The Hoarding of Generations

Chase Raz

Chase Raz

The Hoarding of Generations

I have been Swedish Death Cleaning for years, and I still consider myself to have an average amount of stuff.  Well, I still have more belongings than most because I tend to squirrel away items for household chores and personal hobbies. All of that stashing away of goods adds up to a lot of stuff laying around.  

Empty Spaces 

The drive to “Death Clean” while having no intent on dying anytime soon came from an interest in minimalism and its ability to influence the mind.  Whereas nature can calm and even heal, the straight lines and unnatural landscapes of humanity can improve thought, mood, capability, and even impact affluence.  Admittedly, clean human design is more a result of wealth than an outcome of it, but the street does run in both directions, albeit with a disparate number of lanes in each direction. 

Only recently have I cleared enough possessions to create empty space.  Having open space in dresser drawers, closets, and the like is a new experience.  The feeling was sublime, but spoiled by my first follow-up thought, “Now I’ll have a place to put new stuff!” 

That is not to say it was easy. I struggled to significantly pare down my library of books.  As an information enthusiast the struggle was not foreign to me, but rather exasperating due to frequency of recurrence.  I tried everything to stay focused and committed to paring down my library, taking frequent mental breaks to recharge. That's when I realized I was lying to myself.  This was not about protecting information or even sentimentality towards my books. It was a hoarding instinct to address the fear, “What if I never come across this information again?” 

Our Grandparents were Depression Kids 

Everyone does this to some degree and with something or another. For me it's books and small mementos. For some, the excess collection of stuff may manifest in collection vast quantities of franchise memorabilia (like action figures, prop replicas, etc.), for others, a drive towards having excessive possessions manifests as an excessively decorated house full of country comforts.   

We all exhibit hoarding behaviors, even if we are not actual hoarders. But why? 

I remember my grandmother and her depression-era peers. Whatever item was needed at any moment, they seemed to have… and often a spare.  Extra foil in the cupboard, extra tape in the desk, and a pantry (cleanly) stocked of dry goods and non-perishable items. Let us not forget the one easily found peppermint, butterscotch, or cinnamon hard candy found—upon demand—in a purse or pocket.   The generations that lived through the Great Depression of the 20th century preached and practiced the importance of being prepared, self-sufficient, and intolerant of waste.  

In a changing world that saw ever-increasing abundance, they accumulated things and we—their children and grandchildren—clung readily to their gospel of materialism.  Sure, we lost most of our self-sufficiency. The logistics of abundance required such a sacrifice. We subsequent generations compensated with even more preparation and storage.  

What the Great Depression generations viewed as being extremely well prepared with a fully stock home, we viewed as a normal healthy environment. We became convinced that houses would always get bigger, and we’d always need more stuff to fill those larger houses. Modernity would demand it! We viewed their abundance as our baseline. 

We Instinctively Push Towards Hoarding 

Current generations look back and wonder how they, the Great Depression generations, got by with so little.  Even in our modern electronic world with promises of digitizing the analog into a microscopic ether, the shift to less physical stuff seems to be curtailed.  We became accustomed to having more. More vinyl records, VHS cassettes, game cartridges, and CDs.  More clothes, and more closet space to hold them. More food in our larger pantries leading to more spacious cars for ourselves that now require more space due to more stored calories. We achieved more in every way imaginable, for good and bad, by standing on their shoulders. 

It is ironic that in the past a household could contain one dinner plate and two pairs of pants for each person. Now, because we need more of these and other goods, our quality of life suffers. We often have multiple collections of place settings and dishware, yet we often do not wash our dishes every day, leading to a full, dirty, and smelly sink. Yet we’ve accumulated more clothing, like jeans, and insist that everything is washed after each wear, with or without considering necessity. Therefore, our laundry baskets overflow and press our schedule despite the century-old conveniences of the electric washer and dryer. 

We got more simply for the sake of more. We listened to their warnings of preparedness, but in our short-sightedness, we compared our own quantity of possessions to what they had at their peak.  We looked at the plenty that resulted in a social and technological recovery from two world wars and a depression sandwiched directly in-between.  

Hoarding Has Been Normalized 

In addition to my library, I also purged and organized my personal hygiene possessions in my bathroom.  Get this: I owned almost 20 bars of soap, completely unused and unopened.  Some of the soap has been stored for 15 years, while some is less than a year old. A valid question would be why I added more to the collection without using or freeing myself of the existing collection. 

And this problem repeats itself in every aspect of private property: my pantry is an unorganized mess with out-of-date goods mixed with new fresh goods; my toolbox is blocked by storage totes filled with tools that simply need to be returned to the toolbox they’re blocking; my computer is an over-spec'd beast that’s too complex to maintain easily and reduces my return on investment. Did I mention I recently got a shed and it is quite literally filled with nothing but items that are intended for disposal? 

You can still look around in 2024 and see ample examples of hoarding from the COVID pandemic era in 2020. Maybe you have an irrational quantity of paper plates in the pantry, or your friend has a long-empty fishtank collecting dust in the garage… just in case. 

Hoarding has been normalized, and not just because of the hoarding craze fueled by political instability, global pandemics, and supply shortages of the 2020s. This problem reaches back all the way to the 1950s in a post-WWII world of plenty.

How to Address the Problem 

I will not leave you with mere awareness of this problem.  Instead, I will part with this bit of information: knowing your actual use of an item is the key to determining what you need (and how much) and what you do not need.  Find the items that are causing clutter, out of place, or present in too high a quantity, and then determine how much of that thing you need or want. 

While counting both the nearly 20 bars of soap addressed earlier and the almost equal amount of liquid soap bottles I have not yet mentioned, I quickly calculated that I would not need to buy any new soap for three-to-five years, give or take. This tells me I can either make space available to have that much on hand, or that I will have to pare down the quantity of this possession. As someone who obviously likes buying new soaps, I pared them down to a supply of less than one year. 

But wait! What if there were a need to stockpile years' worth of soap, or emergency rations, or clothes, or any other possession?  Sadly, if I need that much soap, chances are something is majorly wrong with the world, and we are screwed.  And the practicality of storing that much of everything to prevent a “we’re screwed” scenario is unlikely, despite some hoarders and doomsday preppers trying their best.   

It is not that we should eschew preparing. Afterall, someone must think about the worst-case scenarios and plan accordingly, but that’s not me with soap, or you with 200 collectible stuffed animals, or our mutual neighbor with eight different coolers in his garage. 

If you are worried about nuclear fallout, build a bunker and stock it with a decade or two of food.  That is fine, and let me be unavoidably blunt here, most of us would die in the event of nuclear war, maybe even the bunker owners caught unaware.  But do not fill all your kitchen cabinets with years' worth of MREs or stash ugly boxes of survivalist gear throughout your home. That is just as unsightly and concerning as the behavior of actual hoarders.  Be reasonable, think of your needs and wants, and do not deceive yourself. Keeping 16 boxes of shop towels handy is not going to save your home in a flood, and saving every trinket ever given to you does not show how much you care. 

Time to Act 

I hope this post has freed you to let things go and keep only what brings maximum utility, value, and happiness. Donate old books and clothes, scan your documents into the cloud, empty the stored boxes of junk from your attic, and be mindful of your needs. Oh, and let me know if you have any good soap recommendations. I am partial to peppermint.