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«Gabriella V. Smith and David J. Ekerdt, University of Kansas We adapt a metaphor from life course studies to designate the whole of one’s possessions, ...»

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Confronting the Material Convoy in Later Life*

Gabriella V. Smith and David J. Ekerdt, University of Kansas

We adapt a metaphor from life course studies to designate the whole of one’s

possessions, across time, as a convoy of material support. This dynamic collection of

things supports daily life and the self, but it can also present difficulty in later life. To

alleviate the purported burdens of the material convoy, a discourse has arisen that urges

elders and their family members to reduce the volume of possessions. An analysis of 11 such possession management texts shows authors addressing two distinct audiences about elders’ need to downsize: family members and elders themselves. Authors who speak to family members do so with an urgent, unsentimental tone that echoes mainstream clutter-control advice about disorderly, overfull households. In texts for elders, the standard critique about consumption and unruly lives is gentler, more sensitive to the meaning of things, and underplays the emotions of divestment. There is stress on the responsibility to spare the next generation and control one’s legacy. These latter texts seem to respect that downsizing in later life symbolizes a narrowing of the life world.

People come to possess things by various means such as finding, buying, creating, or receiving them as gifts. Once held, things can reside with the acquirer anywhere from momentarily to indefinitely. Those that stay become possessions and require the ‘‘labor’’ of possession (Ekerdt 2009) that involves both the physical and spatial disposition of the item, and perhaps, some measure of living-with or living-into that makes the thing over as ‘‘mine’’ (Kleine and Baker 2004). Labor on behalf of one’s things and their environs occurs not only for prized possessions but also for those that are merely tolerated or even resented.

A regard for the ‘‘lives’’ of things is well established in consumption studies (Appadurai 1986). As they reside with their acquirers, single items could be described, in the language of life course studies (Elder, Johnson, and Crosnoe 2004), as having careers, trajectories, durations, transitions, entries, and exits. This implies that the collection, as a whole, will have a dynamic composition over time. To enunciate this idea, we adapt a metaphor from life course studies to designate the body of one’s possessions, at any one time and as borne through time, as a convoy of material support. Kahn and Antonucci (1980) originally applied the convoy metaphor to describe a structure of social support, a dynamic personal network of family and acquaintances within Sociological Inquiry, Vol. 81, No. 3, August 2011, 377–391 Ó 2011 Alpha Kappa Delta DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2011.00378.x 378 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT which support is given and received. Analogous to these authors’ notion of a social convoy, the material convoy of possessions has members of more and less importance, a composition at once stable and changeable, convoy constituents that also populate the convoys of others, and predictable age-linked changes (e.g., expansion in early adulthood). The individual literally bears a material convoy from cradle to grave and from place to place. And, like Kahn and Antonucci’s social convoy, people also have affective and affirmative transactions with their things, if only imaginatively.

Social networks and material convoys share one other feature: the person at their center may regard the constituents with ambivalence (Fingerman and Hay 2004). The stock and store of one’s belongings can be a resource, achievement, delight, and comfort, but they may also by turn be a burden.

This last circumstance is the premise for advice about possession reduction.

At any stage of life, the convoy gains and retains items because they support daily life as well as the ongoing project of the self (Belk 1988). The convoy loses items under three circumstances: because things become functionally unavailable; because there is some failure in their capacity for social mediation—they no longer represent one’s interests or identity; or because bodily or life course change overthrows the need of certain goods and furnishings or perhaps the desire to maintain them (Ekerdt 2009; Lastovicka and Fernandez 2005; Roster 2001). In later life, however, there are three additional dimensions attending the material convoy. First, the convoy constituents are likely to have longer durations than in earlier adulthood. Things have stuck and accumulated the perdurance of some items making them biographical and, for that reason, more meaningful. Second, the manageability and future disposition of the convoy come into question with advancing age, especially as time horizons shrink and the risk of vulnerability rises (Carstensen 2006). Third and following from this, family members have an increasing stake in the safety and security of older relatives, and this extends to elders’ property and living arrangements (Ekerdt and Sergeant 2006).

For these reasons, older adults’ ability to maintain and manage the material convoy may become a matter of concern. The accumulation of belongings, each acquired or kept for some reason, is recast as a problematic batch of ‘‘stuff,’’ wherein the subjectivities of things are eclipsed by their sheer materiality. The material convoy becomes a potential drag on well-being. Our research examines a genre of advice literature on possession reduction that has arisen to address the purportedly overfull material convoys of later life. This literature’s age-specific advice is an accentuated variation on a more general message to consumers of all ages (and a staple of popular media) that they should feel an imperative to downsize and declutter their households. To be fair, we note that the advice literature advocating possession reduction in later


life coexists with a larger genre of pro-consumerist messages for the ‘‘mature market’’ (Gilleard and Higgs 2005; Katz 2005). Such lifestyle manuals and magazines promote products and experiences that risk an enlargement of the material convoy, even as the sources for this article counsel the opposite.

Self-Help Discourse and Advice About Possessions Elder-oriented advice about possessions is nested within the general body of advice on possession reduction, itself nested in the self-help discourse of contemporary life. Here, we focus on written sources of advice literature, but self-help advice to the public about health, appearance, households, work, and relationships flows from every kind of media. Self-help manuals reflect and reinforce our broader cultural anxieties and do so with remarkably consistent messages (McGee 2005; Gauntlett 2008).

A pair of common themes emerges within this self-help framework. First, advice literature requires that there be problems. A strong matrix of difficulties and troubles must undergird the work in order for it to be of value to consumers. Often these are problems born out of societal realities, but presented to

the reader as ‘‘individually generated and solvable’’ obstacles (Simonds 1992:

133). Authors may expound on social factors, such as the enormous influence of consumer culture, but they always return the problem to the individual plane. Second, advice literature impels readers to personal self-mastery (McGee 2005) in keeping with American ideals of individualism and personal responsibility. The literature enjoins readers to seek self-fulfillment, to live life to the fullest, and find their authentic self and lifestyle through this self-control (Hazleden 2003; McGee 2005).

The general literature on possession reduction partakes of these motifs—individual problems and self-mastery—to lay out why and how one should discipline the household’s material convoy. In popular works, such as It’s All Too Much! An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff (Walsh 2007) and Living with Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life (Tabb 2006), the generic moral imperative of personal mastery extends to mastery of personal possessions and space (see also Culbertson and Decker 2005; Ward 2007). The core problem complex is this: overactive consumption clutters the household and diminishes the quality of life. The individual symptoms of this cultural pathology are homes inundated with ‘‘stuff.’’ Authors urge readers to limit their purchasing, purge their belongings, and restrain the sheer volume of possessions. Overconsumption is fashioned as both a symptom and a cause of the need for personal discipline and attention to the self.

In their survey of decluttering texts in the U.K., Cwerner and Metcalfe (2003) distill the message as one ‘‘primarily concerned with the relationship between personal therapy and spatial organization: if people can clear their homes of 380 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT the detritus and junk that continually invade them, then they will be happier and healthier’’ (p. 232). The underlying ontology of this clutter problem is that we are what we own, and if our belongings are a mess, then, by extension, so are we.

Our examination of the elder-oriented subgenre reveals some continuity with the general clutter-management literature (especially as regard to tips and practical advice) but also highlights the special or accentuated circumstances of the material convoy in later life. The critique of consumption, as will be shown, differs noticeably when it problematizes elders’ ‘‘stuff’’ to their family members versus problematizing the possessions to elders themselves.

Methods To generate items for analysis, previous studies of advice literature have relied heavily on aggregates of best sellers such as the New York Times and independent best-seller lists (Hazleden 2003; Simonds 1992; Zimmerman, Holm, and Haddock 2001) and The Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature (Coleman, Ganong, and Gingrich 1985). To conduct a close reading of the most popular relevant material within a very small (but growing) category of books, Amazon.com was used to gather texts within the elder subgenre of clutter-management literature. Amazon.com is the most popular online source of information on books; it is a primary resource for those seeking books on any subject (Kauffman and Lee 2004) including ‘‘self-help’’ among its thirtyve established book categories. The search terms ‘‘elder,’’ ‘‘senior,’’ ‘‘age,’’ and ‘‘parents’’ were used in conjunction with ‘‘clutter,’’ ‘‘declutter,’’ ‘‘organize,’’ ‘‘downsize,’’ ‘‘simplify,’’ and ‘‘junk.’’ Through the various iterations of search terms, a list of decluttering literature aimed at elders took shape. Amazon.com’s automatic recommendations for related literature were explored until all paths for references were exhausted and no new recommendations surfaced. To ensure that our sample of the subgenre was sufficiently broad, any titles mentioned within our sample books were examined to see whether they met our criteria of dealing with the issue of dispossession in later life. A total of 11 works were analyzed; a list of these works is shown in Table 1. In these sources, such terms as ‘‘elder’’ and ‘‘senior’’ are not precisely defined, but they can be understood, based on the authors’ anecdotes, to indicate persons in their sixties, seventies, and beyond. This conventional meaning is also our meaning here.

The goal of the analysis was to learn how authors adapt the general critique of overfull households—that clutter requires mastery of materials and the self—to the situation of later life when possessions have endured longer, when the future grows less certain, and when family members take an increased stake in the safety and security of elders. The approachable, mainCONFRONTING THE MATERIAL CONVOY IN LATER LIFE 381

Table 1 Possession Management Manuals for Households in Later Life

Guides Addressed to Families Vicki Dellaquila: Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Seniors Downsize, Organize, and Move (Mountain Publishing, 2007).

Julie Hall: The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff (Thomas Nelson, 2008) Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand: Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2004) Sarah C. Morse and Donna Quinn Robbins: Moving Mom and Dad: Why, Where, How and When to Help Your Parents Relocate (Lanier Publishing, 1998) Barbara Z. Perman and Jim Ballard: No Ordinary Move: Relocating Your Aging Parents (Author House, 2007) Lucy F. Wold and Ann E. Anderson: Family Realities: Closing the Family Home, Dividing Family Possessions, Putting Affairs in Order (Harmony House Press, 1998) Guides Addressed to Elders Wilma Willis Gore: Just Pencil Me In: A Guide to Moving and Settling in After 60 (Quill Driver Books, 2002) Barbara H Morris: Moving for Seniors: A Step-by-Step Workbook (Self published, 1998) Bruce Nemovitz: Moving in the Right Direction: The Senior’s Guide to Moving and Downsizing (Book Publishers Network, 2007) Marlene Stum: Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate? Workbook: A Guide to Passing on Personal Possessions (University of Minnesota Extension Services, 1999) Ciji Ware: Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifying Your Surroundings While Keeping what Matters Most (Springboard Press, 2007) stream character of these books belies the fact that complex, overlapping ideologies of consumption, aging, and self-help exist within them (Saukko 2003). To achieve our analytic goals, we conducted a ‘‘directed’’ content analysis (Hsieh and Shannon 2005). This type of qualitative content analysis builds upon previously established categories and applies them in a new context or uses them to expand a conceptual framework. In this case, our analysis built upon categories utilized in the examinations of self-help literature 382 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT (Hazleden 2003; Hochschild 1994) and inquiries into de-cluttering texts and media (Cwerner and Metcalfe 2003).

Findings One can assume that readers approach these 11 texts having already perceived some need to control the material convoy, perhaps owing to failing health, a household reduced by widowhood or under the exigency of a residential move (Ekerdt et al. 2004). There is also a cultural habit of reducing material possessions and making special dispositions ahead of impending death (Stevenson and Kates 1999; Unruh 1983). In the texts examined here, the authors’ main task is to reinforce these inclinations and suggest how the work might get done.

Authorial Expertise: The ‘‘How’’ and the ‘‘Hire’’ Authors of advice literature need to establish authority through claims of expertise (Hochschild 1994; McGee 2005; Simonds 1992; Zimmerman et al.

2001). The late-life possession management genre requires a dual assertion.

The authors must claim special skills in organization and managing personal possessions, and they must speak knowingly about the challenges specific to older adults. Ability to organize closets only takes one so far in claims to legitimacy, but organizing the sheer volume of possessions amassed at the later stages of the material convoy, along with sensitivity to health factors, emotional attachment to items, and family politics, requires additional affirmations of expertise.

Consistent with Hochschild’s (1994) analysis of the self-help genre, the authors surveyed offer stories of personal experiences to cement their legitimate command of the topic, highlight credentials, and cultivate a relationship with the reader. The authors specifically identify how excess possessions created difficulty in their own lives, telling tales of overstuffed storage facilities, empty nests where children’s still-full rooms could not be reclaimed as hobby spaces and offices, and aging parents who could not move to more suitable housing because they would not part with a single cake pan or back issue of National Geographic magazine. For example, the authors of Just Pencil Me In and Rightsizing Your Life draw on their own numerous moving and downsizing experiences. The authors of Moving Mom and Dad, Moving On, Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash, No Ordinary Move, Family Realities, Moving for Seniors, Moving in the Right Direction, and The Boomer Burden all base their expertise on having helped seniors deal with their unwieldy possessions, through training, business, or personal experiences.

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