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Is sharing the new economic normal?

Published: Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012 4:33 p.m. CDT

The so-called American Dream revolves around ownership.

Owning a house, owning a car, owning that picket fence surrounding 2.5 children (actually, it’s more like 1.8) and a four-legged pet.

But Gen Y, that pesky generation of 79 million 16- to 34-year-olds, might be redefining that dream. Statistics show that the newest generation of adults buys fewer houses and fewer cars than its predecessors.

Coupled with the meteoric rise of sites for sharing everything from recipes (Pinterest) to music (Spotify) to cars (ZipCar) to craft projects (OK, Pinterest again), we have to wonder: Is this more than a current fad?

In other words: Is sharing the way of the new economy?

Millennials skipping markers of ‘adulthood’?

Let’s start with the big stuff, the cornerstones of the old-school dream. An article published in The Atlantic earlier this year notes that the number of 20- and 30-something homeowners has been falling since 1980. In fact, the percentage of 29- to 34-year-olds granted mortgages between 2009 and 2011 was only half the number compared with 10 years earlier.

What’s more, according to a nationwide survey conducted by LearnVest and Chase Card Services, a division of JPMC, about a third of respondents regret buying their homes in the first place. Almost half of renters, meanwhile, are pleased with their decision.

As far as cars, Jordan Weissmann points out in The Atlantic that consumers ages 21-34 buy only 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States, down from nearly 40 percent in 1985. And, while 32 percent of Gen Y members live in a city, a whopping 88 percent want to. You know what doesn’t go together so well? Cars and big cities.

“Millennials have become notorious for delaying, or entirely skipping, the traditional markers of adulthood,” writes Weissmann. He’s referring to the fact that the unemployment rate for workers ages 20-24 hovers around 13 percent, and the percentage of married adults in the U.S. ages 18-29 went from 59 percent in 1960 to a measly 20 percent in 2010. “First comes love, then comes marriage/house/car/baby carriage,” is quickly becoming outdated.

So, you might say, Gen Y is abbreviating all of these markers because they’re still young and relatively poor, right? Because many graduated from college in the midst of a recession? Because they don’t have any money to set up adult lives as defined by half a century of idealistic sitcoms?

Not quite.

Why Gen Y just loves sharing

Anyone who spends time on the Internet knows there are infinite ways to share. When the Recording Industry Association of America sued file-sharing site Napster for copyright violations in 1999, the world started to realize that, like it or not, people don’t mind passing along their discoveries to others. And although the RIAA won, that was only the beginning of a what’s-mine-is-yours sea change.

Now, you can share just about anything. From illegal Internet streams of television shows to perfectly legal song-sharing sites like Spotify, to sites that facilitate borrowing clothes and books (Rent the Runway and Amazon Kindle, respectively), Gen Y is all about sharing.

The impact of growing up with the Internet is surely a big influence on the new generation. It’s a resource Gen X didn’t grow up with: to find the native language of Eritrea or the perfect purple wedge espadrilles within seconds. But is technology enabling sharing, or is the new generation’s underlying desire to share coinciding with the digital age?

Fast Company writes that new technology is more a byproduct than a cause of this emergent culture. Josh Allan Dykstra argues that it comes down to a change in thinking:

“Even in this strange new world, the economic laws of scarcity apply, and they are precisely what’s shifting. To ‘own something’ in the traditional sense is becoming less important, because what’s scarce has changed … We can now find and own practically anything we want, at any time, through the unending flea market of the Internet. Because of this, the balance between supply and demand has been altered, and the value has moved elsewhere.”

Why buy when you can rent?

Although Gen Y is leading the trend in sharing and moving away from ownership for ownership’s sake, these resources are now out there and are accessible to members of every generation, which makes us think this is one trend with staying power.

For example:

  • Bag, Borrow or Steal: Rent designer handbags, purses, sunglasses and jewelry
  • Rent the Runway: Rent designer dresses and accessories
  • Spotify: Stream music you want to listen to, without buying it, and share access to your friends’ music
  • Netflix: Watch TV shows and movies once, twice or 10 times
  • BitTorrent: Watch videos, listen to music and consume online media (the technology itself isn’t illegal)
  • HomeAway, VRBO: Rent someone’s empty vacation home for your own vacation
  • CouchSurfing: See the world by staying in a stranger’s home (or host them yourself)
  • Trusted House Sitters: House-sit for absent homeowners around the world
  • ZimRide, Carpooling.com, Sidecar: Arrange to share rides with car owners or rent out seats in your own car
  • Zipcar: Rent cars by the hour or by the day
  • Share Some Sugar, Neighborrow: Borrow cars, tools and more from people who live nearby
  • Craigslist, Freecycle: Get used items for free or give away things you no longer want to those who do
  • Skillshare: Barter your skills to learn skills of your choice from local teachers

There’s even a name for the new phenomenon. The theory of “collaborative consumption” posits that the economy is taking steps back toward the bartering and trading system. According to Lauren Anderson, community director of CollaborativeConsumption.com, ”It’s becoming an industry in its own right, creating micro-entrepreneurship opportunities for people to rent out their assets (whether physical stuff, or intangible things like time or skills), to earn supplemental income or change the way they think about their work.”

Will it continue?

According to Anderson, absolutely: “This isn’t just a short-term trend in response to the difficult economy. In fact, what brings people back to these services is the feeling of community and connection, and the unique experiences they can have with their peers, rather than faceless, anonymous brands.”

More from LearnVest:

This post originally appeared on LearnVest.com on Aug. 31 and was written by Libby Kane. It is republished here with permission from LearnVest.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

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