[Peer economy] Is collaborative consumption an excuse to own more?

Since Rachel Botsman coined the term “collaborative consumption,” independent analysts, corporate consultants, startups and thought leaders have all translated the idea for diverse audiences. The Mesh author Lisa Gansky* has said it’s about access, not ownership. Resulting questions ask whether certain generations are more amenable to sharing. Are urban areas predisposed to sharing? Is Europe an intrinsically more sharing culture than America? Can this ethic be rolled into environmental benchmarks? Co-living, coworking, lending and borrowing… some venture that this is a market disruption driven by disgust with excess. The potential reduction in consumerism is a sign that people are returning to to what really matters. The business concept behind collaborative consumption is “economies of scale”—through collective power, individuals benefit mutually—and peer economy providers’ could maximize the efficiency of their assets in a way that mutually benefits provider (income) and customer (service). However, most of these questions start from the assumption that people already own; what if you start from lack of ownership?

I’ve learned a lot from Airbnb providers in the last two years. Reasons for participating run along a gamut but always begin with income needs. Again and again, these reasons have been affirmed by Airbnb’s self-released studies, mainstream reporting and market analyses. Airbnb has helped people afford their homes, afford small improvements that sat on the fix list for years. It makes it possible for some folks—older women, younger couples—to live independently (read: without roommates) and on their own terms. That’s a big deal in cities like Portland, San Francisco and New York City. Faced with dire housing crises, it’s a luxury for city residents to even think about matriculating from renter to owner. Owning a home used to be the ultimate and most stable investment that individuals could make for themselves. A house is an asset to take out loans against. It is a geographic permanence that institutions can rely on. And it is one of the smartest financial savings choice that individuals can make for themselves.

Circling away for just a moment: Last October, I was on an NPR panel that tech reporter Elise Hu called “Millennial Mythbusting.” It was a conversation between Elise, PolicyMic’s Chris Altchek, and me. Our audience was mixed: thought leaders in the future of news, award winning investigative journalists, and some of NPR’s most passionate voices outside of journalism. What we wanted to convey through the panel: Rather than being a Peter Pan Generation that has missed all the marks, rather than being adult children who still live at home with our parents, Millennals are fatigued by how our generational characteristics are framed (I’d argue that these flaky characteristics of ours are really symptoms of massive economic insecurity). Instead, we hack. Mason jars used as drinking containers—we just couldn’t afford cups, but now lifestyle brands put out their own line of mason sippy jars. Freegan and dumpster diving, co-housing among young professionals… What have become trends and the signature traits and pride points of hipsterdom, are really manifestations of how the millennial generation copes with economic insecurity.

Bringing it back now. As I’ve pondered testimonies of how Airbnb and other platforms have been instrumental to providers’ meaningful independence, I’ve begun to wonder whether providers are factoring in income reliability into acquiring decisions. For example, might a young couple who wants to own a home (a traditional milestone) justify that financial risk because there are platforms like Airbnb? There are already transportation network companies that offer to go in with you on a car if you are willing to lease it out on their network. But with a multitude of transportation options, owning a car is becoming less a part of the American dream. Having a place to call our own, however, still touches us at our core. 

*Amended: The post originally credited “access over ownership” to industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang, who recently started CrowdCompanies. Jeremiah informed me that the credit for such snappy phrasing belongs to Lisa Gansky.