Youth culture is often berated as a culture of me, mine, and entitlement by older generations. What the older generations may be missing are the ways youths are shifting toward a culture of non-ownership.


I look across the room and see shelves lined with DVD's. There are some old favorites, some TV series, and a couple live concerts. When watching a movie, I used to ask myself, "Do I like this enough to buy it?" Buying a movie meant I wanted to invest in it—maybe because I would spend the same amount over time renting it, or because I wanted to be able to watch it any time, or because I wanted its case decorating my room. The point was that I wanted to own it. 

But a few years ago I stopped buying movies. My DVD library ends at the second season of Lost. I have seen many movies, including some fantastic flicks, but I haven't purchased one. I also haven't bought any new music albums either, though I listen to all the latest hits. In the depths of my closet I think I have one old, giant CD carrying case that was retired when MP3 players became affordable years ago. Even now, I rarely listen to music I shelled out cash for.

The emergence of streaming media, namely, Netflix for films and Pandora for music, satisfy the younger generations' desires to have cheap access to a giant selection of movies and music. DVD sales have been massively declining since 2007, and the film and entertainment industry is looking to adapt and capitalize with on-demand and other streaming technologies. Back at home, as I scroll through the thousands of seemingly free movies to watch instantly, the idea that I would buy one of these movies seems absurd. With a monthly fee of $10, I can watch any movie as much as I want. It makes me want to donate all those DVDs on the shelf.


After the bubble popped in the housing market a few years ago, many young people are seriously rethinking the assumptions about owning a home. Long thought to be a secure and profitable investment, home ownership has lost some of its appeal. The strings attached to home ownership—being tied to one location for a long period of time, up-keep, and mortgage—have people second-guessing their parents' advice. And those first-time buyers who bought a house and lost it in the crisis (now your apartment neighbors) may not be so quick to buy again.


How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many of them would stay in contact with you if social media didn't make it cheap and easy? Are these friendships virtual? We can keep in touch with everyone we graduated from high school with, distant family, and colleagues, but how many of them are coming over to help you move? Having online "friends" may be an additional way young people experience part of a relationship without buying a lot of friendship baggage. This highlights the conditions that make the friendship attractive: the comfortable "distance" between friends online and the ability to retreat from the friendship at any point, with little, if any, consequences in the "real world." You can unsubscribe from friends like you would cancel your Netflix account.


I've been wondering if the "friends with benefits" relationships are part of this non-ownership mentality. Instead of being in a relationship with one person, some youth (and beyond) prefer to "hook up" with friends. (See my College Sex for more on this.) "Buying into the relationship" is a phrase people use when referring to one's commitment level in a relationship. Are we now streaming relationships? Are people paying their monthly dues in order to have access to an increased selection of partners and experiences without having to own [up to] anything?


I think the non-ownership impulse might even go deeper, you know? Maybe, it penetrates the way some youth communicate, kind of. Do we feel, like, "Whatever" about our own ideas? So...perhaps I'll share some of Taylor Mali's poem "Totally, like whatever, you know?"

Declarative sentences - so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not -
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don't think I'm uncool just because I've noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It's like what I've heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?

So, will youth culture shift from me and mine to not it? I've used "ownership" in a few different senses above to express this mentality. What does it mean to you in 2011 and looking forward?

© Michael Bruce

About the Author

Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce works with at-risk youth and is the editor of College Sex - Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits (Wiley-Blackwell).

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