No more stuff, please

The contrast between two types of goods, "stuff" and "experience", is more relevant in today’s experience-obsessed world than it has ever been. It is commonplace to characterise the older generations as still tied to the traditional focus on "stuff", on fixed and stable assets like homes and cars. The younger generations are seen to dictate the cultural shift to an emphasis on "experience". But evidence suggests that this shift is actually happening across the board - that it is happening for the ageing boomers as well.

In the case of housing, for example, while it has been noted that young people are more likely to rent than carry a mortgage - because of paranoid credit standards, or because they just don’t want to - it is also the case that ageing baby boomers are looking now to unshackle themselves from the burden of a fixed home. They have tired of gardening, mowing, and fixing leaky roofs: they would prefer to live from an impersonal space, in a non-committal way, and to be able to go away on a cruise whenever they feel like it. Boomers are, in fact, making up the bulk of new renters today.

The move from a preoccupation with assets - cars, houses and so on - to a non-committal, opportunistic emphasis on use-value in the present moment is thus coming more and more to characterise consumers across the board, instead of being just a millennial quirk. Sales at Macy’s stores, an iconic retailer, are down 2.1%; for Kohl’s, sales are flat, profits down. When consumers do turn to "stuff", it is often only that "stuff" necessary for "experience": yoga pants, where sales are massively up, for fitness trainers and their clients, and for the rising number of people with a gym membership; and cycling outfits for the (often male) boomers.

An increasing amount of consumer demand is either for experiences and events which happen out in the wider world - dining at a restaurant, travelling abroad, going to the gym - or for devices which enhance the experience of an otherwise dull process - back-seat TVs in cars for children, mobile phone apps for bored commuters. The demand for enjoyment and excitement, for variation and activity outside the realm of fixed assets seems to be universal. Businesses are therefore right in catching on to the millennials’ love of "experience" - but they should realise too that it is a demand present among the older generation, too, who are moving away from their "stuff"-oriented attitude.