Hearing by Steven Johnson
More young people lean into the rental or sharing economy – own less of everything and rent and share a lot more. Homes, cars, music, workspaces. In some places, like Los Angeles, this rental life has gone to extreme.
Steven T. Johnson, 27, is working on social media advertising and living in Hollywood. He spends most of his days with things he doesn't own.
He takes a walk to get to the gym; he does not own a car At the gym he rents a cabinet. He uses the gym's laundry room because he does not own a washing machine.
Johnson doesn't even have an apartment, actually. He rents a bed in a large room with others who rent beds, for nights, weeks or months at a time, through a service called PodShare. All accommodation shares kitchen and bathroom. Johnson also hires a desk at WeWork, a gathering room.
And he says that the only clothes he owns are two versions of the same outfit.
Johnson says he owns so little that he has even been able to get rid of the backpack. "I gave it up two months ago," he says.
He says that for him, this lifestyle is not troublesome or confusing. "It's so good," he says. "When you don't own things, you don't have to keep track of them. You just show up."
He is part of a new group of young people. He is educated and owns his own company. He could be considered good, but he is also homeless in a way. By choice.
There are two major reasons for this change: the price of home loans and student debt. A little more than a third of the millennia today owns homes, a lower rate than Generation X and baby boomers when they were of the same age.
But is there something happening too? Does Johnson represent a fundamental shift in American capitalism as we know it?
Skyler Wang, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley studying the sharing economy, says that while young people own less and are less enchanted with ownership than their parents can be, they still have a lot of things – it's just not concrete.
"I talked to a very minimalist," Wang says. "They are the kind of people who love to sleep, they own as 30 things, but … they end up digitally, they have lots of photographs. They have thousands and thousands of Instagram posts."
They still live in an economy of things – these are just different things. It's experiences.
How do companies deal with this? To begin with, many more companies will enter the rental. Ikea also starts to rent their furniture.
The outdoor chain REI recently announced that it has broadened its rental program for things like camping equipment. Eric Artz, CEO of the company, says this requires a different form of repetition.
"We sell joy," he says. "We sell inspiration when you go on a trail or go on a bike ride. We sell the adrenaline brake at the end of a run and we just try to make it possible for us in some way."
Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College studying the rental and sub-economies, says that not everyone is in it for the same reason. Some just do it for pleasure. Some do it to move toward less business and personal transactions. Others are willing to spend more for convenience.
But much rent and share because they are broken and they need to save money.
"I think it's a mistake to characterize them … with some sort of economic direction or direction towards money," says Schor.
It makes it really difficult to predict if renting and sharing are our long-term future, or just a fly – even for Johnson, who is completely connected to a rental life.
"It's not something you can do forever, because you need to have a place that you can really point to and say, this is my home," he says.
(Note: REI and WeWork are among NPR's financial sponsors.)