How Rent Culture Is Changing Society (And Fast)

It's a fact of life that success is often equated with how much stuff you have. However, this year's inflation 'shopping basket' (published by the UK's Office of National Statistics) suggests that all that may be about to change. This imaginary 'shopping basket', in a nutshell, contains items that the majority of people in the country are spending their money on; if an item makes it into the basket, it's an indication that that item is becoming more popular and vice versa.

Huge numbers of people, especially those under the age of forty, are renting property rather than purchasing it. There are a few different reasons why that's the case, ranging from an inability to afford to buy property to a desire not to be tied down to a particular area. Regardless of the reason behind it, the impact is the same - expenditure on the home, at least in its traditional sense, has fallen drastically. Wallpaper paste, hardwood flooring, carpeting, and gardeners' fees are just some examples of things that fewer people are spending money on.

Eating out will never disappear, especially in cities where the convenience factor and lack of storage make restaurants a necessity. In fact, in some cities (such as those in South Korea), it's common for apartments to be built without kitchens. However, the fact that some forms of takeaway coffee have been taken off this year's list seems to mean that people are becoming more conscious of how much money they spend on food and drink while they're on the move.

Fruit snack pots and flavoured milk making their way onto the list suggests that people are eating more austerely, grabbing snacks at a supermarket in place of expensive takeaway lunches.

A few of the more obscure things making it onto this year's list are plant food, bird feed and other gardening supplies. With the horse meat scandal and BSE ('mad cow disease') making headlines in recent years, the inclusion of these items seems to marry up with the idea that people are taking more of an interest in where the food they eat is coming from.

This is certainly true in Japan, where housewives and high-flying career women alike are increasingly making their own miso and growing whatever ingredients they can at home. It seems like we might not be far behind; shops like Whole Foods focus on offering, and charging a premium for, organic produce, and farmers' markets have experienced a revival in recent years. The next logical step on this path is an increase in the number of people growing their own food.

Things like DVD recorders and DVD rental subscriptions have also fallen out of favour, which probably comes as a surprise to no-one given the closure of Blockbuster and the rising popularity of services like Netflix. With cloud storage becoming cheaper by the second and on-demand digital goods (from Spotify to Kindle e-books) rapidly growing in popularity, it's clearer than ever that there is no stopping the digital revolution.

Some of these recent changes to spending habits suggest a different type of 'success' to that tied up with the excess of '80s capitalism; with freelancing on the rise, heralded by many as the future of work, it's clear that a good work-life balance is as important to some millennials as money. With this in mind, it's reasonable to expect that the economy may become driven more by renting than by purchasing.

The high price of property means that most city-dwellers rent property rather than purchasing it, and that ethos is slowly extending to other aspects of life. For example, the high price of insurance, gasoline and parking in cities means that many urbanites don't buy cars - enter services allowing people to rent cars and bikes. Fancy clothes too expensive? Not to worry; you can rent items from Girl Meets Dress, be the belle of the ball and then return products to them the next day.

However, there is a consequence of a renting economy that no-one's really had to deal with yet - inheritance. It's long been an unspoken tradition (for want of a better word) that when parents die their house is often sold/rented out, and that money is used to pay off the child's mortgage. In a renting economy, unless people are able to save vast sums of cash to leave for their children when they die, the above is no longer a possibility.

It could well just be correlation, but it may be that one of the reasons freelancing as a profession is on the up is because it can often be done anywhere in the world, i.e. away from exorbitantly high rental prices in the city. With renting often offering a cost effective alternative (something that those who lease cars have been singing the praises of for years) to buying, people are able to live more cheaply and retain more control over how they spend their time. However, whether or not they're making enough to be able to save money to leave to their children depends on their career.

A potential outcome of this is that we will find ourselves 'trapped' in a rental economy where almost all property, as well as products and services, are owned and operated by a wealthy minority. On the other hand, it might lead to widespread deregulation, deurbanisation, and a renewed emphasis on self-sustainability. Only time will tell.

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