During the greed-is-good era of American history known as the 1980s, flamboyant businessman and head cheerleader of unfettered capitalism Malcolm Forbes supposedly declared, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Whether or not this precept of consumerism-run-amok rightly can be attributed to Forbes may still be subject to debate, but a generation later, the sentiment behind the quote seems to be ringing false these days, especially among Millennials.
Perhaps more than any other generation, Millennials are redefining what ownership culture means to them, and keeping up with the Joneses (or the Forbeses, for that matter) has much less to do with a lifelong pursuit of accumulating material goods and more to do with the collection of meaningful experiences and shareable ideas over frivolous consumables. That’s not to say that Millennials aren’t buying: With an estimated $200 billion in annual spending power and a projected $10 trillion in spending power over their lifetimes, Generation Y is flexing its financial muscle—but in unexpected ways.
There are a number of distinct variables that have contributed to the cultural shift among Millennials that has led them away from consumerism for consumerism’s sake toward a new ownership model that is decidedly more virtual and oftentimes more transient. Having grown up during years of global economic turmoil and high unemployment rates coupled with delayed marriage and later-in-life parenthood mean that many members of Generation Y carry the burden of relatively fewer long-term career prospects (compared to those in previous generations), while still enjoying the benefits of relatively less responsibilities.
But there’s something deeper than just financial uncertainty that has led Millennials to eschew shopping ’til they drop. Technology and an increased sense of social responsibility and global awareness are probably the greatest drivers of Millennials’ changing perceptions of ownership. Here are just a few other ways that Generation Y has redefined what it means to own stuff:
From vinyl to the cloud
For a generation that has grown up with larger digital footprints than physical ones, the old-fashioned idea that placed greater value on physical possessions over virtual possessions has been forever disrupted, particularly when it comes to entertainment media. Millennials may have observed their parents hoarding vinyl records or CDs as physical representations of the value of old people’s music collections, while for Gen Y, their entire 50,000-song music libraries fit neatly on their laptops or iPods—or increasingly in the cloud. And let’s not get started on printed media such as books, newspapers, and magazines, which may soon go the way of the Dodo bird as far as Millennials are concerned.
Home in where the heart (or smartphone) is
There’s been a lot written about why Millennials have chosen to rent over purchasing homes. With homeownership rates among Generation Y at a record low of 13.2%, there is growing concern that one of the key indicators of economic growth (namely home purchases) could stall, thus affecting greater economic recovery. But the symptom doesn’t necessarily address the root cause. Turns out, as a percentage of potential homebuyers, Millennials aren’t far off target compared to previous generations of homeowners at that age. In fact, the bigger economic threat is the decline in homeownership among the middle-aged. Part of the reason why Millennials haven’t yet bought into the American Dream of homeownership is related to delayed marriage and older parenthood. And perhaps the other part is due to Millennials’ high expectations for convenience and amenities associated with renting.
Baby, you can drive a car … just not mine
Like declining homeownership, car ownership among Millennials is at a historic low. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of cars purchased by Millennials fell almost 30%, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Moreover, only 44% of teens get their driver’s licenses within the first year of becoming eligible, and a little more than half become licensed drivers by age 18. What’s fueling the twin phenomena of fewer Millennial licensed drivers and even fewer Millennial car owners? It appears to be a mix of optimism and altruism: On one hand, the old rite of passage that came with the ability to independently motor on the open road is now passé and seems to have lost some of its luster for Gen Y, who are opting instead for greener transportation options like mass transit or bicycling, while on the other hand, Millennials today can choose from an ever-growing list of non-owned, cheaper car options like Zipcar and Uber to get around.
A common refrain repeated by Millennials regarding their redefinition of ownership is a desire for flexibility. Being shackled by too much stuff limits Gen Y’s ability to lead nomadic lives, and Millennials more than any previous generation have expressed a keen desire for personal mobility, especially when it comes to international travel. Embracing global perspectives and new experiences top many Millennials’ priority lists, and saving up to backpack across South America or to loiter at a café in Europe holds much more allure than pinching pennies to buy a house or a car. For Millennials, the luxury of keeping their belongings on a USB thumb drive or in the cloud affords them the ability to fend off feelings of #yolo and #fomo by literally getting out of town at a moment’s notice.
Status updates over status
Lastly, and probably most importantly, the redefinition of ownership culture for Millennials is all about putting a premium on experiences and sharing those experiences. Status symbols such as fancy cars and lavishly appointed homes—big-ticket items that once defined previous generations’ conspicuous consuming behavior—simply don’t elicit the same thrill for Millennials. Instead, status updates on Millennials’ social channels and visual artifacts that showcase rich, deeply felt experiences—whether they’re Facebook pics showing them in exclusive faraway locales or Instagram pics of exotic eats–provide greater clout for Millennials than the most expensive luxury goods ever could for them.
Redefining what ownership culture means to Millennials will (and already) have significant implications for the ways and the kinds of products and services that are effectively marketed to this savvy group. The TL;DR version of the story: Experiences count way more than having lotsa stuff to Millennials. And as any Millennial will tell you, he or she who dies with the most toys is still dead, after all. Touché.