The End of Ownership
After defining ourselves for generations by our possessions—cars, houses, books, music—a dramatic cultural shift is under way. In the wake of a collapsed economy and a warming planet, what matters to a growing number of Americans is not so much ownership as access. And that has made Boston ground zero for a powerful new force in modern life: The sharing economy.
The “lovely, light-filled room” leaped out at me from its online listing. Located in a historical adobe just outside the Plaza, in Santa Fe, the room was airy and bright, with a bed topped with a cozy blue-and-white quilt and a pair of burnt-orange pillows. A mint-green bookshelf lined with popular novels stood not far from a small nook containing an antique couch, on which I immediately imagined myself curling up into a ball and reading. Clicking around, I saw photos of other parts of the house: a private bathroom; a small outdoor courtyard with flowering trees in full bloom; and a kitchen with multicolored Le Creuset pots and pans hanging on the walls. Katy, the woman who had posted the listing, looked kind. She had bright blue eyes and bangs that peeked out from under a knit hat. And, perhaps most important, she had a five-star rating. I could sleep there, I thought. So I booked.
How did I end up renting Katy’s spare bedroom? I’d been invited to a wedding in Santa Fe, but the hotel where the guests were staying was expensive, and my budget was tight. So I decided to try out Airbnb, a website that allows you to rent rooms in private homes for less than what hotels and B & Bs charge. I logged on using my Facebook profile and was pleasantly surprised to find that friends of mine had already created accounts on the site. As I clicked through the listings, I was impressed by the photography, which looked like it could have been cribbed from the pages of Dwell. The booking engine was simple, and soon I was corresponding directly with Katy, who turned out to be friendly and welcoming. Later, as my husband and I were driving to her house, I texted her to say we were close by. “Go on in,” she wrote back. “The door’s unlocked.”
For the next few days, we came and went as we pleased. Katy left us organic eggs and Greek yogurt for breakfast. She offered suggestions about restaurants in town, and sites to visit in the area. Everything, in short, was just as lovely as advertised—and the whole experience got me thinking. We weren’t just sleeping and vacationing at Katy’s house. We were also taking part in a profound cultural shift in the way that a growing number of Americans are choosing to live their lives.
A startling number of young people, it turns out, have begun to question one of the central tenets of American culture: ownership. It’s a change that has arrived thanks to a confluence of developments. Times are tough. For the first time, a rising generation of Americans are genuinely concerned that their standard of living will be worse than it was for the generation that came before them. Simultaneously, rapidly evolving technologies are enabling a new kind of connectedness and sharing, just as more of us than ever before are moving to urban areas. And more and more of us are at last awakening to the terrifying idea that our quintessentially American drive to own and consume more is bringing about dramatically harmful climate change. As a result, many of us are starting to rethink what it means to own something. In turn, that’s giving rise to a new social and commercial landscape in this country, and even a new way of life. What we’re witnessing, in short, is the emergence of the sharing economy.
The principle of ownership is fundamental in this country—possession, after all, is nine-tenths of the law. It was more than a century ago that conspicuous consumption began to emerge as an animating component in American life, and by the time the 1950s rolled around and families started moving to the suburbs en masse, the accumulation of possessions (new appliances, bigger cars, fancier houses) had become our default way of signifying success. “Each home was to be its own fiefdom,” Douglas Rushkoff writes in Life, Inc. (2011), describing the shift. “Self-sufficiency was part of the myth of the self-made man in his private estate, so community property, carpools, or sharing of almost any kind became anathema to the suburban aesthetic.”
Corporate America saw opportunity in the rise of conspicuous consumption, of course. After developing a marketing technique called “perceived obsolescence,” businesses began rolling out new versions of products that were somehow always better, faster, and smarter than the ones that had come before. The psychological effects were powerful, and they’re still with us today—as anybody who has seen, or stood in, the lines outside of an Apple store before the release of a new iPhone can attest.
As Americans worked ever harder to own more, anything associated with common use and collective ownership came to be seen as undesirable and off-putting. Even in the late 1990s, when Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar, did surveys on the streets of Boston in the run-up to the company’s launch, respondents were recoiling at the mention of sharing. “I needed to distance us from that as a concept,” she told me recently. “Imagine if hotels were called bed-sharing.”
These days, though, growing numbers of Americans are coming around to the idea of sharing more and owning less. The 100 Thing Challenge, a movement created by simple living advocate Dave Bruno, encourages people to whittle down their possessions to only 100 items. (In April, he launched the Reduce Month campaign, prodding people to get rid of one item a day for a month or longer.) Housing in some high-profile instances—like the “micro apartments” proposed for Boston’s Innovation District—is being reconfigured to accommodate smaller living spaces and fewer objects. Graham Hill, the Internet entrepreneur and poster boy for the minimalist-living movement, recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times about the spartan life he leads in his 420-square-foot apartment, where he owns six shirts, 10 bowls, and a collapsible table and bed. For weeks the piece occupied a place on the Times’ most-emailed list.
New research is demonstrating the extent of this change in attitudes. A study released this February by the Pew Research Center found that the “financial mileposts” that have tended to define adulthood for generations—buying a car or a home—have seen a dramatic shift in the wake of the recession. As of 2007, two-fifths of Americans under the age of 35 owned their homes or apartments, but that number had dropped to one-third by 2011. Today, only 66 percent of people age 25 and under own cars, a 7-percentage-point drop since 2007. In 2001, 50 percent of young adults under the age of 35 carried credit card debt, whereas only 39 percent of that same age group did in 2010.
Some of this, of course, is a result of the economic downturn. But that’s not the whole story. There’s been a shift in mindset as well. The rise of social media has helped change the perceived cultural value of sharing. “Facebook rebranded it,” Chase says, noting the power of the company’s “Share this” button. And according to Henry Mason, the global head of research at the consumer-tracking network Trendwatching.com, young people are increasingly forgoing the “hassles of ownership.” What they care most about these days, it seems, is not ownership but access.