The New American Dream: Mobility, Flexibility, Experience

The signifiers of success used to be simple. Own a home (or two) and a car (or two) and voilà! You've achieved the American Dream. Ownership, however, is a complicated concept for an increasing number of Americans—and not for all the reasons you might think. 

Multiple studies and datasets have shown that Millennials are not buying homes and they are not buying cars. In fact, they are not buying many big ticket items at all (save for their smartphones) in the way generations of the past have. This behavior has earned them the new nickname Generation Rent and has businesses struggling to understand how to market to a demographic that is resistant to ownership. As with most trends among Millennials, economic factors delaying major milestones (as well as, perhaps, a general fear of commitment) are cited as part of the issue. While that certainly has impacted the situation, the greater element at play is shifting value systems. 

Young people have redefined success, and their new definition values experience over possession. The word "experience" may sound like a code word for "free," but the change is not necessarily a reaction to underemployment or even a desire to save money. I know this macrotrend firsthand. I am a Millennial, I am employed (and even have a few streams of income), and I have a nice chunk of change saved up. But I choose to rent my apartment and rent my furniture. This allows me to be flexible as an entrepreneur and as someone who values experience over possession. 

My generation is voting with their dollars and feet, clearly saying: Mobility and flexibility to have what we want when we want it is the new definition of the American Dream. 

What underpins this shift? Too many things to list (and something someone somewhere is surely doing a PhD thesis on as we speak). But let me try to call out a few I think are important. 

The Internet age has produced the three distinct experiences that have shaped this attitude and are now impacting our real-life decision-making: accessibility, impermanence, and rapid change. The ability to have instant access to any media or information for a nominal fee (if any) has been a feature of Millennials' lives since the days of Napster. Today, streaming services and cloud-based technologies mean there isn't even a file on a hard drive to "own." Possession is finite, access is unlimited. The constant stream of new information and changing media formats also makes ownership unappealing. Why choose when what you want today may change tomorrow? 

For businesses, the lesson here is to emphasize service over product. Several newcomers are finding success by focusing on lifestyle and offering young consumers instant access. When every cab has its light off, a mobile service such as Uber allows users to find drivers instantly. Rent the Runway solves the issue of wanting a new designer outfit for every event (and they don't charge for dry cleaning). Subscription services such as Birch BoxUmba, and Kona Kase give subscribers a curated smorgasbord of new items each month. Flash sales on sites like One Kings Lane and Gilt are just as much about the experience of scoring a deal as the items themselves. 

More than the ability to make large investments, Millennials struggle with understanding their incentive. Perhaps after seeing so many lose their material possessions during the financial crisis, Millennials see ownership as more of a liability than an attribute. Ownership can also be limiting (see the Five Year rule), and the generation that changes jobs every three years and values independence needs to keep their options open. Millennials' aversion to ownership is not a shortcoming, but an opportunity. Valuing experiences means Millennials don't want just one thing; we want a little bit of everything.