Why Millennials Don't Want To Buy Stuff

The concept of shopping has shifted from owning stuff to buying into new ideas.

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 Doctorswhere 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.

[Photo: Flickr user Pete]

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124 Comments

  • Clay Dickason

    Selling is more successful when a community is involved...so true. I've noticed it's much easier to sell something on a facebook page than it is on craiglist. Facebook has created the ability for people to have a community about a common interest.

  • We grew up on Fight Club.

    "Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression."

    "It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything.”

    I lost everything in 2009 when the economy crashed. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I hated my job and had a bunch of shit I didn’t need.

  • Great article. I think as leaders we need to think outside the box and realize the old model of B to C needs to be inverted to become C to B. Push marketing doesn't work with savvy users that have tremendous power at their finger tips with modern technologies.

  • Steven Ray

    they don't buy cars because they can't afford them. I think you might mean the death of the consumer-driven society..which is running out of fuel (money) in the disappearing middle class....and yes, of course they have ideas about the situation. Who wouldn't? In 2016 the international 1% gets ever richer. The author seems a bit trite about the 'angry' people who are feeling oppressed by the system they are in. He must be doing ok, hmmmm?

  • financial_professional

    Meanwhile we're having this very interesting discussion, there's a group of people -- that are roughly 5% of the population -- that want to take over the society and be our bosses just like that. They feel "empowered" and "angry" because -- supposedly -- people like us (normal people) have been "holding them down" for a "long time" and now it is time for them to "get even". In many countries in the world we've seen the same phenomenon during the last years. It's called populism.

    They don't care about "logical discussions", they just feel that they deserve to be our bosses, period.

    I think it is very important to mention it, since our lovely discussion can easily be interrupted by some angry neighbors expressing their "opinions" in the street, blaming us for whatever they think is "holding them down", without them knowing that the majority of us are struggling to get the buck just like everybody.

  • financial_professional

    Meanwhile we're having this very interesting discussion, there's a group of people -- that are roughly 5% of the population -- that want to take over the society and be our bosses just like that. They feel "empowered" and "angry" because -- supposedly -- people like us (normal people) have been "holding them down" for a "long time" and now it is time for them to "get even". In many countries in the world we've seen the same phenomenon during the last years. It's called populism.

    They don't care about "logical discussions", they just feel that they deserve to be our bosses, period.

    I think it is very important to mention it, since our lovely discussion can easily be interrupted by some angry neighbors expressing their "opinions" in the street, blaming us for whatever they think is "holding them down", without them knowing that the majority of us are struggling to get the buck just like everybody.

  • financial_professional

    Meanwhile we're having this very interesting discussion, there's a group of people -- that are roughly 5% of the population -- that want to take over the society and be our bosses just like that. They feel "empowered" and "angry" because -- supposedly -- people like us (normal people) have been "holding them down" for a "long time" and now it is time for them to "get even". In many countries in the world we've seen the same phenomenon during the last years. It's name is populism.

    They don't care about "logical discussions", they just feel that they deserve to be our bosses, period.

    I think it is very important to mention it, since our lovely discussion can easily be interrupted by some angry neighbors expressing their "opinions" in the street, blaming us for whatever they think is "holding them down", without them knowing that the majority of us are struggling to get the buck just like everybody.

  • financial_professional

    Meanwhile we're having this very interesting discussion, there's a group of people -- that are roughly 5% of the population -- that want to take over the society and be our bosses just like that. They feel "empowered" and "angry" because -- supposedly -- people like us (normal people) have been "holding them down" for a "long time" and now it is time for them to "get even". In many countries in the world we've seen the same phenomenon during the last years. I call it populism.

    They don't care about "logical discussions", they just feel that they deserve to be our bosses, period.

    I think it is very important to mention it, since our lovely discussion can easily be interrupted by some angry neighbors expressing their "opinions" in the street, blaming us for whatever they think is "holding them down", without them knowing that the majority of us are struggling to get the buck just like everybody.

  • WD Dangerosa Willerstone

    So, millennials buy things for use value, bragging rights, and conspicuous consumption, not because they want to actually own something? Those are the same reasons people have always bought things. Srsly. Crack open an advertising textbook. Folks clearly still want to own stuff: gadgets, clothes, collector memoribilia. We just balk at big ticket items like cars and homes, prolly cuz we grew up watching those things either get repossessed/foreclosed or become a financial burden to repair/maintain/fuel, and our economic have always prospects really sucked. It also sucks to pack up all the stuff you own and move every few years to take a better job. I'm also not sure why you are lumping the reason for reluctance to become a home/car owner in with the reason for a preference for paying monthly fees to enjoy services. There are degrees of ownership, and we aren't giving up all of them. I seriously think your analysis of why we do what we do is pretty superficial.

  • WD Dangerosa, agreed these principles of ownership aren't new, just the spin. You offer some interesting perspectives, especially the bit about growing up and seeing the burdens of sudden economic downturn. People from the depression era, I imagine, had a unique frame on it too. Are you actually a millennial? Would love to hear more from millennials on this.

  • Bridget Cassey

    Bizarre take - try economic's - cost of education - lack of grants - £9000/yr fees over 3 years. Price of insurance for under 25yrs. . You need to pay for parking even in your own street or car park. Cost of petrol, cost of MOT's - lack of ability to fix your own car with simple spares easily available from Halfords. Cost of maintenance, car tax, amount of traffic on roads - no freedom of the road - traffic jam of the road. All cars look the same and have no character and they cost a fortune. And right at the end of the list Increase in ability to contact and socialise via skype/facetime/ snapchat....think on.

  • moody529

    There's a nice little irony to this -- ad sales and ratings are based on the "coveted 18-30 demographic," because traditionally they are the age group that is busy acquiring Stuff. If the "coveted demographic" doesn't buy Stuff -- you have yet another system thrown into turmoil. I like it.

    I like the Millennials, too. They remind me of my hippie days, when Stuff, and buying things, and money itself, were also regarded as dubious and probably toxic. I gave up being a hippie, and had a modestly sub-par adult acquisitive life. But of course I am discovering the great beauty of the geezer years -- once again, you experience, and reject, the great weight of Stuff.

    I truly hate social media, so I'm here on a one-shot ticket -- please excuse the omnibus nature of my comment. I'd also like to point out that generational hatred is being fostered among the 99% -- not very common in the top fractional percentile. Divide and conquer works, my friends -- don't forget it.

  • Tyler Butnerson

    Mom and Dad paid for the NM's college education where they got to bs around and party for four to five years. After they get their degree , the NM's run home to live with mommy and daddy and tells them how they are not buying into the american dream. The dream for the NM's is to live at home with their parents and wait for them to die off so that they can get their assets. NM's are too proud to work two jobs to get things in life and they are waiting on the perfect job because they are so smart. They don't want yo own because they want to live with their parents forever. They don't want to own because it brings on accountability. They don't want yo own because it brings on responsibility.

    IM TIRED. Go drink your Starbucks, play on your apple i Mac and keep using moms second car until it breaks down. Guess who's going yo fix the car for you ? Poor old baby boomer dad.

  • Tyler Butnerson

    Bottom line. They get cars from their mom and dads and stay on their parents car insurance and drink Starbucks high costing coffee and play on their high tech gadgets bought with mom and dad's money. Also they don't ever want to leave mom and dad house because it's free. What a life. Care free.

    America is getting weaker

  • Alexa Samara Kuppers-Kantor

    Maybe I'm unique, but as a Millennial who hasn't lived at home since high school, who is living with student debt, credit card debt, and various other financial weights that I deal with on a regular basis... I still make good wages and still spend my money SIGNIFICANTLY different than generations before me. I spend my money on experiences which i can participate in with my friends and family. For Christmas and Birthday gifts, I don't give my loved ones STUFF, I gift them adventures if I can, concerts, classes in a hobby of theirs. Something that gives them access to a community of other people that share their passions. I totally 100% agree with the points in this article. Do you really believe that all young people are lazy assholes who leach off of their parents? And if they do accept help from their parents to make ends meet when they can't sustain themselves, what is the harm in that? Why is our society so judgmental of people who ask for help? Where has our humanity gone?

  • Alina Zhibek

    To be fair, most people don't live in cities to be environmentally conscious and socially aware. They do so because it's convent and fun.

  • Rich Wang

    No it is not because we are broke, it is precisely because we are enlightened to the fact that the things you own end up owning you. We see this truth pervasive throughout the suburban wastelands from which we came. Materialism and mass consumption is no path to happiness and enjoyment; it is an accumulative burden, a cognitive dissonance to mindful living; a bondage to needless stress and liability.

    Signed,

    1982 Millennial