Millennials have stopped buying “stuff” and started consuming lifestyles.
Millennials are murderers. At least that’s what publications like Business Insider and The Wall Street Journal would have you believe. The millennial hit list is long and varied: paper towels, premium cable, American cheese, home ownership, breakfast cereal, and everyone’s favorite “family” restaurant, Hooters.
Of course, when it comes down to the “why” behind these murders, most pundits seem to miss the mark. Instead of talking about wage stagnation or the crushing student debt bubble, conversations usually invoke strawman arguments about young ’uns frittering away their money on things like coffee and avocado toast. Never mind the fact that an avocado toast costs all of $6.78 on average, while the average student loan racks up $393 a month. Or, in simpler terms, 57 avocado toasts eaten monthly.
There is a basic explanation for why millennials are killing so many industries though: More than any other generation, millennials are “woke” about capitalism. They’re not buying it, with recent studies showing that 72% of millennials now value experiences over possessions. Spending rates on experiences have grown four times faster than spending rates on physical goods, and 65% of millennials are now actively saving for travel. In other words, millennials would rather go to a concert or travel the world than amass a collection of “stuff.” On one hand, this might all have the air of anti-consumerism, as millennials shirk the advertiser-friendly message that a new TV or diamond ring will truly make us happy. But there’s a darker side to the experience economy as well. Instead of buying goods, millennials are buying lifestyles–and as a result, that means everything is for sale.
A New Kind of Economy
The experience economy has already trickled down into nearly every facet of their lives. Simply scroll through the apps on your phone, and you’ll see a host of companies catering to this shift in consumer preference. Why pay more for a traditional yellow taxi when you can hop in an Uber Black and get a ride in a luxury car? Sick of shelling out $150 a night for a dinky two-star hotel? Why not go on Airbnb and stay at a swanky apartment for the same price? Why not click on the “experiences” section of the site while you’re at it and go on a walking tour with a local guide? While these companies couldn’t be more different in their offerings, they both make the same attractive appeal to millennials: unique, one of a kind experiences at a low price. And it’s not just Uber and Airbnb that are cashing in on this trend. Bumble now has pop up bars to encourage people to use its app, and Tinder has some VR dating plans in the works. As futurist Rolf Jensen wrote in his 1996 paper “The Dream Society”:
“Today, people still buy products mostly for their function; nonmaterialistic reasons remain secondary. But that is changing. In 25 years, what people buy will be mostly stories, legends, emotion, and lifestyle.”
But what Jensen didn’t anticipate is how this economic shift has a curious way of blurring the line between business and consumer. In becoming a driver for Uber or a host for Airbnb, you’re not selling your medallion taxi business or your discount Motel 6 rooms — you’re selling your lifestyle. The very car you drive to work everyday is now a taxi, and you–along with your music taste and chitchat–are part of the product. The home you sleep in is now a hotel, and users are rating you on everything from your interior decor to your timeliness in responding to texts. In a strange, almost ironic twist, millennials have stopped buying goods and started selling themselves instead. Even the swipe mechanics on Tinder and Bumble begin to resemble window shopping, but the end product is you.
The problem is now that people’s lifestyles are on the free market. They have to compete in terms of quality and price. And it’s causing some newfound levels of grief. Uber, for example, has seen its fair share of bad press for its rock bottom pay and questionable legal practices, landing it on USA Today’s list of America’s 20 most-hated companies. Airbnb isn’t perfect either. With homes being converted into mini-hotels some data suggests it’s raising rents across major cities. Meanwhile, dating apps are literally increasingly people’s unhappiness, with a whopping 77% of Grindr users and 56% of Tinder users reporting the app makes them miserable.
Millennials may have avoided the Ikea catalogue trap of a consumerist lifestyle, but in doing so, they’ve traded in an old misery for a new one. Instead of being unhappy buying and selling things, they’re unhappy buying and selling themselves. And perhaps worst of all, this dynamic has spilled out into the wider culture–far outside the realms of the economy itself.
Social Media Misery
With the rise of Facebook and Instagram, the world saw the creation of a new type of market where lifestyles could be created and consumed. Here, no money is exchanged between its users, though advertisers create a lucrative side hustle for the lucky few. Instead, in exchange for photos of your glamorous life, you’re rewarded with likes, shares, and followers. And while this whole process might seem silly, it’s stupidly addicting. So much so, in fact, that an early founder of Facebook released a scathing op-ed criticizing the social network’s dopamine-inducing feedback loop.
But in constantly selling the best version of themselves on social media, millennials are suffering. A study focusing on 19–32 year olds found that heavy social media users were 2.7 times more likely to develop depression than their peers. Similarly, another 1,100 person study found that users who took a week long break from Facebook rated their well-being higher. And while no definite cause has linked these results–other than the proverbial “no shit, Sherlock”–the prevailing thesis among those in the know revolves around the idea of “Facebook envy.” According to Dr. Brian Primack, Facebook envy is what happens when “people who engage in a lot of social media use […] feel they are not living up to the idealised portraits of life that other people tend to present in their profiles.” Essentially, it’s the feeling of inadequacy induced by the social media market–one in which your lifestyle is constantly measured, weighed, and potentially found lacking.
This problem, however, is only compounded by the unfortunate fact that platforms like Instagram intermingle regular people with “influencers.” With no clear demarcation between the two, both groups populate a user’s feed, inevitably upping the ante on the lifestyle competition. When regular users begin to compare their lives to representations made possible by professional photographers and sponsorship deals, they’re inevitably going to feel worse about themselves. It’s Facebook envy on steroids, and it’s part of the reason why Instagram has been ranked the worst social media platform for users’ mental health.
The Paradox of Selling Lifestyles
It’s weird to think that the generation that brought socialism back into vogue would also be the one to commodify every aspect of their lives; that in shunning the material world, millennials could somehow turn the very act of living into a commercial process. It’s genius, it’s insidious, and it’s an entirely new form of capitalism that the world is only just beginning to come to terms with. And therein lies the awful truth: millennials aren’t buying less; they’re buying differently.
If you asked the world a decade ago if a hit TV show could be premised on the idea of a Japanese woman decluttering American homes, you would probably be told no. But that’s exactly what Tidying Up with Marie Kondo accomplished. In the show, Kondo advocates a particularly minimalist lifestyle. Only keep an object that “sparks joy” and toss the rest. It’s relatively easy to grasp, Instagrammable in practice, and entirely millennial. After all, Kondo’s lifestyle is free from the consumerist traps millennials want to avoid. Less is more.
But lurking behind this glamorous lifestyle seems to be a dangerous half-truth. On one level, less might literally cost you more–whether it be the price of hiring someone like Kondo or the possibility of buying replacements for what you inadvertently toss. But on a deeper level, you might be required to buy something else. In the show, when the camera pans past several bags of trash lining the apartment and the credits begin to roll, you can’t help but feel a little cheated. Instead of buying all those useless trinkets and gadgets to clutter your apartment with, you’re being told to buy Kondo’s lifestyle.