The new hedonists

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Renting over buying. Experiences over acquisitions. These trends formed a good chunk of the conversations at a scenario planning session I joined on the future of mobility last week.

These are themes I first came across in James Wallman’s ‘Stuffocation’ but they seem to have entered the general consciousness. A confluence of fashion, technology and harsh financial reality has created a generation that is more focused on what they can do that what they can buy. At least that seems to be the accepted wisdom.

Gen X?

As always it’s more complicated than that. There is no such thing as a generation, for a start. We do not grow up in discrete cohorts but rather as a continuous stream of overlapping lives. I’m notionally ‘Generation X’ but coming at the tail end of that invented cohort, I can’t say I totally identify with its supposed characteristics. I expect many early ‘millennials’ feel the same about their younger counterparts.

However, the perception of a move away from ownership and towards experience rings true. It fits with so many recognisable and measurable patterns of change.

Financial reality

Firstly, the financial. We know that it is increasingly hard to own your own home unless you are already on the property ladder. Wage stagnation, relative to rapidly-inflating property prices and tougher controls on mortgage lending, mean that fewer and fewer young people can buy. So they are obliged to rent. How long before a financial necessity becomes a cultural norm?

It’s not just houses that are increasingly rented: it’s true of many big capital assets. Cars, computers, even phones are acquired on various forms of leasing and finance.

Lower friction

Secondly, there’s technology factors. Technology lowers the friction in interactions, removing one of the drivers for ownership. If you can get a car of the right size, on demand, with none of the associated hassle of ownership, then why wouldn’t you? The only reason is status, or a hobbyist interest. I’ll address these below.

Right now, I think there’s still a good friction-based argument for ownership: it’s not quite as easy — or even as cheap, as I’ve demonstrated with my bangernomics experiments — to rely on Ubers and car sharing schemes. But the strength of that argument is diminishing all the time.

In areas other than transport, the rental vs ownership argument is long over. For the most part, it’s just not worth owning music, film, or books.

Status symbols

This leaves the personal aspects. Status. Hobbyist interests. Love of the medium — totally understandable with books or vinyl.

Status is the only one of these that might have been truly pervasive, and it’s easy to see how the markers of status shift in a digital age from the car you drive past your peers, to the pictures of your amazing holiday they see on Instagram. Experience rapidly trumps ownership in an age of digital media.

The new hedonists

There’s something rather pleasing about this. As someone of a rather utilitarian bent, I’m happy to accept pleasure as a reasonable measure of utility. Yes, there may be a narcissistic edge to some of the oversharing and staged presentations of people’s ‘perfect’ lives.

But if we’re going to be competing over anything, I’d rather it was about the fun we’re having rather than the sheer quantity of goods we’ve managed to accumulate, often at little benefit to our own well-being and at great cost to the planet.

This post forms part of my Future of Cities series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Cities page.

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Tom Cheesewright