Ford Motor Company isn’t exactly the exemplar of the “sharing economy.” But this week, the automaker announced it would team up with car-sharing startup Getaround to bring thousands of its vehicles into the peer-to-peer rental space.
Under the partnership, a combined 26,000 Ford owners in six U.S. cities and London can list their cars on Getaround’s app to be rented out by others. The arrangement, said Ford Vice President of Marketing David McClelland, is a response to “customers’ desires to pick up extra cash and keep their vehicles in use.”
As one of the highest-profile forays of a major corporation into the sharing economy to date, Ford’s move represents a concession that the millennial generation -- the group born between 1980 and 2000 -- has redefined consumption in the 21st century.
“Ford is really trying to learn the future of car-sharing,” says Padden Murphy, Getaround’s head of business development. As Americans' relationships with car travel evolve, he explains, “the current paradigm of vehicle ownership isn’t going to make sense.”
In a week when the 112-year-old Ford pushed into the sharing space, Taylor Swift stared down Apple over streaming rights and a Harvard report showed homeownership dropping to a 20-year low, it’s tempting to declare a new millennial-driven economic paradigm. As the popular thinking goes, millennials value access more than ownership. No need to own a car when you can rent a Zipcar. Why get tied down with a mortgage when renters can pick up at any moment and move?
But the question remains whether millennials are reshaping the economy -- or economics shaped millennials.
A $335 Billion Question
When it comes to buying a home, the most consequential economic decision most households will face, millennials do lag behind their parents' generation. As an influential 2011 Morgan Stanley research note declared, the decade has seen the rise of a renter society.
The homeownership rate for people under 35 stands more than 7 percent below its 2004 peak. According to one survey, the share of millennial households renting has increased from 37 percent in 2010 to roughly 50 percent today.
If the 80 million-strong Generation Y is happier renting, Ford’s move makes sense. But it raises uncomfortable questions for incumbent industries. Namely, why would a century-old automobile manufacturer hop in bed with a company whose stated ambition is to “take millions of cars off the road”?
Murphy argues the partnership makes economic sense for Ford. The average Getaround owner in San Francisco makes $521 a month, he says. Suddenly, "a normal person can afford a brand-new 2015 Ford Fusion.”
Whether that math ends up helping or hurting companies like Ford is a $335-billion question, according to an analysis from PwC. Industries that have been blindsided by the renting economy -- taxis by Uber, hotels by Airbnb and, arguably, music publishers by streaming services -- can attest to the impacts of changing consumption habits.
On one hand, millennials have come of age at a time when technological advances allowed more possessions to live online. Stacks of CDs and gigabytes of MP3 files, for instance, have given way to the leasing of remote hard-drive storage -- i.e., storing music in the cloud.
But millennials also came of age during the Great Recession and its slow, grinding aftermath. Their habits were shaped by a bottoming-out of the housing market and the disappearance of easy credit. The generation with the highest-ever burden of student loan debt also saw a sharp contraction in wages, which have dropped 5 percent in real terms since 2004 for those aged 25-34.
Sharing, Not Caring
Those forces have had deep impacts on consumer behavior. When University of Pittsburgh business professor Cait Lamberton launched into a study of sharing-economy behaviors, she expected to find participants inspired by a desire to share with others and reduce consumption. They’d be eager to build communal ties and connect with their peers. But for the most established sharing-economy companies, she found something else.
"Once those sharing systems get big enough, the consumer takes on a pretty rational mindset," Lamberton says. "They think about whether the sharing economy is going to give them what they want for their money."
In other words, Lamberton found that it’s economic necessity that has driven millennials toward shared and rented resources. Though some preferences have changed, it’s largely the desire to make a little extra cash that attracts younger adults to apps like Lyft and Taskrabbit.
That has major implications for mortgage lenders wondering whether millennials will ever buy homes and car sellers biting their nails over Uber, because what has often been cast as a cultural revolution might just be a passing economic reality.
“If you’re marketing something like Airbnb based on the idea that you’re going to make friends, you may be setting customers up for a disappointment,” says Lamberton. “Consumers see it as a way to save money.”
Not Far From The Tree
That argument extends to housing. When it comes to owning a home, many housing analysts say Generation Y wants to put down roots just as badly as previous generations did. A survey released earlier this year by the Urban Land Institute found that the share of millennials who anticipate owning a home -- now 70 percent -- has actually increased since 2010.
As Fannie Mae’s chief economist told the Wall Street Journal, “The millennials are telling us they want to own a home eventually, no different from the aspirations of their parents or grandparents.”
Meanwhile, the much-vaunted shift into rentals, commonly blamed on Generation Y, has been driven more by older generations. Between 1993 and 2014, the drop in homeownership for those under 35 has been just shy of 2 percent, according to a Harvard study. But for those between 35 and 44, homeownership has plunged nearly 6 percent. And 42 percent of rental growth in the last decade came from households ages 55 and over, far outstripping the contribution of millennials.
Similarly, though millennials are more open to car-sharing arrangements than their elders, they aspire to own cars at rates similar to previous generations. A survey released earlier this year found that nearly nine in 10 prefer owning their own car. At least one in four new cars today are sold to millennials.
The full scope of this reality -- that millennials might not differ all that much from previous generations of consumers -- has eluded parts of the popular press. Headlines blare things like “Millennials don't care about owning anything, and it's destroying traditional retail,” and “Millennials put off home buying, despite rising rent.”
Those pronouncements might hold true for the share of millennials who live in the Bay Area or New York. In fact, the Goldman Sachs note that inspired some of the alarmed headlines derived its statistics from the “Goldman Sachs Fortnightly Thoughts intern survey, 2013.”
But Goldman Sachs interns renting apartments in Manhattan and preferring Uber to car ownership hardly represent a generation. It’s fair to say that technology has indelibly altered how those in their twenties and thirties approach the market. And attitudes toward cultural norms like marriage have certainly evolved. But the reasons why millennials enjoy streaming music have little to do with the vast structural factors that have kept them from owning homes.