It keeps coming into homes with the full backing of traditions, holidays, celebrations, rituals and even the search for happiness. Millions of marketing dollars encourage it. The economy depends on it. Kids demand it.
It fills rooms, closets, garages and storage units.
It is stuff — the possessions that increase with every birthday, holiday and retail therapy jaunt.
"We are at this unique point in western civilization," says Anthony P. Graesch, co-author of a major study on possessions in America titled "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors." "The individual household, the individual family, has never owned more stuff than they do now."
Anthony P. Graesch is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Connecticut College and is an archaeologist — so his approach to clutter is a bit more academic than that of, say, a hoarder-exploitation reality show. He says one of the main reasons people have so many possessions is because contemporary society has many traditions and rituals to collect stuff but none to get rid of it. So it just accumulates until the day when kids have to sort through their deceased parents' homes — what Graesch calls "large containers full of stuff."
"We've never been here before as humans in general," he says. "It's fascinating. It is going to have some pretty dire consequences, but there is no touchstone of tradition by which we can look back for practices. There is no model for dealing with the mess we've gotten ourselves into now. There is none of that.
"So we are left with trying to think up ways to invent new traditions."
It's beginning to look a lot like clutter
One good example of a strong tradition is gift-giving on Christmas. People expect gifts — a lot of gifts. "We measure the overall value of Christmas, the merriment, the cheer, oftentimes in terms of the quantity of presents that are actually under Christmas trees," Graesch says. "I think our children are expecting a lot more. And regardless, a lot more actually flows in, so it cultivates those expectations. Birthdays are no different."
In the past, there were some traditions, such as spring cleaning, where people would clear out and clean up. Even today, life events such as moving, marriage, going to college and leaving behind childhood encourage some assessment of possessions. But old ways are not enough, Graesch says, to deal with the degree of things people own.
One of the culprits preventing clean up is just modern life.
When parents and children do spend time together, their time is limited. Americans compensate for that limited time by buying things for each other, not working to clean it up, Graesch says. "We spend this limited amount of time together trying to recover from work and school and all the jobs that we have to do," he says.
People have a desire to clean out their garages, basements and bedrooms, he says. They intend to have garage sales or sell things online.
"People will talk about it, but in reality, it rarely happens," Graesch says. "And in middle-class families, dual income parents with children, they are working a lot and there is not a lot of time in the day for leisure as it is. ... So that when it comes time that you get a little leisure time on the weekend, finding more work by actually purging some of your possessions, I think, is just untenable for many. You would rather hang out with your kids and have fun."
And so the stuff keeps flowing into homes.
Slow the flow
One of the biggest things, in Graesch's mind, is to address the hyperconsumption in American families. "There almost has to be this intentional concerted, collaborative and coordinated effort on the part of parents to resist the temptation to buy stuff," he says. Parents can teach children to have a more sophisticated understanding of the implications of our consumer behavior.
The three steps he suggests are first to recognize the problem of having a constant inflow of things and how it affects well-being — looking at its economic, ecological and psychological costs.
The second thing is to modify consumption habits. "Make different kinds of choices," he says. "I think modifying consumption is the most challenging part of the problem."
The third step is for individual households to come up with their own traditions on how to eliminate excess possessions.
All this requires looking at possessions differently, he says. Sometimes people have difficulty getting rid of things because they concentrate on how the item still has value and could be sold. "And so it stays and waits for that Craigslist sale that never happens," he says.
People also have difficulty getting rid of things because they link their possessions to their identity or memories. "There's a sense that giving away that object is that we are giving away something of ourselves," he says.
Going through these thoughts can help shape the types of traditions that flow naturally into life — and that can have lessons attached as well.
Ten for one
One family tradition that Graesch has tried is to tie purging things to purchasing things. He has two kids, ages 5 and 3. He gives them a bag and has them round up 10 toys each to donate to a thrift store. After donating the toys, the kids can choose a "new" toy they like at the thrift store.
"This oftentimes ends up being a difficult process for them," he says. "They have to do their own calculations of value."
It also ends up being a difficult process for Graesch.
"I have attachments to their toys that I never realized that I had," he says. "So they'll throw something in their bag, and I'll have to resist the temptation to pull it back out."
A few times, he did save a toy from donation.
"So in the short term, (this tradition) ends up being a net loss of nine items," he says. "Gain one. Send nine along their way."
But it is not enough, Graesch says. "We are still accumulating."
One a day
Susan Vogt, an author and speaker in Covington, Kentucky, came up with her own tradition to reduce clutter in her life. In 2010, Vogt was looking for a way to make Lent, the period of sacrifice running up to Easter, more spiritual. "I think of Lent as a time when we enter into the journey of Jesus in a more intentional way," she says.
Her home was neat and organized, she says, "but I was very aware I had things I no longer needed."
She had things she had saved for her four grown children to maybe use for her grandchildren — such as cloth diapers, clothes and other items.
So she decided to give away at least one item per day during Lent. "I found it was habit-forming," she says. "After doing it for 40 days, my eyes were attuned to looking around me and seeing things I didn't need or didn't need as much as others needed it now."
She continued the daily practice past Easter for a year. She sold a few things, but most were given away to people in need. After a year, she stepped back a little.
Debbie Lillard, a professional organizer in the Philadelphia area and the author of "A Mom's Guide to Home Organization," takes the four seasons as good excuses for reducing clothing clutter. She says to first categorize everything, then purge, then rearrange things. "Just by categorizing, you can see how much you have," she says. "Keep the good things, donate the rest."
Lillard also says that tax season is a good time to go through files.
Another tradition she has in her family is to clean out the kitchen and pantry right before Thanksgiving. This tradition not only gets the kitchen cleaner but also makes room for ingredients for the feast to come.
Holly Wolf, who works at a bank in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, has a few simple personal traditions that balance incoming things with getting rid of things. When she buys one thing, she tosses one thing. So if one new item goes into her closet, another comes out. She also works her way through the house so that every drawer and closet is cleaned out at least once a year.
A holiday from clutter
Lillard thinks the time between Christmas and New Year's is a great time to add a family decluttering tradition. "Out with the old and in with the new," she says. "It is a perfect opportunity, with a whole year behind us, to take care of whatever mistakes we made."
But whatever traditions people attempt to implement and whenever they decide to implement them, Graesch says, it won't be easy. "It doesn't happen overnight," he says. "It takes a concentrated effort on the part of everyone in the family."