Today, Hugo Rifkind wrote in his column in The Times that most millennials are “renting the daily experience of being alive”.
It sure as hell feels that way. We rent our homes, our music, our films, our desk spaces. We don’t own anything (apart from some battered copies of Proust novels left over from our degrees, a bottle opener and a bunch of dresses we can’t quite fit into any more). When I moved flats a few years ago, ALL of my worldly belongings literally fitted in the back of a car – black binliners of Topshop clothes and books and the single “thing” I own: a Tiffany lamp bought by my mum in BHS. But, hey, what does that matter? We millennials, by all accounts, love experiences and not things any more. We’d rather a holiday than a car – which is probably true, if only we could afford a holiday…
Rifkind’s depiction of “generation rent” is made to point out that Theresa May’s newfound Corbynistic attempts to appeal to the youth have misfired. She wants, apparently, to make it easier for us to buy houses. But do we even want to own any more? Don’t we want to hot-home across Europe, while we still can?
And if time is our chief commodity (perhaps our only), then we want it as much as possible – and that means outsourcing things so we can get more. Once, we saved money; now, we save time
Rifkind asks interesting questions, but I wonder what this means for our lives – and not just for the chances of the Conservatives winning another general election.
We see the world differently, that’s for sure. Not just from the baby boomers, but from the Gen X-ers, too. This week, Ikea announced that it was buying TaskRabbit, which I think is a neat metaphor for a generational shift – once, Ikea was revolutionary because you could buy nice furniture at the cost of putting it together yourself. Ikea, it seems, has recognised that the demands on the market have moved on – now, you buy cheap furniture and then pay someone else to put it together. We have apps that manage our money, our laundry, our moods. We Deliveroo, we Uber, we have cleaners. Not only are we not owning, but we’re not *doing* either. Now we spend our money on ways to make “renting the daily experience of being alive” easier, better, nicer.
I’m sure this might make some think we’re lazy. But I just think we’re playing the system. As Rifkind points out, the system of working hard, saving up for things and buying a house – or anything, for that matter – is broken. He writes: “In a panel debate about the youth vote at the Labour Party conference last week, the 32-year-old Labour MP Cat Smith quoted Andrew Neil during the last election, as he quizzed Greg Hands, a trade minister. ‘Why should young people believe in capitalism,’ he asked, ‘when they have no chance of accruing any capital?’”
After all, Rifkind notes, those in their twenties are earning eight per cent less than a decade ago. So, if we’ve got less money and we’ve got no assets, what do we have? What markers of success can we look to? Time. Our commodity is time. That’s why millennials are leading the flexible-working charge – employers can’t give them more money or a pension that means anything in this market, so we want flexibility. And if time is our chief commodity (perhaps our only), then we want it as much as possible – and that means outsourcing things so we can get more. Once, we saved money; now, we save time.
So, if we’re cash-poor and aspiring to be time-rich, how does this change a generation’s long-term plans? For starters, loyalty is being redefined – once, employees were loyal to a company with a promise of financial rewards that brought stability to their lives, but if they can’t promise that, as stagnating wages and impossible house prices suggest, how do they obtain loyal staff? Flexibility, for one thing. But also richer experiences. Every millennial loves an experience, don’t forget. And if millennials aren't after job security any more, they want career security. So, give a millennial an experience that will bolster their career, and their demands for more money to save for a house will quieten down. Now we’ve accepted that’s a reality for the privileged few (Resolution Foundation called us the “lost generation”) – even with T-May’s promise of an extra £10bn – loyalty will come through a transaction of time and investment in an individual’s career, not an investment in their deposit for a house they’ll never be able to afford.
It’s not just the Conservatives who need to figure out how to talk to young people – although, Christ knows they need that (apparently, the average age for party membership is 71). It’s the job market – and perhaps even idealistically – society’s expectations of a career and a life plan. The old institutions that acted as markers in the sand are beginning to slip and slide – as if a small child has come and trampled on it all. So, yes, we are generation rent, generation outsource, generation hands – literally and figuratively – free.
But, if we can find "renting the daily experience of being alive" emboldening, empowering and make it work for us, and not against us, we might be on to something.