The new on-demand culture

People are embracing a more flexible lifestyle that values options over ownership


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Is the lack of private ownership actually bad for society?

A recent Bloomberg opinion article by Tyler Cowen struck a controversial chord as it spread through the internet. His argument is that Americans own less “stuff” — we stream shows or music instead of buying DVDs and CDs or choose ride-sharing over car ownership, to cite his examples — with the result of this behavior being that we’re straying from the core American ideals set by our founding fathers.

It’s no secret that millennials are contributing to this movement. We’re prioritizing life experiences over things. We’re renting longer, streaming more and actively taking part in the gig economy.

I believe that the idea of ownership and what it represents should be reconsidered because there is new value that can be derived from the bourgeoning on-demand culture and access to content and services.

Historically, ownership has been associated with status. Indeed, in Cowen’s words, ownership “set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship.”

This relationship between ownership and status represents a society in which ownership is limited to those who can afford a good at a given time. Ownership no longer needs to be limiting.

Renting my apartment allows me to live somewhere that I couldn’t afford to buy. The volume and variety of the content that I can be exposed to via a monthly subscription on a streaming service is content that otherwise would have required high up-front cost and been out of my reach.

Ownership also runs into limitations in the space and resources available to us. Every “thing” that we buy is at the expense or opportunity cost of another “thing” for which there wouldn’t be space — from a book on a shelf to a car in a garage.

Further, ownership is often linked with stability, but people, particularly millennials, are embracing a more flexible lifestyle that values options over ownership. Our preferences evolve over time as does what’s offered in the market, and not being tied down to what we own allows us the freedom to pursue what’s new and interesting. With ownership, we may instead feel compelled to continue with the status quo.

Far from killing capitalism — as Cowen posits — the on-demand culture has opened opportunities. It is a chance for entrepreneurs to step in and fill gaps in the market.

Capitalism is finding opportunity and entrepreneurship is having the drive to act when the opportunity is found, and both of these still exist in an on-demand culture. The option to own is still readily available for those who want the satisfaction of ownership, but it’s now not the only option.

A society that’s pushing away from products doesn’t erode our ability to develop a sense of personal responsibility or accountability, as Cowen argues, but rather enhances our quality of life and allows us to change how we think about ourselves. Millennials define ourselves more by who we are instead of what we own, and “who we are” is a culmination of our traits, our goals and our experiences instead of our possessions.

There still remains pride in ownership, and the ability to own certain assets, such as a house or car, continues to be aspirational for many people, but the difference today is that you can build toward ownership. Renting allows someone to test and learn what may be best for them. Renting gives conviction when it becomes time to own an item.

Ultimately, Cowen’s article misses the point about renting and the on-demand economy — which is that a move away from ownership is a move toward flexibility and freedom. Ride-sharing increases mobility, mobile devices build connections and streaming services bring more empowering content to a broader audience. And, when the time does come to own, it becomes a more meaningful and thought-out decision.

Jordan Bean, a senior associate at Stax Inc. in Boston, can be reached at jordan@jordanbean.com.

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