“Granted the hired moving professionals were very speedy, our move took even less time because we own less things,” said Kim who considers herself a minimalist with little materialistic desires.
There was a time when Kim cared deeply about things like making more money and living in a bigger house. However, her thoughts took a major turn after moving to Lyon in 2013 with her husband, who was pursuing graduate school there, and their then 8-month-old son.
In France, the two couldn’t legally work and thus had to live solely off the money from selling their house in Seoul. This meant cutting spending as much as possible — buying only what was needed, inviting guests for a home dinner instead of taking them to a fancy restaurant and so on, Kim recalled.
“Though we were short on money, I think that was when I was most satisfied with my life. There was a newfound happiness in living with less, letting go of materialistic greed and focusing on human relationships,” she said, noting that she continues to live this way even after returning to Seoul in 2015.
Kim is just one among a growing number of South Koreans embracing minimalism — living a simple lifestyle without excessive materialistic possessions. By forgoing the nonessential, minimalists believe they can focus on other values that give their lives meaning and joy.
Originating from a movement stressing simplicity and restraint in the arts and design in the 1960s, minimalism has since broadened to refer to a simple, uncluttered lifestyle in both the physical and social sense.
It’s viewed as a counterculture that defies the materialistic values of modern-day capitalism and embraces meaningful experiences over ownership of wealth and physical possessions.
Minimalism’s origins can be traced back to a new generation dissatisfied with a fast-paced society that lauds only wealth and social success and new living and consumption patterns led by demographic shifts.
“Minimalism is a form of atonement for modern consumerism and materialism,” Lee Jun-young, a Professor of Consumer and Housing Studies at Sangmyung University and an expert on Korea’s consumer trends.
“People who have spent their lives chasing after materialistic values have realized their limits. So instead, they seek to find psychological happiness in the new experiences that come with a simpler and frugal lifestyle.”
The rise of minimalism has also coincided with the emergence of the sharing economy that de-emphasizes product ownership, Lee said. Compared to the past, it’s much easier now to attain a particular experience by renting or leasing a product, instead of making a physical purchase.
“It’s like living has become ‘cloud’-ified,” Lee said, noting that a product is now viewed as something that can be accessed as needed, similar to saving files onto a virtual cloud server instead of their own computer or hard drives to be retrieved on demand.
Though minimalism is practiced by people of all ages, its traces are particularly visible among the millennials — those in their 30s and late 20s — known to prioritize experience over material goods.
A survey by global market intelligence firm Harris Poll and Eventbrite Inc. showed that 78 percent of millennials would choose to “spend money on a desirable experience” over “buying something desirable.”
In Korea, the simplistic lifestyle upheld by minimalism is also indirectly linked to macro trends including economic downturn and the rise of single-person households, Lee said.
“With limited money to spend, people want to purchase only products that maximize value. Moreover, there are many more single-person households living in small apartments with limited room,” the professor said.
“While these things are certainly linked to minimalism, the concept fundamentally counterculture that defies the materialistic teachings of capitalist society,” he added.
Today, the core elements of minimalism have been adopted by the consumer market, fueling the popularity of simple, function-focused furniture, such as those of Ikea, targeting consumers who want to buy only what’s essential for their homes.
New businesses based on the sharing economy model have grown in size and number — ranging from car sharing services to rental or subscription services for everything ranging from art pieces and toys to clothes and accessories for special occasions.
More Koreans are also embracing minimalism in not only the material, but also the psychological sense. They engage in so-called “relationship detox” which involves deleting unnecessary contacts and narrowing down friends on social media, as well as practice simple, relaxing workout routines at home.
Will minimalism trump materialism one day? Probably not. Though it is gaining more followers, minimalism still remains, and will likely continue to remain, a subculture in a world that is more capitalistic than ever before, according to Lee.
“Even so, minimalism will never lose its role as a challenger of mainstream culture and constantly evolve,” the scholar said.
By Sohn Ji-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)