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?"
What if it's not an "age thing" at all? What's really causing this strange new behavior (or rather, lack of behavior)? Generational segments have profound impacts on perception and behavior, but an "ownership shift" isn't isolated within the Millennial camp. A writer for USA Today shows that all ages are in on this trend, but instead of an age group, he blames the change on the cloud, the heavenly home our entertainment goes to when current media models die. 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.
So is technology the culprit, then? Though it often seems to be the driver, technology cannot be the cause either, because it is simply an extension of the way we think. New tech is created because someone has decided to think differently about the world. This may, in turn, spur new technology, but the new thinking is always first.
And there's the culprit.
Humanity is experiencing an evolution in consciousness. We are 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. Though technology facilitates this evolution and new generations champion it, the big push behind it all is that our thinking is changing.
This new attitude toward ownership is occurring everywhere, and once we recognize this change, we can leverage it. Instead of kicking against the wave (which is the tendency of many institutions and leaders), we can help our organizations thrive in this strange new marketplace by going with the flow and embracing the death of ownership.
A New Form of Competitive Advantage
Even in this strange new world, the economic laws of scarcity apply, and they are precisely what's shifting. To "own something" in the traditional sense is becoming less important, because what's scarce has changed. Ownership just isn't hard anymore. We can now find and own practically anything we want, at any time, through the unending flea market of the Internet. Because of this, the balance between supply and demand has been altered, and the value has moved elsewhere.
The biggest insight we can glean from the death of ownership is about connection. This is the thing which is now scarce, because when we can easily acquire anything, the question becomes, "What do we do with this?" The value now lies in the doing.
In other words, 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. It has impact because we can do something worthwhile with it, tell others about it, or have it say something about us. As leaders and entrepreneurs, we can intentionally use this knowledge to our advantage. We just have to think about the "stuff" we sell in a slightly new way.
Since people aren't shopping to "own" things in the traditional sense anymore, here are the real reasons people are purchasing things now—and what we can do to tap into this new power:
1. People buy things because of what they can do with them. The product or service we deliver can help people do something important (if only to them), and this connects people to a sense of empowerment. It helps them feel less like spectators in their own lives, and gives them a greater sense of autonomy and action. As a company, Apple is great at leveraging this. Their products and services help people gain a sense of mastery over the world around them through digital products that let them curate music, movies, and photos. You'll notice this sentiment in almost any Apple commercial, which depicts the many ways people use their products to connect to their own personal purpose.
WHAT TO DO: Create crystal-clear communication that helps people connect how your product or service makes their lives better. An obsession with simplicity is essential.
2. People buy things because of what they can tell others about it. There's a social piece to owning something that is still very much alive, and always will be. Many times (and this will only be more true in the future), the joy of having something isn't in the having, but in the sharing. When we share something we like with people we like it creates a bond, and this is meaningful—and the goodwill created in that moment expands to encompass our brand and our business in general.
WHAT TO DO: Help connect people to other people through your business. Sales isn't really about "selling" anymore, it's about building a community.
3. People buy things because of what having it says about them. This is what The Atlantic author mentions when he talks about the desire of Millennials to live in urban settings. Though I don’t pretend to speak for everyone in my generation, for me this choice has almost nothing to do with being anti-car. Instead, it's about all the other things a "non-car life" represents: it helps me be more environmentally conscious, socially aware, and local. This distinction of purpose may seem nuanced, but motivation is a powerful differentiator (perhaps one of the most powerful).
WHAT TO DO: Connect people to something bigger than themselves through your product or service. A bigger impact is almost always there, we just tend to forget about it.
As we watch the old definition of "ownership" go extinct, how will you leverage the unique connections your product or service could create? It could very well mean the difference between life and death for your business.
Josh Allan Dykstra is a founder of the consulting firm Strengths Doctors, where he helps leaders design work environments that don't suck. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only nonprofit organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. The YEC recently published #FixYoungAmerica: How to Rebuild Our Economy and Put Young Americans Back to Work (for Good), a book of 30+ proven solutions to help end youth unemployment.