Why Do We Buy?
The Changing Face of Ownership

Why Do We Buy?
The Changing Face of Ownership

Carolyn Purnell
Aug 9, 2012

When it comes to making home purchases, the timeline usually goes something like this: first I desire, then I buy, then I own. Over the years, I've thought long and hard about each of these elements, but for whatever reason, I've never really called the order into question. Recently, though, some articles have been crossing my path that have made me think more seriously about how ownership itself could be changing my buying habits.

A couple of months ago, NPR intern Emily White came under fire for her admission that despite owning over 11,000 MP3s, she had only ever purchased fifteen albums. In the backlash that followed, it became a common theme that the resistance to buying music is particular to a younger generation, which is more familiar with the new modes of technology that make such practices easier. Taken alongside The Atlantic's claims that young Americans are also no longer buying cars or homes, one might wonder where they're spending their money.

But when talking about such large-scale patterns of consumption, it really may not be fair to look only at a particular generation. In a recent Fast Company piece, Josh Allan Dykstra pointed out that the Millennials aren't unique in their reluctance. Instead, he argued,

Humanity is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are starting to think differently about what it means to "own" something....the reason we acquire "stuff" is becoming more about what we get from the acquisition. 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.

According to Dykstra, all generations are undergoing a change in consumption in which our spending is no longer oriented toward "ownership," but toward mastery, communication, simplicity, community, and connection. Ultimately, his three takeaway points for entrepreneurs are, "People buy things because of what they can do with them," People buy things because of what they can tell others about it," and "People buy things because of what having it says about them."

I'm not sure how truly new any of this is (since consumption is always related to social practices) or even how much I'm willing to go whole hog with Dykstra's claims (since spending is also deeply tied to larger economic trends, as Logan Sachon points out), but Dykstra does at least pose an interesting point. Is the way that we spend money on our homes and in our daily lives more oriented toward products that encourage new types of connection? Are you more inclined to buy things, as he suggests, because they foster a deeper sense of community or a sense of empowerment? Could this be why we're gradually ditching the formal dining room in favor of more informal, conversation-oriented spaces or why we're constantly trying to find ways to simplify our lives? And on the technological side, how does being so digitally connected change the way that we build, think about, or live in our homes? Has new media inspired a contant yearning for a lifestyle we don't have or a tendency to over-share and over-care?

If Dykstra's right, this new mode of ownership could have some serious shortcomings. It could mean that we've developed expectations about getting things for free or that we're constantly changing the look of our homes in order to be part of a virtual community, both of which have serious effects on artists, designers, and the environment. But on the flip side, I find some elements of this new idea of ownership rather appealing. If our purchasing truly is spurred by a desire for communication and mastery, it might be leading us to re-think and re-tool our environments so they better suit our lives, to take more control of our homes, and to communicate freely about some of our most personal spaces, moments, and needs.

(Image: Karen's Delicious Downtown Apartment House Tour)

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