Access without Ownership – Why we fell out of love with our stuff

Fumio Sasaki lives in a one-room apartment in Tokyo. He owns exactly three shirts, four pairs of trousers, four pairs of socks, and a few other essential items. You might be surprised to learn that Fumio isn’t scraping a living from a dwindling student loan or low paying job. He doesn’t dream of the day he can buy his own place, fill it with expensive gadgets, and park his dream car in the driveway. On the contrary, Fumio is a successful editor who has made the conscious decision that less is more. He is part of the growing ranks of young people who have decided to rent not buy, borrow not own, and save not spend. As Fumio himself says, since ditching almost all of his belongings, “I have more time to spend with friends, go out, or travel on my days off”.

Obviously not all of us are ready to take the leap into such extreme minimalist living. But there is no denying that less stuff means less stress, fewer distractions, more freedom, and extra free time. These are the things that young people today value more than ever before. And there are more and more ways to get them.

Take stuff, for example. The general clutter that covered the walls of our parent’s homes, the shelves of CDs, DVDs, and books. We can now access all the same content (and arguably, much better content!) online via services such as Spotify, Netflix, and Kindle. Why pay £13 for a book, when you can download it for £5? Why pay £12 for a CD, when you can stream all you like for £10 a month? The same can even be applied to our clothes. New services allow us to wear dazzling dresses without the hefty price tag and the guilty gathering of dust at the back of our wardrobes. Services such as girlmeetsdress.com and hirethecatwalk.com offer designer clothing rental for a fraction of the retail price.

Transport is another example. Not so long ago cars were the ultimate status symbol, the final signifier of bona fide adulthood. Yet car ownership has been dwindling in the UK for years, and this change has been largely driven by millennials. In the past ten years alone, car ownership for people aged 21-34 has declined by 11% . It isn’t too hard to figure out why. Given the staggering cost of driving lessons, buying a car, insurance, parking, and MOT’s, it is no surprise that every week in London, 30,000 people download Uber to their phones and order a car for the first time.

The movement away from ownership has also affected where, as well as how, we live. The past few decades have seen a steady decline in home ownership. Young people in particular are less likely to be planning to buy a home. For some people, this is a disaster. The Homeowners Alliance refers to it as no less than a “crisis”. For many of us, however, homeownership simply doesn’t matter to us in the same way it did to our parents.

The word ‘mortgage’, by the way, literally means ‘until death’. Consider that before you sign yourself up to for a 30-year commitment to a bank. Also consider that being part of the ‘generation rent’ is an opportunity to explore new ways of living; ways that are cheaper, more social, and more flexible. The company WeLive, for example, is bringing back ‘co-living’ for the 21st century, by offering communal living spaces that challenge the isolation of traditional apartment living. Given the popularity of its communal office counterpart WeWork, WeLive expects generate $605.9 million in annual revenue in just three years.

The same goes for where we stay when we are abroad. Hotels in major cities used to have a monopoly over accommodation for tourists – think booking months in advance, inflated prices during school holidays, and overcrowded sun loungers on arrival. But there are other options. AirBnB has infamously disrupted the hotel market. It commands over £1.3b a year in London alone, and there are over 350,000 London properties listed on the website. 

Chototel, the self-styled ‘people’s hotel’, functions as an alternative to both traditional hotels and the rental market. It offers housing with uninterrupted utilities, clean, potable water and social infrastructure. The company will its first location in Nagothane (75 kilometres south of Mumbai), India in July this year, and will soon bring this new form of social housing to London. Staggeringly, prices start from just $2 (yes, really, $2) per night.

So it seems that new technologies are allowing us to realise than there is more to life than possession. And perhaps even that possession can be stifling and stressful. Of course, it would be naïve to suggest that consumerism is truly declining. Be in no doubt, consumerism remains alive and well. We remain bombarded by advertisements telling us that a new purchase will bring us happiness and fulfilment. And we keep believing it. But alongside the roar of the engine of consumerism, is a quieter rumble suggesting we eschew stuff in favour of freedom. So don’t own cars, books, dresses, and houses. Own memories, ideas, and friendships instead. Or at least save yourself some money while you’re at it.

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