Americans Own Less Stuff – What Does That Mean for Us?
With the infiltration of the internet and software in our lives, we necessarily own less stuff. We consume books on Kindle. We rely on Netflix for our movies. Spotify provides our music. These, and similar, service sites own the entertainment which we lease. Actual books and compact discs are becoming relics for which a modern times Indiana Jones may soon search. Many (most) appear OK with this arrangement.
Noting such changes in our approach to ownership, Economics Professor Tyler Cowen observed that the younger generation even avoids the one American Dream of car ownership in favor of urban living with reliable mass-transit, cycling, Uber and Lyft options. Cowen acknowledges that such changes provide benefits. Yet, he opines that Americans are “losing their connection to the idea of private ownership.” (See Professor Cowen’s full article at: httpss://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-08-12/american-ownership-society-is-changing-thanks-to-technology). Professor Cowen then questions what this new societal approach which avoids direct ownership means for capitalism. In part, Cowen concludes that owning less stuff serves as a reason to be nervous for our economic system.
I am no economist and cannot meaningfully wade into the fray on the strength of the underpinnings of capitalism. I do agree that our increasing reliance on on-line service providers results in less ownership of “stuff”. My 20-something-year-old kids clearly view the significance of ownership differently then the generation above. They want just what they want and no more; they want to use it when they want it; and they see no need for ties to it when done with it. As a result, there is less ownership of stuff and we can even have less stuff. My kids look in bewilderment and amazement at my collection of CDs and, dare I say, record albums.
But, is less “stuff” good or bad? Just help someone move from their house. When you find boxes of manuals and instructions relating to appliances which were left behind in prior houses from previous moves, ask whether we need that “stuff”. Are the slightly broken desk chair and plastic containers with no lids the “stuff” we treasure so dearly we must keep? Look through your attic and storage spaces at all the “stuff” you have not used in years, if not decades. Could any of this “stuff” possibly be donated to those in need? Do we need these grand living spaces for us, or as a nice setting to keep our voluminous “stuff”? This younger generation may be on to something about owning less stuff and living in tiny houses.
When we got married, our first house was 100 years old with tremendous character and charm. In its original design, it could not be filled with too much “stuff” as it had but two small bedroom closets and no other storage areas. Some time during the 20th Century, our society developed a great need to collect and retain stuff. We were not always this way.
I admit to my own guilt in having too much stuff. I am not a fan of clutter and try not to collect too much stuff. However, I find it quite challenging to let go of books. I have read them and enjoyed them. They should be shared with others. When my much better half starts to box up books to donate to an old folks home, I cringe at the prospect even if done for such a good cause.
Perhaps this younger generation which presently views little need to own stuff represents the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. Give this new generation ten years and we will see what happens when partners are found and children enter the picture. Maybe the need for ready transportation and desire for a permanent home base may develop. We will see.
Regardless, whether we have too much stuff or avoid ownership of stuff, litigators and mediators should be cognizant of this shift in thinking with the new generation entering the business world. So many litigation disputes center on ownership rights. Estate litigation essentially argues over who owns or controls the stuff. Business dissolution cases involve directly competing ownership claims over stuff. Remove children from the equation and family law principally focuses on who gets the stuff. Intellectual property law raises questions about who invented and owns the stuff as well as who can use the stuff. The list can go on.
College students and 20-something-year-olds constitute a significant portion of potential jury pools. As a group, they present few viable excuses to avoid serving on juries. They will bring with them their refined views of property ownership. I am not certain what these views may mean during deliberations, but I am certain that their views will be expressed for consideration. Ignore this group at your own risk.
In the most fundamental manner, there exists a new risk calculus for litigants. Trial attorneys should strategically think through case presentations and themes to be advanced in light of different views of property ownership. Litigants should not dismiss the younger generation as sheep or simple followers on juries where deliberations will include ownership rights. Mediators and ADR professionals should educate themselves to better understand and be prepared to use this new dynamic in settling cases. At a minimum, less than traditional views of property ownership represent an unknown factor. “Unknowns” translate to greater litigation risk for all. Mediators should stress this new, unquantifiable risk.
As for Professor Cowen’s analysis, there may be less direct ownership of stuff in today’s society, but the capitalistic business models of service providers such as Apple, Netflix, Google and Kindle appear to be well intact. The 20-something-year-old crowd may not “own” these services, but I would not be the one to attempt to take them away from that generation. Less “stuff” translates to a change in societal thinking and approach. We need to recognize and work with the new approach. And maybe, just maybe, we do not need so much stuff.