The richer we get, the fewer possessions we have. A contradiction? Futurist Jeremy Rifkin predicts that owning things is quickly becoming outmoded. Access and use are the key words for tomorrow’s economy.
“Just look around you,” says Jeremy Rifkin. “Possessions are increasingly unimportant.” It seems like an unlikely assertion. You look around and see that people are in fact getting wealthier, settling into bigger houses, bigger cars and more luxurious lifestyles. The economy is doing well and consumers are exercising their purchasing power. It’s tough to maintain that materialism is on the way out.
But Rifkin, the visionary American thinker, is sure of himself. “Possessions,” he says, “put too much drag on the economy. In an economy where everything is about speed, why would someone want to own something that will quickly be outmoded by a newer model or an upgrade?
“Ownership is based on the notion that it’s worth the effort to keep physical items for a long period of time,” he writes in his book The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism, Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience (Tarcher, 2000). “In market capitalism, ‘having’ and ‘collecting’ were important and cherished concepts. But they are increasingly unimportant in an economy in which change is the only constant.”
We don’t need to own all kinds of stuff anymore as long as we can use it—have access to it. In the Era of Access we want the pleasure of beautiful, new and handy things, but not the burden of ownership. So we buy less and less and increasingly opt to rent, lease, pay a membership or access fee so we can use things at our discretion. And that, according to Rifkin, has far-reaching consequences for our lives, our relationships, our ways of doing business and our ideas of personal freedom.
He explains his views one morning in his office in Washington, where he heads up a small think tank, the Foundation of Economic Trends.
“Business’ primary focus is no longer a one-off transaction with customers; the sale of one or more products. They’re striving towards a continuous and long-term relationship with us, their customers, via such things as lease contracts and monthly access fees, which means they can earn money from us over and over again. They want to acquire a permanent place in our lives.
“It used to be that second to a house, a car was the most important thing people could own. Nowadays, one-third of all cars and trucks on American roads are leased. We no longer care about ownership, but about the experience of driving the car. In 20 years’ time no one will have their own car anymore. And Ford would rather never sell another car. After all, once you sell one, the relationship with the customer is short-term. But they’ll have you in their network for at least two years if they can get you to sign a lease agreement.
“In the same way, increasing numbers of people lease their heating system, their air conditioners, furniture, software and computers. Farmers lease the seeds for their genetically manipulated crops. There are even companies that supply all the disposable diapers you’ll ever need for your baby at a fixed price. And you can sign a contract for your carpet: It’s on your living room floor but it remains the property of the supplier, who comes by every so often to clean it and replaces it when it’s worn out—all for a monthly fee. The company no longer makes money on the carpet. It has become a platform for all manner of other services and products that can be profitable. And we’re only at the beginning of that development.
“It used to be that if you went to an appliance store to buy a washing machine, for example, the salesperson said: We’ll give you a free two-year maintenance contract if you buy this machine. Now it’s just the opposite. They just about give away the appliances if you’re prepared to pay for a service contract. Mobile telephones are literally given away as long as you’re prepared to sign a contract with a certain telephone service provider.”
“For 30 years now I’ve been very critical of the way companies treat the environment. I’ve always believed they would give up their harmful activities as long as it didn’t affect their bottom line. The interesting thing about this new ‘network economy’ is that for certain industries it’s becoming appealing to use raw materials sparingly.
“Air conditioner suppliers used to try and get their customers to buy the biggest possible unit, whether they needed it or not. They weren’t concerned with the fact that it guzzled energy, damaged the ozone layer and worsened the greenhouse effect. The bigger the air conditioner, the more money they made. Now that the company isn’t selling the units but supplying cold air to its customers for a monthly fee, it’s suddenly worth their effort to use as little energy as possible: It keeps profit margins high.
“The down side of the advantage of this new economy is the danger that you wake up one morning and discover that nearly every activity outside your immediate family life has become a commercial experience. That your life is totally embedded in the lease contracts, memberships, subscriptions and paid access rights. In a market economy there’s a moment of peace when the sale has been made; in the network economy you continually remain a potential customer. All your time is commercialized. The potential of entrepreneurs to think up new ways to get us to establish a tie with them is unlimited. But you and I only have 24 hours in a day.
“But companies wouldn’t offer all those services if there wasn’t a need. We used to see freedom as autonomy, and property played a big role in that. You’re autonomous if you’re not dependent, owe nothing and have a number of options. How do you become autonomous? By having possessions, by being able to stand on your own two feet. But in the Age of Access it isn’t enough to be able to stand on your own two feet. Autonomy means you’re isolated from the network, that you have no access. This means we’ll have to redefine freedom for future generations.”
Reprinted and adapted with permission from M (July 2000), the monthly magazine of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, www.nrc.nl.