The Rise of the Sharing Economy

Why millennials are choosing to rent or borrow so many things rather than buy them

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Reuters

Zipcar recently released its second annual survey of how the millennial generation feels about transportation and car ownership, and the research not surprisingly lighted on a number of findings that will enthuse anyone who cares about the car-sharing company’s economic prospects. Millennials – 18-to-34-year-olds, that is – actively want to drive less, care more about their impact on the environment and fear the costs of personal car ownership relative to drivers their parents’ age.

In the survey of 1,045 adults of varying ages, more than half of the millennials said they drive less because they want to protect the environment. And 70 percent agreed that they’d drive less if there were more transportation alternatives available to them. Oddly (or perhaps, sadly), a whopping 68 percent admitted that they also drive less because they sometimes chose to hang out online with friends instead of leaving their computers to see them (for the 55 and older set, that number is 24 percent).

But the most interesting finding from the survey, which Zipcar commissioned from an independent research firm, revolved around a series of questions that didn’t have much to do with cars. The survey asked people how likely were to participate in a number of other sharing programs. And this is what Zipcar found:

Millennials aren’t just into sharing cars; they’re into sharing everything, and car-sharing just happens to tap into this broader movement. Some people have begun to dub this the "collaborative consumption economy," following the idea that children who grew up in an ownership society now would rather rent a lot of things instead.

In an increasingly dense urban world, this generational shift in attitudes should mean something to more than just the marketers at Zipcar. Sure, a lot of people no longer want to own their own 2,000 square-foot homes, or their own minivans and SUVs. But urbanism requires in the absence of all this personal ownership that people share many things as well: public parks instead of private yards, rented bikes instead of automobiles, mixed-use street fronts instead of cul-de-sacs. And the idea extends even to stuff: tools, appliances and sports equipment that would have fit into the suburban walk-in closet but can’t be contained in a walk-up city flat.

This boom in sharing has been celebrated for its eco appeal. But it will also matter in urbanizing communities where there just literally won’t be room enough for us all to store our own shop-vacs.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.