Betty Friedan and George Carlin had it right. Friedan observed a problem with no name. Women of the early ‘60s had shiny new gadgets that filled their homes but left their lives empty. Carlin asked, “Have you ever noticed how your shit is stuff and everybody else’s stuff is shit?” We are now at the crossroads of Friedan and Carlin where all stuff is shit.
We have the millennials to thank. They are the cohort born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. Its first wave is now sloshing into peak earning years and we baby boomers are learning that they don’t think much of how we did things. It’s a little disconcerting for those of us born between 1946 and 1964 because we have ruled the roost for a long while. Our expiry date, however, is in the rear view mirror. Businesses not adjusting are sinking.
While hearing us enjoy Abbey Road for the millionth time and laugh through M*A*S*H* re-runs yet again, the millennials have been watching. They saw devotion to jobs at the expense of families leave too many families shattered. They saw the work-life balance teeter-totter grounded at down with life delayed until retirement. They saw loyalty to companies betrayed by loyalty unreciprocated. They saw us falter and many fall when the insatiable greed and arrogant maleficence of the 2008 Great Recession stole so much and left shaky all that had been certain. They saw the bad guys win.
They also saw us gather stuff. In fact, they saw us gather so much stuff that we became stuff’s slaves. We went into debt to buy stuff and kept jobs we hated to pay for stuff. We read magazines about stuff and made a leisure activity of going out to look at stuff. The saw us accumulate more and more stuff while measuring ourselves and judging others by stuff’s quantity, quality, and flirty trendiness.
Truth be told, I was never pro-stuff. Three experiences, though, made me anti-stuff. I once enjoyed three weeks in Japan including two days at the home of a very nice family. They asked about a typical Canadian household and, among other things, I explained how our refrigerators were larger, as theirs resembled a bar fridge, and that many homes, including mine, also had a big box freezer. “Why?” the Mom asked, “Are grocery stores far from your home or do you often get frozen in?” She was right. Shortly after returning home we got rid of our freezer.
Second, for years my dear wife owned and ran a successful flower shop. One day I accompanied her to a Toronto trade show. As we strolled into a gigantic warehouse bursting with items for florists to sell I felt gobsmacked. After a few minutes of wide-eyed wandering I whispered, with great respect for the tertiary part of her business, “There is not one thing here that anyone needs.”
Finally, amid mourning the death of a member of my wife’s family and then mine, we witnessed harsh words, hard feelings, and the cutting of wounds yet to heal – and all over the distribution of stuff. I also watched the packing and dumping of a lot of stuff once thought precious.
The three experiences led to a clearing of personal ballast. Trips to the reuse and recycling centre and county dump became causes to uncork a bottle of red. One new thing into our house necessitated two things out. Second hand became better than buying new and the second car was sold. Things are better now but could be better yet. If I won the lottery I would not buy more stuff but hire three strong men and a dumpster for a final purge.
And that brings me back to the millennials. We baby boomers crammed our houses with stuff and then began filling rented storage spaces. A tenth of all Americans now rent storage space – more than any country on earth. Canadians are second. North America now has 2.3 billion square feet of storage space. Think about that – it’s the size of Manhattan! I don’t get it. The millennials don’t get it.
While boomer-led companies continue to market to stuff-addicted baby boomers, millennial-run companies have been starting anti-stuff businesses. Consider Zipcar that rents cars by the hour, allowing more people to get around without ever buying cars. Consider companies that organize the downloading of music and books that allow folks to listen and read without owning books or CDs. Consider Netflix and its clones that are rendering anachronistic owning DVDs. Consider the website that allows people to rent rather than buy power tools that would otherwise spend nearly their entire lifespans gathering dust.
A millennial friend of mine, a professional man, was on to this years ago. One day he told me that he would no longer buy new clothes. Everything he has worn since has come from second-hand stores. We have several neighbours in our little Village that, like him, could easily afford to buy new clothing, but don’t.
How will businesses adjust? Costco, Walmart, and the other Chinese distribution centers are continuing to base business plans on the boomer mentality of buying more than we need, storing it when our homes burst their seams, and then coming back for still more. Home Depot, on the other hand, is now renting tools as well as selling them. Uber allows people without cars to text people who do for a ride. Taxi and car rental companies are screaming at Uber like King Canute thrust his palm to the sea.
Will other companies adjust like Home Depot or invent like Uber? Will more companies understand that disposable income can be spent on only two things: experiences or stuff. Experiences enrich and stay with us forever. Stuff inevitably wears out, is thrown out, or argued over. Will more companies sell reading and not books, or music and not CDs, or transportation and not cars? Will more companies sell experiences to millennials eager to do without the latest stuff in order to enjoy life with someone they love rather than buying stuff to impress people they don’t.
So I offer an insincere apology to the old school businesses and, for that matter, to the entire consumer-driven economy that need me to keep buying stuff. I’m not going to do it. The millennials are not going to do it either. Something has to give and changes need to be made. But I’m not going to worry about that right now. I’m off to gather more stuff to throw away.
If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others through your social media of choice, consider commenting, or even following my weekly blog. And for baby boomers – check out what Paul McCartney says about this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAQHhWbImyY