Things vs Experiences

So, I’m sure you’ve heard all about the fact that millennials are now preferring to spend their money on experiences than on things. If you haven’t, here are two links talking about it. As usual in today’s world, in general this is all wrapped around a self-aggrandizing argument over how they are rejecting materialism and embracing environmentalism and all of that. Of course, there are likely to be counter-claims that instead this just proves that millenials are frivolous, spending their money on fleeting fancies rather than on things that maintain value. And, unfortunately, I think that a case can be made that millennials don’t really get a lot of what drives people to buy things, and so are rejecting buying things out of a misplaced idea of doing so taken from the extremes of materialism. Now, of course, my criticism could be doing the same, but I’m going to try to outline what spending money on things really buys you.

The first thing to consider is that money spent on experiences is lost while money spent on things gives you something more tangible. If you spent $100 on a night out, that $100 is spent. You had the experiences and have the memories, but nothing else. On the other hand, if I spend $100 on the Persona Dancing games, I now own those games. I can play them every night if I want to. I can put them aside for months and play them again. You simply can’t do that with experiences, other than looking at the pictures you stored on your phone that you took during the event and remembering what happened. For pretty much all of my hobbies, owning the things allows me to re-use them later. It would take me at least a year if not longer to re-read all of the books that I’ve collected over the years. I could watch DVD TV shows and movies for at least two years without repeating a series. I could play video games for years without repeating as well, unless I wanted to. I have played my favourite three games for literally thousands of hours and could do so again. Even where I personally am the most frivolous — with board games — I have a collection that could keep me occupied for at least a year if I ever had the time to play them. Owning the things is far more cost effective than paying for a fleeting experience where at the end of the day all I get out of it are those memories.

This also carries over into considerations of how things would go if I suddenly started having financial problems. As seen above, I have lots of things that I could return to if I couldn’t afford to buy new things. None of them really “go bad” and so other than potentially needing to make sure that I have the hardware available to use those things — obviously books and board games need none, video games the most expensive hardware — enjoying them again — or, in some cases, for the first time — will not cost me one cent extra. For me, if I get into financial trouble I can keep doing the things I love to do. For the millennial, that won’t be the case.

Now, of course, an objection that can be raised here is that I am a very bad example to use for this because I’m not at all like most people. This is a fair objection, but this advantage still holds out for most other people. Let’s take one of the most common examples of frivolous material spending: women’s shoes (the most frivolous example for men is power tools, but at least they claim to be useful for something other than merely for show, even if lots of men would buy them just for show). If a woman spends lots of money collecting many, many pairs of shoes, unless her feet grow for some reason again if cared for and rarely worn — which is when the purchases would be at their most frivolous — they can still be used. If she suddenly started having financial problems, she could simply wear some of those older pairs of shoes and get pretty much the same effect as she had with the new ones: as long as they were not too scuffed, most people wouldn’t be able to tell that she wasn’t wearing a new pair. It wouldn’t quite catch the latest fashions, but as those are cyclical anyway there’s a pretty good chance that some of them would either be timeless classics or else back in fashion. So at least she’d have a chance of being able to re-use them and still look smart and in-style without having to spend more money. The experiences, on the other hand, would be lost.

We can also challenge the environmentalist claims of the millennials. While they talk about things like sharing, if you look at my example we can see that my view counters with “Re-use”. I don’t need to share my things with others because I use them again and again and again. At times, this can indeed stop me from buying something new if I don’t have any need for it. It’s hard to argue that experiences avoiding buying a material thing are better than re-use, especially since things are consumed and therefore lost while generating any experience. They don’t waste less than I do if I purchase something and constantly reuse it while they consume things that are lost.

And the thing about holding material things is that you do, in fact, have them yourself as things. This, then, allows for you to use things as much as you want and, if they are not completely used up, sell them to allow someone else to use them at a reduced cost and to generate money to purchase new things. I used to do this all the time with books, buying from a used book store, keeping the ones I liked and selling the ones I didn’t to get new books and repeating the cycle. Returning to the woman and her shoes, if they haven’t been used she can potentially sell them to thrift stores and the like and get some extra money if times are tough or get some money to buy new shoes. And if she can afford new shoes, she can give them straight to charity and just buy new shoes, making things even better. I personally just donated a box of books to the local library because I was cleaning out my books and realized that I was never, ever, ever going to read them again. The used market for things allows for sharing things like the millennials do without introducing the issue of using the thing in such a way that the other people you’re sharing with also get their full use of the thing. I use my things until I’m not using them anymore, and if they can still be used I can pass them along to someone else. And if they can’t be used anymore, then, yes, I throw them out, but then they are things that can’t be used anymore, which means that that’s the place for them.

You can’t sell used experiences.

Ultimately, a lot of the shots at materialism ignore that for most people, most of the time, things are not bought simply to have things, but instead for a specific reason. The most common reason is to have or facilitate experiences with those things. All of the things I talked about above are things that I used to have enjoyable experiences. Yes, some of them are a bit solitary in nature, but many of them can be used to generate experiences with others. And if someone buys a boat or an ATV or a snowmobile, most often they are doing that to have experiences with those things that include other people. They buy the boat, generally, so that they can go boating, and often so that they can go boating with other people. So people often buy things not to own things but instead to have experiences. It’s just that things can generate experiences repeatedly.

For most other things, they are bought for a purpose; the things specifically allow us to do things or are necessary for us to live our lives. The worst abuses of things for the sake of things usually follow from status-seeking: things are bought not because they are necessary, but instead because they give an appearance of wealth or status that the person is aspiring to or wants people to think they have. There are two issues, however, with considering this to be more frivolous than the millennial experience seeking. The first is that often that status can be used as a tool to generate something else that is desirable. If you’re trying to woo investors into a company, for example, looking like you’re a success can influence them into thinking better of you than they might otherwise. You probably want to look successful, even if being more of a cheapskate would mean that you’re probably a better candidate to invest in. The second is that this is about status, not about things. Experiences, then, can and will be used in the precise same way, with people pushing themselves into more expensive experiences so that they can show that they are adventurous or successful or tuned into the current culture. So the abuses will occur whether you’re seeking experiences or seeking things because what you’re really seeking in that case is status, and it seems likely that we will be seeking status for years if not centuries to come.

Millennials deliberately seeking experiences over things can fairly charged with being frivolous for the simple reason that things are generally used to generate experiences but are, in fact, reusable, and so can keep generating experiences time and time again. Simple experiences simply cannot do that. Now, for the most part this is a false dichotomy anyway, because most people will want simple experiences at times that don’t involve buying things. People will want to eat out, go to live concerts, have a picnic, whatever. We all have a mix of hobbies that we can do using things and that don’t really involve things. So going out and having mere experiences isn’t an issue. Deliberately training yourself and your hobbies to prioritize the strict experiences over things that have more reusability is out of a misguided sense that someone that’s not materialistic and is therefore “better” is, however.

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