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Minimalism to Millennials: A History

Modern minimalism has transformed from an art and design movement to a lifestyle popular with today's millennials. How has minimalism changed as the world modernized? What does this mean for our future?

Arsh Shah
Arsh Shah
5 min read
Minimalism to Millennials: A History
Simplicity is an acquired taste.

The Origins (1915-2007)

Modern minimalism (outside of Stoic culture) originated as an art movement in 1915, with Kazimir Malevich's Black Square (seen below). Simple art pieces inspired lasting changes in architecture, clothing, and design from the 1950s onwards. The concept even translated to decluttering during the Great Depression in 1929 and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 (as a last-ditch effort to rid ourselves of non-essentials). Outside of economic necessity, sleek and functional product design arose by blending minimalism with technology as seen in work by Dieter Rams, Frank Stella and Steve Jobs, to name a few.

Black Square, Kasmir Malevich (1915). Source: Tate Modern, UK.
Minimalism in Architectural Design.
Apple's iPhone.

New-Age Minimalism (2007-Today)

In the 2000s, the movement was transformed once again for the rest of us. There are many new-age minimalists around the world. They preach intentional living, conscious consumerism, and downsizing their possessions to just the essentials, much like their older counterparts. Today's entrepreneurs and innovators have an extreme notion of what minimalism is:

A pre-Apple Steve Jobs sitting in his living room.

In many ways, this is accurate, with hardcore believers turning their lives upside down. According to thought leaders like The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, of Netflix's Minimalism and Less is Now) and Fumio Sasaki (an extreme minimalist from Japan), there are a few simple premises:

  1. Remove items (sell or donate) from your life that don't serve a purpose anymore, regardless of how much you paid for them. As Marie Kondo says: 'Say thank you and let it go.' There are no limits to what you can downsize, anything goes. (check out Colin Wright, he only lives out of a few suitcases).

    Reality check: We're actually attached to the memory of a sentimental item, not the item itself - take a picture of it with your phone and let it go.

  2. Buy only when necessary, and buy once. Don't waste your money on multiples of the same thing. Buy a high-quality, repairable good (it doesn't have to be expensive), and take good care of it. Then, challenge yourself to go on a "no-buy" streak: lock all your credit cards and only buy essentials.

    Have you ever packed too much for a vacation, and didn't end up wearing everything you packed? We still buy things we don't need, and fall victim to consumer marketing that's programmed to trick us into buying more frequently. Social media is a big proponent of this.

  3. Slow down. Our work takes up so much time each day. We stress out over deadlines and projects. These forces often fracture our relationships, leaving us to crumble under the pressure.

    The solution? Take a deep breath, exercise or meditate. Matt D'Avella (from the video above) found that establishing a daily habit of doing something small for yourself each day (making a cup of coffee, meditating, or writing).

Now, I'll answer a few questions that most people have:

A Skeptic's Q&A:

Q: Is the new-age minimalism movement tied to socioeconomic status? People in third-world or developing countries, and those below the poverty line have lived simply as long as they can remember.

Arsh: If we're being honest, a lot of the writing in new-age minimalism space is now targeted at the middle or upper class. I would agree that a simple lifestyle is the starting point for a lot of us (as referenced in periods of economic necessity, see above). New-age minimalists advocate for frugal living, only buying what they need. If we don't, and proceed to overspend (the consumerism trap), this is what happens:

Higher salary? Let's reward ourselves with a purchase! -> Married? Buy more furniture! -> Kids? They want more things. -> Move to a bigger house to fit it all.

You end up with a house full and drawers full of things you never use, in a house you probably can't afford, with rooms you use only when guests come over for dinner (do you really need a dining room?).

Q: I love my book collection/music collection/etc - do I have to donate it to become a minimalist?

Arsh: Not at all. Minimalism isn't about counting how many items you own (some people do that, and you can - I don't think it's effective). If you love your books, keep them! No need to throw them all away. Just be intentional. Here's a simple question:

Can I live without this for 30 days? 1 month? 6 months?

Try it. Box up the item - out of sight and mind. Challenge yourself to see how long you can last. Set a deadline, and if it passes, let the item go. You'll be surprised at the results.

Closing Thoughts

Minimalist architecture and clean design have stood the test of time, and technology has advanced (the smartphone, anyone?), pulling us toward a future fueled by innovation. Emerging technologies also follow minimalism: from the Walkman to the iPod to smart speakers and virtual reality, we've seen a profound shift in the human experience. Will we need our smartphones in the next twenty years?

Followers of new-age minimalism often speak of countless benefits in their new lifestyles. A life more focused on experiences than possessions, full of meaning and purpose instead of mindless consumption and consumerism (and keep in mind, consumption is also defined by what we read, watch, say and hear). Other benefits include better time management, relationships and stronger financial literacy.

All in all, minimalism has transformed from a way of thinking and designing to a way of life in the modern age. The millennial generation has redefined minimalism today and retained the values which were so attractive to designers, architects and artists in the early 20th century. I'm excited to see minimalism transform once again in the coming decades, and I hope you are too.