When Access Trumps Ownership

For previous generations, ownership conveyed social significance. Owning a car was a rite of passage to adulthood. Owning a house, officially supported by the federal government, marked the hallmark of family commitment and social stability. Consumer society was spurred on by the accumulation of more and more posessions.

But it turns out that these things just aren’t as important to millennials. For my generation, ownership isn’t a goal in and of itself. It can be useful, but it’s not necessary. Instead it’s about the experience these goods provide rather than the status of owning them. Think of the success of Netflix, Zipcar and Spotify.

“Ownership is important but it’s more about access, because there’s not a big difference,” said Mashable entertainment and technology writer Christina Warren at a recent presentation and panel discussion at Burson-Marsteller’s offices New York. “You might aspire to live in a nice place, but it doesn’t matter if it’s rented or it’s owned.”

There’s a tradeoff. Showing off your DVD collection was a badge of honor of sorts, but is it worth the hassle (and space) when Netflix lets you watch what you want, when you want? As Ford’s global trends and futuring expert Sheryl Connelly stressed, one very important shift in values from pervious generations that millennials demonstrate is the desire for access over ownership. Unlike boomers’ “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality of wanting to buy and own things like cars and houses to exercise and display their wealth, millennials, who have not grown up in a time of economic prosperity, don’t aspire to necessarily own their own cars or homes. Instead, in our times of economic uncertainty and soaring unemployment rates, millenials are content without ownership.

Services that give people access to the goods and information they want without the financial and physical burden of actual ownership have been able to succeed in the awls. For example, Bag Borrow or Steal lets you rent designer handbags; GameStop lets you trade in old games for new ones; Spotify gives you access to more music than you could listen to in your lifetime — but you never actually own these things, and that’s just fine with millennials.

Maybe millennials will grow out of this and look to the stability ownership provides as they get older. But it could be they’ll reimagine consumerism in a more responsible and sustainable way than their parents.

 

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