Equipped with the knowledge that our current way of life is unsustainably reliant on cheap fuel, scarce resources, and a non-transparent production chain alienated from the fruits of our labour — people are waking up to environmental impacts, as well as human and animal rights abuses, of outsourcing their livelihoods to sweatshops, factory farms, pharmaceutical companies, and Big Oil.

The rise of neo-homesteading takes DIY homemaking to its passionate extreme, as advocates strive for complete off-the-grid energy independence. They’re unplugging their microwaves, swapping central heating for homemade sweaters, and turning to alternative currencies or bartering to decrease their reliance on monetary trappings.

According to a recent university survey involving over 2000 Australian students (“Gen Y reinvents itself as Gen S: ‘Generation Sensible’”, 2013), a high percentage of 17 to 29 year olds are in fact a generation of planners; more concerned with saving up and settling down than fitting the youthful stereotype of carefree irresponsibility. Their sentimental nostalgia for home and hearth has emerged full circle in reaction to the passion-stifling careerism of their baby-boomer parents, the artifice of online social realities like Facebook and the fragmented anomie of an overstimulated world. In the United States, where the bulk of Matchar’s research was conducted, New Domesticity seems to be uniting across all kinds of political, religious and economic divides. Conservative Mormon stay-at-home mum bloggers are sharing recipes online with liberal atheist hipster foodies while trading homeschooling tips with queer unschooling parents.

Economists began speculating about a panic in decreased retail confidence as affluent eco-conscious families began emulating the frugal, green and minimalist lifestyles of low income earners. After the 2008 recession, people witnessed their neighbors’ homes being foreclosed, friends losing their health insurance and co-workers getting laid off while hedge fund managers enjoyed billion dollar bonuses. Younger generations began questioning whether it was worth taking out a loan for college when there would be hardly any jobs left for them once they graduated. As shantytowns popped up around the country, progressives and conservatives banded together to brainstorm smarter strategies for self-sufficiency, turning to New Domesticity as a means of taking back control from a very out of control situation.

Research indicates that nearly a quarter of Australians have downshifted through voluntarily simplifying their lives; working less hours, and cutting down on consumption. One psychology study has revealed that while downshifters may earn $15,000 on average less than the conventional worker, (about $26,000 compared to $41,000), they were significantly happier than their affluent peers. It’s the case of a twentysomething uni student finding more fulfillment from spending Saturday nights blogging about her latest baking project than hitting the clubs for overpriced drinks. Or the accomplished lawyer turned stay-at-home dad who leaves his high powered corporate job to renovate an earthship, and make YouTube videos about how to grow your own vegetables.

This movement may not have taken off it weren’t for the internet and the rise of lifestyle blogging. Unlike isolated women bound by housewife syndrome in the 1950s, today’s Homemaker 2.0 is able to connect and skill-share with thousands of supportive, like-minded “craftivists” and “eco-warriors” defending the home front from corporate and government corruption. Controversially coined “the next wave of feminism,” New Domesticity recognises that working for The Man isn’t necessarily more empowering than homemaking as a vocation in the service of family, community and the planet.

Skeptics raise some interesting questions, however, about the implications of working professionals potentially opting out of the system en-masse. Does retreating to a “highly privatised and deregulated” domestic sphere do anything to help the plight of working class families, or does it simply leave them behind in their struggle for fairer working conditions, affordable day care and better quality education? It’s a complex issue to resolve, given how those most in need of liberation from the system tend to be the most financially dependent on its trappings.

Proponents of the lifestyle may still stage public campaigns in solidarity, but is it still necessary for them to “lean in” up the ranks and smash glass ceilings from within? Libertarian writer Harry Browne (Browne, n.d.) extrapolates that in every situation in which we have a dilemma, we can either choose a direct or indirect alternative. Direct alternatives require us to make an independent decision to act on a desired outcome, while potentially sacrificing collective action. Indirect alternatives seek change primarily through convincing others to agree with our objectives, while potentially overlooking individual motives and free will. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, those who believe the infamous “opt-out revolution” is sabotaging opportunities for policy reform are often reasoning in favour of indirect alternatives. Advocates of the New Domesticity meanwhile believe the change we often hope to achieve through indirect activism is ideally actualised through living in direct accordance with our values. Although the state of the world and attitudes of others are often outside our personal control, how we choose to structure our lives by “voting with our feet” is equally valid and important.

Shannon Hayes, author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture (Hayes, 2010), proposes that in order for New Domesticity to be truly revolutionary it should follow a dedicated recipe of “renounce, reclaim, and rebuild.” In the renouncing phase, individuals make a conscious long-term decision to reject mainstream consumer culture. In order to reclaim alternative values, they must learn the skills to prepare them for a more self-sufficient life, whether it’s by learning how to cook, garden, sew, or install their own solar panels. The final phase – rebuild – addresses the original question that while radical homemakers may be opting out of mainstream culture, they aren’t opting out from building new resilient communities. In order for radical homemakers to make a significant impact beyond one’s private domain they need to openly share and teach the skills they’ve learned to neighbours, friends, coworkers and fellow activists as a means of strengthening community capacity. The take-home message here is that, instead of fighting and rallying others to conform to our beliefs, we should aim to lead and inspire by example through creating a life which is meaningful, sustainable and ultimately worth emulating.

Have you voluntarily downshifted your life or found meaning outside a conventional career path? I’d love to hear your thoughts –  @stalksnu

References:

  • Harry Browne Harry (n.d.). How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World. Retrieved from ebook available through:[ http://trendsaction.com/ebook/how-i-found-freedom-in-an-unfree-world%5D.php, (p. 50).
  • Shannon Hayes (2010). Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. New York: Left to Right Press.
  • Emily Matchar (2013). Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • “Gen Y reinvents itself as Gen S: ‘Generation Sensible’” (2013). Retrieved from: [http://www.coop.com.au/media/the-coop-future-leaders-index-part2-main-news.pdf]

 

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