16 Feb 2014

Generation Access

"You", said my father's university buddy, "you are of Generation Access. Us, we were of Generation Own".

I hadn't seen the man since I was a child, but my dad had heard about his fellow alumnus' Montréal trip, and had set us up for dinner - which turned out to be highly entertaining and inspiring.

In his illustrious career, this distinguished gentleman has worked in key positions across Switzerland's retail, financial and media industries. Endued with curiosity, perceptiveness and clarity of thinking, he has seen the economy change around him. And probing my urban lifestyle, he summarized the differences between his and my generation much more succinctly than I ever could have.

"Your father and I, we largely measured our progress by the number of things we acquired", he confessed, with an allusion to the six cars in his garage. "But look at what you do. That's the future!"

Between apéro and entrée, I had been explaining how I enjoyed the "asset-free" life I've been living since moving to Canada. I rent cars when I need them, share bikes, exchange books and borrow movies online instead of buying DVDs. I access my favorite music through streaming, collaborate on travel guides, and simply tap into other people's vacation homes instead of owning a cottage.

All of it had just seemed obvious to me, but it was not before this recent dinner that I've realized how much this change in values will impact the commecial realities we know. For my parents' generation, owning stuff was key: The difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, as the saying would have it. This attitude didn't just produce companies such as Hammacher Schlemmer, but also drives luxury car, fashion and real estate businesses around the globe.

If my friend is right, then these industries, which appeal to the post-war hoarders, will face a challenging future. Indeed signs are multiplying that the young urban generation values rapid accessibility and "no fuss" more than an owner's bragging rights. Companies such as AirBnB, ParkCirca and Renttherunway let urbanines access beds, parking spots and fancy dresses, respectively - and that's just the tip of the (shared) iceberg. 

For once, then, I seem to be an accidental trendsetter. Right now, I am about to access the latest on-demand video of the Olympic Games. And I will feel smugly superior to those athletes. In this day and age, how can they still want to own these medals?

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