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.

[Image: Flickr user Pete]

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90 Comments

  • Seriously, all you clueless baby boomers... What don't you get about soul crushing debt? This generation doesn't buy stuff because we can't afford it. Your generation decided to cut your own taxes in your prime earning years, disinvest in infrastructure and education, and pass those costs to the next generation. You may think the Beatles and JFK will be the lasting icons of your generation, but Ronald Reagan and Gordon Gecko are the archetypes of what your generation has wrought. Our generation is saddled with enormous student debt, and is obliged to invest in the institutions and infrastructure you have let deteriorate, lest we do to our children what you have done to us. Your parents were the Greatest Generation, yours is The Most Selfish Generation. That silly baby boomers are so myopic they can't connect the dots is pathetic, but not surprising.

  • Michael

    I came to this post late, but I like it. Yes, people "deown" thing because they do not have enough money, but lack of money has positive benefits. It forces us to consider why we are buying something: Is it of enough personal value to spend the money?

  • Michael

    I came to this post late, but I like it. Yes, people "deonw" thing because they do not have enough money, but lack of money has positive benefits. It forces us to consider why we are buying something. Is it of enough personal value to spend the money?

  • Ruach

    I don't buy stuff because I can't afford it, it is very simple.  I like having stuff and I hate renting stuff; but not so much that I'm willing to use money that I simply don't have.  You can call me lazy all you want, but there isn't a human being alive who is so lazy that they'd risk starvation just so they don't have to work, much less a whole generation of them.  I mean, where do you think we get our money from?  The National lazy fund?

  • Concerned

    Young folks don't buy, because they are broke. We live so much longer now, clinging to the jobs and business's that used to get passed to younger people. Those days died when I was a young man, so I guess I am a trend setter when it comes to not buying. I did not get the opportunities to stretch my income like the previous 'Hippie' generation who had the benefit of .32 cent a gallon gas or houses that cost less than $25 Grand and were not dumps! My first new car that wasn't a lease, was $35,000! My Dad's first home was $10,000 less then that car!  This is a societal "Economic out of whackness" that has caused the shift in this behavior not to acquire 'things' that are non-essential. Only new inventions and innovations will bring back the high paying jobs, that enabled my Dad & Mom's 'Hippie' generation, to turn out to be the biggest generation of consumers in world history. The kids are not lazy! They fought and died in Iraq & Afghanistan while the rest of us got old and fat. Now they need good paying jobs just to live at a moderate level, because the price of everything is just way to high! That's the real reason they have given up on being, good little shoppers.  

  • sepdx11

    Maybe just maybe we learned to stop buying shit we don't need or want. If that is in fact the case, I for one hope it is, the consumer culture that has gripped the world is in for a very rude awakening.

  • Andres

    I'm 22 and i work at a business within an organization. This business breaks all the rules of its main organization and more than payment and a defined forever job description they hit me hard and when i mean hard i mean fully engaged by offering 2 special things.

    1. A defined job description and more: i know i have responsabilities but my business always involves me in decision making meetings, product development projects, researches, they even allow me to produce marketing straegies and not limit my life withing 4 walls and a limited skill job. And the most important thing is that even the director is closely involved and does the same, as culture not just looks.

    2. The truth is...it'.s not about sweating your entire life in what other people tell you to do to enjoy when it's already to late. My job offers me flexibility in exchange of 24/7 communication. With organization, i can simply stay home and stay connected to work, go to an event i wanted to go and go to my job later on. Seems soo ridiculous and risky and it also depends on the job description...but i'm just sharing my feelings with you to help. I mean, i even have a business running while i work here...why im i still working here?! I dont know but its challenging, flexible, anything and i mean anything is possible in this business and i love every minute of it. Oh by the way, they even support me with the business with resources, time, advices.

    I dont know the answers for this hiring troubles but are we sure we know today's workforce behaviour? Are we forcing them to adapt into something they lose connection inmediatley?

  • gregorylent

    great example of what a shift in collective consciousness looks like in the 3d world. this is about identity evolving to a more subtle definition. 

    it will continue.

    put a yogi on your board, if you want to keep up.

  • Fool_Killer

    Naaah.  It's just a
    lousy economy at work.  But you’re welcome
    to whatever hypothesis makes you feel better about being poorer.

  • Junebug Jones

    It's so weird to talk about "Millennials" as if they're some strange, exotic creature that requires study. The insights here apply to all age groups. As someone who's not a millennial, I can tell you I'm a heck of a lot less interested in buying a car because they're expensive... it's just plain harder to care about them. During the recession I lost my job, my home, and a huge chunk of future retirement money. That's enough to sober anyone and make them rethink what's important. The old paradigm for how to build success proved to be unstable, and a lot of people got burned. The new reality is being forged with lowered expectations.

  • Visitor

    " Sales isn't really about "selling" anymore, it's about building a community."

    lol what utter garbage.

  • Guest

    This article is bizarre.  You needed to at least establish the traditional sense, whatever you think that is.  I see no real difference from the traditional sense in what is written here.

  • Bret Bernhoft

    From ownership we want access, not just possession.We want to own the access to anything we can find. That is truly an Internet motive. I think the crux of what my generation is looking for in ownership is access.

    But, don't forget that the ability to access something alone, is not enough either. We want the ability to access, edit, publish and share too. Having access to information is as old as the written word. The difference here is what is done with that access.

  • tabathalphabet

    Interesting, sure, but you're missing the point about us. Each generation inherits the a different world, and each generation can see different ways that the world they inherited is filled with a certain kind of violence that was accepted as neutral previously. And each generation reacts to it differently. My generation was handed an insecure world with an unprecedented amount of visibility to the Problems Out There as technology and media totally exploded... and then we were handed in our adults lives the next kind of chaos. We want to work. We're smart - and totally over-educated. We are interested in all sorts of projects and ideas, specialized in an incredible array of topics. But the competition for jobs is stiff, and the security in the jobs we get is slim. Long story short - we don't feel safe enough spending money on things that require trusting our futures. We simply can't. 

    Finally, all those long-term things that get bought were iconic of our parents' and grandparents' generations. And growing up, we saw the long-term view of what those purchases amounted to. Yes, some kind of stability, but also a staggering kind of sadness. We saw our families break apart and incredible loneliness and the ills that come from it, despite the hard work and the cars and the houses. If my generation is accused of being self-serving and just wanting to be happy, I'll take the accusation, with an addendum. We do want to be happy, and like the other generations of Americans, we often will pay for this happiness. But the happiness we buy is immediate. Booze, frozen yogurt, a cool shirt from the thrift store. We're broke, and we don't trust the future.

  • Andrew Roger

    I disagree about the point of technology. Technology changes our patterns based on how it changes supply. If there wasn't Netflix now, I would still be collecting DVDs and Blu-rays. Secondly, we have a predicted lower quality of life and economic wellness backed by many jobs focused on industries that often shift or change with technology. And with higher predicted health and housing costs, a government at a partisan standstill, and cities and states (and their services) going broke, it makes it hard to settle down and fill up a house with stuff. A recent housing bubble also scared us from owning too. Government and financial institutions have been continually failing us. Thirdly and probably most importantly, our generation looked at the vast secluded housing developments that our parents bought with the wealth of the 80s and 90s, devoid of much to do, devoid of community, devoid of thought of the impact such living would have upon neighbors, cities, and the world, and we decided it wasn't what we wanted. Money, big houses, fine schools, and nice cars in safe neighborhoods were still filled with the same problems: poor and absent parenting, alcoholism, abuse, groupthink, no outlets for angst, and no time spent with families and friends. We were pampered from real life many of us would have to live in. We were taught to care completely about ourselves and our precious (and financial) futures. We were taught that responsibility yielded their version of the American Dream; owning whatever you wanted.Then we entered the real world. We enjoyed being around authentic people, even if they didn't have money or things. We enjoyed people who cared about the impact of their life on others and the environment. We found communities were worth living near and for. We found responsibility (higher college costs, higher living expenses, crafty mortgages) didn't always yield lots of stuff. And with the internet, not only could we find cheaper products, we could find out the motives and causes that certain business espoused and we supported businesses we could align with. We're not buying stuff because 1. Supply changed 2. Our economy changed and 3. We are responsible, community-driven and smart to not just buy anymore.

  • Jimbob

    While I kind of agree, this doesn't apply to Apple products. Millennials love to buy Apple products, whatever income they have.

  • Matt

    This is the MTA we are talking about, the same people responsible for the Long Island Rail Road. Talk about shitty service. 

  • Tyler Grant

    We don't buy things because we're broke. We stay broke because we won't take the risk of possibly being in debt forever to try to get a degree in a field for a job that won't hire us unless we already have years of experience in that field. We're a generation of minimum wage workers, and people who are already in debt.