Occupy Everything: Breaking Down the Culture of Renting

Someone told me that people like top 10 lists as blog entries. I've been writing one for next Monday on things that people used to buy, but now rent instead. Writing the list has made me feel like something of a stodgy relic, thinking nostalgically about the old days... y'know, 5 years ago. Society has definitely shifted away from ownership and towards a culture where borrowing is more the norm.

The most telling shift is seen in Wikipedia's historical definitions of the American Dream. Originally the concept referred to the low cost to buy farmland in the US. Now it is a "dream" of an equal chance for all to achieve success and prosperity. Success and prosperity are extremely subjective things, and even within that entry there's some conflict over what indicates that one has succeeded and/or prospered. Is it a chance for equal education and a good job? If so, it's got very little bearing on material items. However, in that same entry they state: "[h]ome ownership is sometimes used as a proxy for achieving the promised prosperity; ownership has been a status symbol separating the middle classes from the poor." Personally, I would say that this is no longer true - rather, it now separates the upper class from the middle class, or it's certainly heading that way. After all, the top 15 private landowners in the world are all either heirs, royalty or Ted Turner.

There was a time not so long ago when ownership - of anything - was the absolute goal. Remember the old 1980's slogan "whoever dies with the most toys wins?" In the digital age, that kind of mantra is associated with members of an old guard, viewed by younger generations as perhaps too conservative. Sure, young wealthy types will splurge on high-end purchases, but they tend to be short-lived or service related: spa treatments, bottle service, travel. The 1% is seen as obsessed with the ideas of permanence, eternity and inheritance - and disconnected from reality. The younger generations place more value on experiences, events and service - so much so that guidebooks like "The Experience Economy" and Spend Shift have popped up on the best seller list to address the shift in cultural values.

I also acknowledge that sometimes popular usage wins out over old-fashioned wisdom despite all of our best efforts. All told I'm pretty much neutral on the whole matter. The part of me that doesn't work in Sales realizes that conspicuous consumption should be minimized in order to save the limited resources we have to share on this planet. The current status quo still associates ownership of those limited resources with power. Consider, though: if ownership on any scale becomes something attainable only by the 1% and corporations, is the power struggle suddenly a moot point?

For all of the items that I included on my list for next Monday, there is still the opportunity to own instead of borrowing. (And I should note that the list consists of more than just material goods!) If you still believe that ownership equals power, you can make the commitment to the higher cost of entry and permanence, and have those things forever. However, there's a concern about lack of stability that seems to be driving the market away from permanent ownership. Of course there's also a lot of heavy-duty marketing trying to persuade us that renting is cool and that ownership is totally bogus. We don't really need to own stuff anymore, it's wasteful for us not to share, and the economy makes it nearly impossible to do own stuff on a large scale anyhow. Why bother attaching such importance to things we simply cannot have?

On the other hand, consider what happened with the Occupy movement.

Regardless of if the shift from owning to renting is good, bad or other, the outcome for the foreseeable future can be seen in how Occupy Wall Street started and ended. The generation gap between the Boomers and their heirs is, of course, reflected clearly in the #occupy movement. The disenfranchised younger "have-nots" are expressing their resentment towards the elder "haves." From a real estate perspective, though, it was an echo of the rent vs buy issue. Occupiers simply took up residence in borrowed public spaces, without right to ownership and without any sense of permanence. While they were aware that they were misbehaving, ownership basically didn't matter to them. This is the ultimate end point of the trend towards renting! #Occupy simply ignored any restraints placed on the use of public space, and entrenched for however long they would be tolerated. It was an expression of the 1st Amendment, certainly, but for the rest of the taxpayers who could not enjoy the space for the duration of the protests, it was an Estate at Sufferance situation. The government reacted accordingly much as a landlord would to a tenant who had stayed beyond the end of their lease.

As I see it, this is where things are headed: ownership of land consolidated in the hands of government, corporate and non-human entities, along with a few of the very richest individuals. Meanwhile, for the rest of us that ownership loses all significance until such a time as the owners are pushed to the limit and choose to express their consolidated power by limiting either our speech, movement, or use of their property. Of course, Occupy Wall Street was an extreme situation, unlikely to occur going forward, right? For most of us, we'd have no need to push the owners far enough for them to crack down on us with tear gas and truncheons, right? And it doesn't really matter if we give our money to those folks in rent, so they can further build up their defenses against any potential future protests, right?

Maybe this trend is not such a good idea.

Here's the thing, though. Getting away from borrowing everything is going to be hard. We're going to need to stick our credit cards in the freezer, stop renting money from banks and the government, and save our money up to buy big things with cash. We're going to need to take a long hard look at what really needs to be owned and what should be rented - and who benefits from each situation. We'll have to get away from the culture of distraction and instant gratification and start placing greater value on long-term planning. We need to campaign hard against an industry that rewards borrowing through higher credit scores, and in turn rewards high credit scores with access to borrowing more stuff. Long term planning doesn't make for great TV, but it might make for a better future. Can we crane our heads around the easy way to do things for long enough to make a plan for our long-term redistribution of power equally, and stick with it? Maybe that should be the new American Dream.

Occupy Everything Graphic by Noah Odabashian.