Zofia Koch doesn’t own a car, and she doesn’t seem to miss it.
“The last time I was excited about a car was high school,” the 26-year-old event co-ordinator said by phone from her apartment in downtown Toronto, adding that these days a car seems like more of an “added expense” than anything to get excited about.
“Owning a car is just another debt you’re carrying with you,” she said.
Like many in her generation — now commonly referred to as Generation Y or the Millennial Generation – Koch eschews owning a vehicle, at least for now.
But the phenomenon isn’t limited to the car. As the millennial cohort ages and moves into the workforce, observers are seeing a trend away from the splashy, unbridled consumerism of earlier eras, towards a new kind of thinking about ownership, one that affects everything from how we get around, to when we buy homes, right down to why people buy things at all.
In the new world of consumerism, it won’t be so much about “owning stuff” as it will be about improving one’s quality of life.
And if that means not buying a car, so be it.
“If I wanted to, I could totally afford a car,” said Josh Shier, a 22-year-old freelance stylist and writer living in Barrie, Ont., who never got a driver’s licence and cites environmental degradation and the conflicts surrounding oil as among the main reasons for his stand.
“But I’d rather be one of the Greyhound bus’s biggest customers.”
Shier says he is put off by the car industry’s “induced obsolescence” of cars that results in new models every year.
Koch sees things differently. It’s not that she doesn’t want one – she is eyeing buying a car as she and her husband contemplate a move out of the city – it’s just that the growing availability of other options, combined with the larger debt burdens young people are carrying today, makes it less of a necessity and more of a burden. Koch cites insurance payments, parking costs and gas among the many expenses that turned her off car ownership.
Technological changes are reducing the demand for private cars, according to a recent report from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, as cited at The Globe and Mail.
The report cites Zipcar and other car-sharing services as being behind some of that waning interest in car purchases, at least in urban areas, along with bike-sharing services and the recent and sudden explosion of taxi-hailing apps.
The effects are noticeable. In the U.S., the proportion of 17-year-olds with drivers’ licences fell to 45 per cent in 2010, down from more than two-thirds in 1978.
“Similar trends are in place in Canada, Australia, Europe and Japan,” the Globe reports.
And she adds one other thing. In earlier generations, Koch says, “the novelty of being able to own something was greater than it is now.”
With that, Koch touches on a major underlying trend that is only beginning to emerge among today’s youth. It’s what Josh Allan Dykstra, founder of the consulting firm Strength Doctors, recently described in an article as “the death of ownership.”
The human race is undergoing an “evolution of consciousness,” and our ideas of what it means to “own” something are rapidly changing, Dykstra says.
“I don’t think people will stop owning things,” Dykstra said recently in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada. “But I think the way we do ownership is going to change. It’s going to be more about what we do with that thing [than simply owning it].”
Echoing Koch’s sentiment, Dykstra says ownership has become so commonplace – “It’s almost like we’ve commoditized ownership itself” – that it’s beginning to lose meaning. People simply aren’t as excited about owning things as they used to be.
In Koch’s view, our credit culture is responsible for this; we can buy what we want on our credit cards, so there is little of the waiting, planning and anticipation that used to make buying things so exciting.
In Dykstra’s view, it is all tied in to the rapid technological changes today.
“Growing up, I used to feel like I needed to hold on to things,” he said. “I need to keep this special comic book or whatever because it’s the only one that I’ll ever see. But now, if I want anything, I can just go online and find it. … The whole notion of what I need to hold on to, and what I can find in three seconds on Google –- this makes things completely different.”
Dykstra says the focus of consumers is shifting from ownership to access. While we used to buy records and record players, we now buy smartphones that allow us to play music. The phone is still “owned,” of course, but ownership of the phone is not the goal – it’s what that phone allows to us access that matters.
“It’s really just become more about how the things we own connect us to the stuff that matters to us,” he said.
Cars are not immune to this philosophy. After all, it’s where the car takes us that matters, not the car itself. And if you can get there without a car – or if, thanks to online shopping, you don’t need to go there in the first place – then the car becomes less important.
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An American household spends $16,700 a year keeping its average of 1.9 cars running (not counting parking and tickets). Gas used to retail for less than a dollar a gallon in the 'nineties. Now it routinely hits $4.50, and, with the supply of easily available crude plateauing, and demand likely to continue increasing from developing economies, the price at the pump has nowhere to go but up. Transit users spend between a tenth and a fifth of what car-owners do on getting around. -- Taras Grescoe
Cars are space hogs. While an office worker needs, on average, 250 square feet of space, his or her car requires 400 square feet--which is why in Los Angeles, where most people commute by automobile, parking amounts to 81% of the Central Business District's land area (versus 31% in more transit reliant San Francisco). Car ownership is easier in suburbs and exurbs where more land space is set aside for free parking. But suburbs are notoriously bad places to walk--and, as poverty moves from the city to the suburbs, the "crabgrass frontier" is increasingly full of overgrown lots. Gated communities with trigger-happy security, the foreclosed "starter castle" next door turned into a Meth lab: is having free parking, a lawyer foyer, and a yard really worth the two-hour commute? -- Taras Grescoe
The environmental downsides of the petroleum-powered automobile are well known, and include carbon emissions and increasingly, dependence on dirty tar sands oil (Even electric cars aren't exempt: half of the electricity in the United States is generated by burning coal). People don't talk about the public health impacts much any more, but they're just as bad. Pollution from cars is still estimated to kill 30,000 Americans a year, and, in spite of seat belts and airbags, about 40,000 a year are killed by cars every year (around the world, 1.2 million die a year--two in the last minute you've been reading). Car ownership is also robustly coordinated with obesity, while taking transit may actually be slimming: a study of Charlotte, North Carolina light-rail riders found that after only half a year, they weighed six and a half pounds less than drivers. -- Taras Grescoe
You use your feet, a bicycle, or, for longer trips, public transit. Back in the nineteenth-century, city fathers spent a lot of time trying to work out the best way to get around growing industrial metropolises. They experimented with Elevateds (as in Brooklyn, Chicago), pneumatic subways (as in Manhattan, see Alfred Beach's 1870 system, above) and cable cars (as in San Francisco). Streetcars worked great until jalopies and flivvers got in the way (and the motor lobby got together and replaced trolleys with buses on rubber tires). For cities that can afford them, though, there was no better investment than a subway. Bus lines get moved, trolley tracks are torn up, but no major subway in the world, once built, has ever permanently stopped working. If you think your city will around a century from now, move heaven (and earth) to get one built. -- Taras Grescoe
Consider the cargo bike, the urban SUV of Denmark. These sturdy tricycles, developed in the Christiania urban commune and now made by companies like Nihola, feature two small, swiveling front wheels and deep round cargo bays, and can easily carry three young children or a week's worth of groceries. In Copenhagen (where 36 percent of all commuters get to work or school by bicycle) a quarter of families with two children or more now own a cargo bike. -- Taras Grescoe
The French city of Strasbourg has almost entirely banned cars, while making cheap and frequent streetcars the de facto mode of transit to its historic center; in Clermont-Ferrand, the hometown of Michelin, electric trams that run on rubber tires provide a quiet and low-emission alternative to the automobile. In the United States, the cities you'd expect--like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle--are making investments in new forms of transit (and, in the case of San Francisco, bringing vintage trams from Milan, Lisbon, and Melbourne back to city streets). But high-tech modern trams and light-rail are now rolling on the streets of Denver, Salt Lake City, and even that paragon of sprawl, Phoenix. We've got a long way to go before transit in North America will match the anywhere-to-anywhere mobility of the private automobile, but GPS and new information technology are already making the process a whole lot easier. And the more people that subsidize buses and trains by riding them, the better service gets--a classic virtuous circle. -- Taras Grescoe
The automobile is not an appropriate form of public transit for the city, never has been. The twentieth-century was all about shoe-horning cars into old cities (think of Robert Moses and his concrete carpet-bombing of New York City) or creating new cities inspired by the ideology of modernists (think of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City). This resulted in such freeway-based metropolises as Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, which currently has the worst congestion in the United States. The twenty-first century is going to be about getting cars out of our cities--and they're going to be much better places for it. -- Taras Grescoe
The implications of a shift away from cars could be enormous, especially if, as Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, points out, cars become driverless. (And yes, that is a technology that is now on the horizon.)
Rainie, co-author of a 2012 study on millennials and technology, suggested that the ability of driverless to be shared by many people could significantly reduce car ownership.
(Some observers of this shift in car culture suggest the changes could be drastic, reorganizing our entire economy and even our car-oriented cities.)
In Rainie’s view, one of the largest societal shifts being driven by millennials is the rise in the importance of networks. It has always been a part of the business community ethos to “network” – indeed, business couldn’t get done without it – but Rainie says the nature of networking has been changed by innovations such as Facebook and Twitter.
Networks will be “much more important to people than they used to be, and will be [more crucial to] how we relate to other people,” he said.
Those networks will act as support groups that – rather than creating some sort of groupthink – will actually give people the tools to be “act more autonomously,” Rainie said. (For instance, with tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blog sites, anyone can become their own marketing department.)
The networks, in turn, are changing how millennials consume – and how those who sell to millennials do business.
And, says Patricia Martin, author of the e-book Tipping the Culture: How Engaging Millennials Will Change Things, those networks will allow businesses to still sell to a generation that just isn’t all that into buying.
“What differentiates [millennials] from boomers is that boomers were consumers of products and information, and millennials are producers – producers of messages,” Martin told HuffPost in a phone interview.
“They assiduously cultivate audiences, so they have the power to make sure your cause or your business or your brand succeeds.”
Martin says companies can leverage millennials’ vocal presence on social media to, in effect, have the consumers themselves do the company’s marketing – a kind of high-tech word of mouth.
She gives the example of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, which, in an effort to bring more millennials into its fold, started selling tickets to rehearsals.
But it wasn’t just about getting to see a play for less money (though obviously that helps with younger people); it was, says Martin, about getting an “authentic” experience – something she says millennials strive for as consumers.
“You’re watching the performers sweat and grunt and fall sometimes,” she says, and that is as much a part of the appeal of this experience as actually seeing the play.
It’s that feeling of authenticity that Josh Shier cites in explaining why he prefers public transit to cars. Taking intercity buses is a way to “meet people” and “makes life more interesting” than sitting alone in a car would be, he says.
Others in Shier’s generation take a similar attitude towards home ownership. As HuffPost Canada reported last fall, millennials are undergoing a fundamental shift in attitudes towards buying a house, with many consciously choosing to rent rather than buy — even if they ultimately want to be homeowners.
Farhaneh Haque, director of mortgage advice for TD Bank, told HuffPost last fall that “more and more” boomers are inquiring about how to help their children with down payments. The traditional view that home ownership represents “freedom” loses some of its sheen when you have to ask your parents to provide that freedom.
A recent survey carried out for HuffPost found 76 per cent of millennials want to be a homeowner by age 31. But economic considerations, in the form of high house prices and a weak youth job market, are pushing that priority to the back burner.
Twenty-three-year-old renter Bram Warshafsky illustrated it to HuffPost like this last fall: “In my downtime, I’d rather just watch reruns of Seinfeld than try to understand whether a deal is a good deal, and where the market’s going.”
In other words, millennials have more important things to do. (At least for now.)
“This is a generation that is overall more willing to find the quality of their lives in ways that are less about conspicuous consumption,” Patricia Martin said. “They are more interested in the quality of their lives, and they’re willing to pay the price for that. And if that means that they have to go without some things in order to have certain experiences. ...”
As Martin illustrates, businesses will have to change how they go about marketing and advertising to make headway with in this brave new “post-ownership” world.
Dykstra points to Apple as a company that has seized the initiative in the new environment.
“They never focus on the technology,” he said of the iPhone and iPad maker. “They’ll tell you enough to make sure that you know that it’s flashy and up to date and all those things, but what any Apple commercial will show you is people connecting to their friends, to music – it’s all about what you can do with this device, not actually ‘hey look at this shiny new thing’.”
In this new climate of shifting paradigms on consumerism and ownership, car companies – like everyone else – will have to think more like Apple to appeal to a generation that would rather spend money on “authentic experiences” than vehicles.
“The companies who are succeeding at selling boatloads of their stuff, they’re tapping into this shift in ownership in the way they’re marketing their products,” Dykstra says.
“Instead of touting features and the next shiny object, we need to talk about, how does this make your life better?”