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Culture and technology
27 July 2012

Too busy on the internet to spend any money

 If someone told you that "humanity is experiencing an evolution in consciousness" you’d obviously tell them to pipe down and buzz off back to the 1960s where they belong. But in his article for Fast Company, Josh Allan Dykstra may be on to something.

What’s got him thinking is that young people today – the so-called ‘Millennials’ or ‘Generation Y’ – are behaving rather strangely:  

  • "Compared to previous generations, Millennials seem to have some very different habits that have taken both established companies and small businesses by surprise. One of these is that Generation Y doesn't seem to enjoy purchasing things. 
  • "The Atlantic’s article ‘Why Don't Young Americans Buy Cars?’ mused recently about Millennials’ tendency to not care about owning a vehicle. The subtitle: ‘Is this a generational shift, or just a lousy economy at work?’" 

In fact, as another piece in the Atlantic demonstrates, it’s not just that young people aren’t buying cars anymore, they’re not even learning to drive – at least not in the numbers they used to do: 

  • "Since 1983, the percentage of Americans with licenses has fallen for every age group under 50. But the most dramatic downward shifts by far have been among the young… What’s the cause? [Researchers] say we can thank the Internet. A previous study… found that the fraction of young drivers with licenses was inversely proportional to web access."  

Josh Allan Dykstra comes to much the same conclusion: 

  • "As all forms of media make their journey into a digital, de-corporeal space, research shows that people are beginning to actually prefer this disconnected reality to owning a physical product."  
  • "Humanity is… starting to think differently about what it means to ‘own’ something. This is why a similar ambivalence towards ownership is emerging in all sorts of areas, from car-buying to music-listening to entertainment consumption." 

Dykstra then goes on to elaborate his argument about the "death of ownership": 

  • "Purchasing something isn’t really about the thing itself anymore. Today, a product or service is powerful because of how it connects people to something—or someone—else. It has impact because we can do something worthwhile with it, tell others about it, or have it say something about us." 

This is a somewhat questionable theory – after all, the idea that consumers buy things to use them, boast about them or show them off hardly represents an evolution in human consciousness, just the same old consumer culture translated to the digital age.

If young people are buying fewer things perhaps it’s because they can’t afford them. That shouldn't come as a surprise – they’ve been loaded down with debt, ill-prepared for work and had their minds nurtured by a series of electronic screens. In other words we’ve deprived them of agency and purpose, but provided them with an almost limitless supply of absorbing, often addictive, online diversions.

Granted, the Millennials are hardly the first generation in history to find themselves short of opportunity. However, they are the first to be deprived of that indispensable spur to action: boredom.


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