Ownership and Material Value

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More and more consumers are valuing stuff less. When I say “stuff,” I mean all the stuff that clutters your room, or apartment or house; materialism as a gauge of standing and wealth in general are waning amongst younger generations, which value experiences and stories over proving that they have loaded bank accounts.

Recently, I was forced to think about the “Millennial Dilemma.” If I were handed a million dollars, wouldn’t I simply go out and buy the house of my dreams? The car of my dreams? I would, all of a sudden, have this influx of money that I wasn’t accustomed to, so obviously I would just spend away, right? So I thought about it. The conversation that prompted the thought process was brief, but my consideration of the question was not. After a while, I realized that most of the people standing in the room who were my age, myself included, would probably, first and foremost, erase our debts. Credit cards, car payments and, of course, student loans. It wasn’t about running out and buying the cool things I always wanted; it was about having the freedom to do what I wanted without being tethered to debt for 20 years.

I also realized that my perception of ownership and the things that I put value on had shifted.

Take the recently announced video game Battlefield 1, for example. The PC version of it will not be supported by a digital copy in North America. Now many games have gone strictly digital, of course (it’s not nearly as rare anymore to find a game that you can only download, as opposed to walking into any electronics store and picking up a physical copy of it). But this is a blockbuster AAA game—and normally those are anchored by physical copies, even on the PC. As a gamer who grew up blowing into cartridges to get them to work, not having a physical copy still feels odd to me sometimes. I remember some of my friends having rows and rows of game cases—a genuine library. Now the only signifier of owning this game will be the fact that you actually play it, putting more emphasis on the experience of playing the game rather than owning a copy of it.

The changing attitude toward ownership is also strengthening things like streaming entertainment. Why bother buying a Blu-ray or DVD when I could pay a smaller price for the digital version on Amazon? Why buy a CD—or even, at this point, a digital track—if I can just stream it over Spotify or Apple Music? I wouldn’t, because it’s cheaper and faster to go the digital route. Of course, there are always exceptions, like the vinyl boom. But that trend in itself shows that we value experience over possession. The whole point of buying vinyl is the rich depth of the music and the experience of listening to an album; it’s the only way to hear music in that particular quality. You don’t experience music the same way in a 320 kbps compressed file, or even FLAC format. Vinyl is a singular experience exclusive to the format, and the medium itself tells a story; it gives you something beyond the packaging. Vinyl feels timeless.

We’ve talked before about less value being placed on material wealth, and some of the technology that would enable maintaining our lifestyles without the investment of goods, like indoor projection mapping. Is it that farfetched to think that technology could vicariously replace some of our material possessions?

Adam Hails

Senior insights officer and cultural/behavioral analyst at Culturewaves.

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