The Art of Owning Nothing
During my freshman year in college, I vividly remember one orientation session where we were told how to share bathrooms and common space in our dorm, and one classmate – a radical white dude with dreadlocks whose scent of choice was eau de Cannabis – stood up and announced, “Property is theft, man!” with a nice fist pump. I thought he was hilarious, but something in me said, “He is the beginning of something to come…”
We have all heard the adage that so-called Millennials prize experience over possessions, but I think we can look behind and underneath this tendency to see what’s there…
On a personal level, I’ve always understood this value system. I haven’t owned a vehicle in years and have never had much interest in a mortgage or any of the trappings of 20th century success. My friends used to tease or even pressure me about this (“Why aren’t you taking up roots and buying a house?” “Isn’t it time you settled down?” and so on. Yawn.) I always preferred spending my hard-earned money on travelling to unconventional places, going out to eat at restaurants run by interesting chefs, consuming culture and media rather than accumulating endless gadgets, etc.
Nowadays people say things like, “You were a forerunner of Millennials!” Which is genuinely amusing.
But joking aside, this tendency to privilege experience over possession has deeper roots, and I have a few hypotheses.
The daycare generation = the sharing generation
Many sociologists have noted that Gen Y and Z are the most socially horizontal generations in history. This is a direct consequence of the environments in which they were raised, such as daycare centers, pre-kindergarten, and other systems where from an early age, separation from parents and engagement with peer groups began quite early. As well, long before, many nuclear families were separated from extended family and inter-generational settings due to economic and labour market forces. The advent of smart phones and social media then accelerated this tendency into a whole new stratosphere.
In these very horizontal peer-based environments, peer interaction and approval, along with the value of sharing amongst peers, were enforced and reinforced.
Proof of the concept of sharing
Sharing is not just an ideal, but it has now become a proven and commonly practiced thing, in numerous forms – from car sharing and time sharing to sharing work space and apartment sharing and even job responsibilities that used to be carried by one full time person. We now have definite proof that sharing works and benefits all parties involved, with fewer resources wasted. And we’ve experienced that it’s simply a lot more fun.
Net takeaway: When we know sharing works, why would I need to personally own things?
The world on a precipice
Few generations since the bomb shelter period of the 50s were raised with so much messaging and pop culture narrative about impending apocalypse. From ecological disaster and nuclear threat from rogue nations and terrorist threats, to news reports about the risk of asteroids hitting the earth (not just from sci fi films but from a few serious astrophysicists), the minds of young people have been fed with thoughts of impending doom. Is it any wonder that new values such as “you only live once” start to emerge from this?
In the absence of a reliable future to which you leave ‘legacy’, then present-tense experience becomes privileged.
These forces of change are only building, and companies would be wise to get ahead of it. The owning of possessions will continue to take place, no doubt, but it will be a means to a larger end, and no longer an end unto itself. Property isn’t theft, but it’s really becoming irrelevant.