Did They Find A Simple Life? It's Complicated

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Joseph Holland: Today (left) a suburban dad; in '91 a Harlem businessman

A decade ago, Karen Foley did what so many Americans dream about every Monday morning. She got out of the rat race. Foley quit an executive position in the apparel industry to run a food market in her St. Paul, Minn., neighborhood. Then unmarried and named Karen Glance, she was featured in a TIME cover story about how more and more Americans were embracing the simple life. People like Karen, TIME said in April 1991, were deciding that "what matters is having time for family and friends, rest and relaxation, good deeds and spirituality." Upscale is out, we said. Downscale is in. And flaunting your money is considered gauche.

Ten years and millions of SUVs, McMansions and stock options later, we decided to check in with some of the people featured in that cover story. In the '90s, we found out, living the simple life wasn't so simple after all. Once TIME's story came out, Karen was inundated with heartland grocery-store owners begging her to buy their stores. She and her soon-to-be fiance John Foley did purchase a second store and eventually expanded into the restaurant business. Today she and John have sold that business, and they run a profitable Internet company in San Francisco called Needwaitstaff.com, which helps restaurant owners find trained help. As president, Foley, 46, confesses that she is working just as hard and traveling just as much as she did in her apparel-industry days. But, she realized, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Living the simple life was never about doing less," Foley says. "It was about loving what I do and having control over it."

At the time the "Simple Life" cover appeared, few experts were predicting the economic expansion that was to follow. Unemployment was at 6.5% and rising (today it's at 4.3%), and the Dow was hovering around 3000. As Americans recovered from the excesses of the '80s, it seemed they were swearing off materialism and the stressful careers that supported it. Even mutual-fund guru Peter Lynch was downshifting. Lynch had just stepped down as manager of Fidelity's colossal Magellan Fund to spend more time with his wife and three daughters. "I adored my job," Lynch says, checking in from a vacation in the Grenadines. "But I couldn't get away from it. I was missing soccer games, piano recitals and just going to the movies with my wife." Lynch still works for Fidelity, training new analysts, and serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations, but he never goes into the office at 6 a.m. anymore and hasn't worked on a Saturday in 11 years.

Joe Holland, a Harvard Law School graduate, was pursuing his vision of the simple life in 1991 by forsaking a shot at a Wall Street firm and instead going to Harlem to operate a restaurant, travel agency and homeless shelter. Harlem enjoyed a rebound, but after taking a position as New York State housing commissioner, Holland ran into some business setbacks that caused him to default on a loan. He sold his businesses, resigned from the housing post and went to work for a Harlem-based law practice. Today Holland is being encouraged to run for Westchester, N.Y., county executive. He has married, moved to suburban Yonkers and had three kids. "You don't quite know where you're going to end up when you make a decision against your economic self-interest," Holland says. "But for me, it was the best decision."

Getting back to basics may have got harder in the past decade, says a sociologist we interviewed in 1991. "There's still an emotional wish for this simplicity," says Robert Bellah, professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. "But globalization and computerization seem to make it ever more difficult to achieve." Nevertheless, Bellah believes, with the economy in a downturn, we may be in for another cycle of living simply. And, he says, "it might be good for us."