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Why Ownership Matters

Want to own a home with a white picket fence? If you’re a millennial, you’re probably a minority. New York Times reporter Dionne Searcey discussed the trend in an article last week:  “The petal has really fallen off the rose as it pertains to homeownership,” Joshua Solomon, president of the DSF Group, told her. Searcey writes,

Since 2008, the year Lehman Brothers collapsed and home prices dropped precipitously, there has been a steady increase in the number of people ages 18 to 34 renting instead of buying homes. … Developers and builders are responding to a rising demand not just from young adults but also from the larger population of Americans who do not have the means or the desire to buy a house.

Derek Thompson and Jordan Weissman wrote a piece for The Atlantic in 2012 about “The Cheapest Generation,” a millennial world in which goods like cars are no longer owned (or desired), but rather part of a large “sharing economy”:

From a distance, the sharing of cars, rooms, and clothes may seem a curiosity, more hippie than revolutionary. But technology is allow­ing these practices to go mainstream, and that represents a big new step for consumers. … Today, peer-to-peer software and mobile technology allow us all to have access, just when we need it, to the things we used to have to buy and hold.

The authors note that Millennials are slow to buy houses—but it isn’t wrong to be cautious about buying a house, especially when you’re young and dealing with mountains of student debt. Debt seems to be a delaying factor for many, according to Searcey’s story and other data.

But these stories also show changing perspectives in our society on ownership and its importance. Many outside the millennial generation seek to rent property, as opposed to owning it. And this could have some negative implications, long term. As James Poulos wrote for The Daily Beast,

Without an ownership society, where citizens are prudent stewards of broadly distributed private property, freedom tends to become what it was in revolutionary France—an abstract ideal that can easily arouse destructive political feelings that know no bounds. That’s why the shift from right-to-own to right-to-access has the real potential to overturn centuries of cultural certainty about the foundations of liberty and its importance to human flourishing.

Where sharing really becomes an issue, then, is when it replaces a formerly permanent and ownership-centric service with a more transient and consumer-based one. This involves the way that we travel, the way we look at houses and apartments, how and where we buy our groceries, whether we care about owning land or property of any kind. Many would rather a condo association or HOA mow their lawn than to mow it themselves; yet this is one of the most basic elements of property stewardship. Have we become too lazy to commit to even these most basic sorts of stewardship?

Perhaps so; or perhaps we have replaced former vestiges of ownership and pride with new ones, catered to our more technological and transient society. Many people commute to work hours from their actual homes. This has created a fragmented society—one in which we are often too busy to tend things that previous generations might have. Old badges of pride—the white picket fence, freshly-mowed grass, perfectly-laid dinner table—have become less important, in an age when all of us are less often at home. They’ve been replaced with new ones: smart phones, for instance. People who want to show off in the sharing economy may order an Uber Lux, or rent a place with rooftop access.

But these badges don’t lend the same return to the community that former property ownership did. Sure, these people still pay for other people to do their yard work, deliver their groceries, put oil in their cars, etc. But when we take the ownership out of our consumerism—when we become accustomed to using and discarding, without any personal cost or care—it drastically changes the way we treat our places, the areas in which we live.

Compare, say, a man who lives in an apartment complex, with a man who tends his own yard and garden.

The first man enjoys the beauty of the apartment courtyard—the even rows of cut grass, the hydrangeas lining the walkways. But it is something he admires as a beholder. If something goes wrong in his complex area—say, a tree falling—he feels no personal responsibility. He may hope that the building owners fix the problem soon, but it’s not likely that he’ll roll up his sleeves, go out, and fix the problem. If he hears of plans to dramatically change his residential landscape—plans, say, to put in a strip mall or a new plant down the street—he may feel frustrated, but there’s a likely chance that he’ll just move away.

But for the man who owns and tends his own property, things are quite different. He feels personal pride in the care of his property. If a tree falls in his yard, it is his responsibility. If huge changes are suggested for his neighborhood, he will fight against the bad urban planning or bad policy changes, because he feels personally invested in his place.

A caveat: some sharing services do seem to instill in people a sense of ownership and pride. CSA’s, for example, are a sort of sharing economy: you invest in a farmer’s crop, and then get to share in the harvest. They seem to actually encourage community and pride in the value of the product. It’s somewhat similar to getting a delivery from the milkman, in days past.

Also, Uber and Airbnb can’t, in my mind, really be equated with Zipcar and/or renting an apartment in the sharing economy. Uber and Airbnb replace services that were traditionally transient and mobile: we’re switching taxis for taxis, bed & breakfasts for bed & breakfasts. The format has changed, but the key components are largely the same. Uber presents a better version of a traditional service, and is slowly being recognized as such.

But it is true that some of these larger trends in the sharing economy seem to significantly change the way we think about ownership. Owning property has always been a traditional and crucial element of the “American dream.” It was a part of growing up and accepting responsibility. It was part of stewardship, lending one’s care to the surrounding community and environment.

If property ownership continues to decrease in prevalence, it doesn’t necessarily mean that young Americans will develop an apathetic attitude toward civic stewardship. But how do we continue to cultivate such attitudes when the landscape of our affections and cares has changed so drastically? It’s a question worth asking and considering into the future.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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