Are you are in it just for the experience, or for the bragging rights?
We millennials often like to tap ourselves on the back for being less materialistic than our predecessors. We like to believe that we have evolved past McMansions and buying dumb expensive stuff, to investing in things that make us better people: exploring the world, going to nicer restaurants or even drinking ayahuasca. Endless motivational memes urge us to spend money on experiences not things, as they will stick with us. There are even movements, like Minimalism , that urge us to let go of worldly possessions, (perfectly parodied by JP Sears). To top all of that there are even studies that prove that we are happier if we spend on travel rather than possessions.
This sort of thinking penetrated the millennial culture beyond the avant-garde of penniless hippie-wannabes, and was warmly embraced even by normally materialistic consultants, bankers and asset managers.
Even as we got up the career ladder and are slowly settling down, chats with my friends still revolve about saving for travels rather than for mortgages (let alone mega cars or designer clothes), and that is not only because we can barely afford anywhere nice and the fact that we are much worse off than our profligate Baby-Boomer parents.
An interesting blog post (in Serbian) by an acquaintance on the topic and a ridiculously overpriced dinner of instagrammable but not particularly tasty food, got me thinking about whether we are indeed above consumerism.
I wonder if we would have been as happy trawling around the world or spending way too much money on pretty food if it wasn’t for the possibility to sharing photos or updates about us doing so to our friends and wider world.
Social media not only helped our shift towards experiences by opening our eyes to the world of possibilities in a click and turning our wider friend-circle into an army of trusted reviewers.
It also allowed us to avoid spending money on clothes and trinkets, by giving us the opportunity to commodify and fetishize our experiences and signal our views, values and, of course, status though sharing them with a click. To see how that works, think if you have ever done something primarily in order to be able to share it online. Have you every ordered a flat white just to share the little foam art or went to a place to just to check in?
To be clear, I do not think our conspicuous consumption of experiences (“conspicuous experiencing”) is particularly bad or even worse much than conspicuous consumption of fur coats and jewels.
Given that I am an avid blogger, heavy social media user and obsessed with journaling my life, I would have not survived that level of cognitive dissonance. Although one can imagine scenarios where such life would lead to a dystopian future, like in that excellent episode of Black Mirror, I do not believe we need to stir a moral panic about experience economy. However, I also do not believe that our switch to experience economy is a sign of moral improvement or greater self-awareness of our generation. I think we just found a more effective way for conspicuous consumption, because thanks to technology we extended it all the way from clothes and houses to snacks and coffee.
Sharing your trip to an exotic country, paid yoga class or a good dinner, probably serves the aims of conspicuous consumption better than a pretty bag or watch: it shows that you are intrinsically adventurous, able bodied, spiritual and in possession of great taste. You can only war a bag for so long, while a (staged) glimpse in your daily life shows you do these things effortlessly all the time. If doing things increases your attractiveness more than owning things, it makes all the sense to pay for that retreat in the jungle your friend just went to rather than splurge on a bag.
Now you may argue that doing yoga, or travelling or developing a taste for quinoa does indeed make your life better, by making you calmer, open-minded, or healthier, while having more stuff doesn’t. You would probably be right, however my limited experience in life taught me that to benefit from many of these experiences, it also matters to know why.
Consider travel, the most prized activity in the experience economy. The person who travels to increase the number of countries visited and gain likes will have a very different experience compared to someone who goes somewhere because they have a genuine interest in the place. By using our holidays to signal our awesomeness to ourselves and the world, we miss out on the benefit from being somewhere else which is doing something different and seeing the world a bit differently. Ultimately, there is no need to climb a volcano to shout to the people that you are awesome — you can do it by never leaving your home.
As humans we have a natural need to seek approval from others and we construct and communicate our identities through consumption. This aspect of human nature works the same when you are choosing bling and instagrammable yoga retreats. It’s just a shame that our parents spent so much on the former so now we can only content ourselves with instagramming the latter. It’s also a shame that for all of our smugness about our buying experiences, we are not that much better than them.