From Ownership to Access

In case it hasn’t become evident already, I’m a Baby-Boomer. So is my wife who was my high school sweetheart. We were both raised in Middle America with traditional values which we adopted – get educated, work at a career, own a house and two cars, support your local school and church, enjoy the American Dream.

The American Dream is, according to our friends at Wikipedia (sorry to those of you who think it’s a site that makes kids dumb, but I find it very much a modern encyclopedia that is highly useful and mostly filled with very useful information):

In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

[BTW: Can you spell E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A from memory? Did you learn to spell it from Jiminy Cricket too.]

Anyway, the American Dream also included a good steady job which was secure (if not enjoyable), traditional family values, and “things” – cars, boats, color TVs, golf clubs and country club membership, community and social activities including civic clubs and churches – along with grand kids, retirement, etc. A less proclaimed element of this American Dream was that one’s children would have more and better than their parents. The children of the Great Generation were ‘encouraged’ to go to college and become a professional something and try to make more money than their parents. The children of Baby-Boomers were ‘expected’ to go to college, maybe graduate school, and have better careers and make even more money than their parents.

The children of Gen X were expected to ??????? This is where the American Dream began to break down, or at least change to something else – just what is the big question. We’ve already seen that many children of Boomers are back home living with Mom & Dad because the economy is in the crapper, jobs are scarce, careers are indeterminate, employment is unstable, creative young people are taking their college fund and doing something else with it, families are fragile and less permanent, and a myriad of factors have been instrumental in altering that original post-Depression Era American Dream.

This may seem like a long way around to my point. But, a serious understanding of the “ownership” culture, and its demise is essential to understanding an “access” culture. Previous generations expected to own “things”, whether as a simple convenience to enjoy, or as a status symbol for some. Ownership was the only thing previous generations have known.

I offer myself as an example of the typical transition from the “ownership” culture to an “access” culture. My wife and I (Boomers), and our daughter (Gen X), are all avid moviephiles. We have spent many hours going to the movies, and hundreds of dollars collecting our favorite movies on VHS – beginning in 1984 when we bought our first VCR – and the brand new boxed set of Gone With The Wind that prompted that purchase. (Last Christmas we gave our daughter the boxed set GWTW on Blu-ray.) We moved on to collecting DVD movies, because digital gives a much better quality picture and sound, has non-linear access features, is in the original theatrical format, easier to store, and again, we satisfied that “ownership” culture. (Only a few very special Blu-ray movies today, since that new media is not yet affordable enough. One has to wait for the next generation of technology and media to emerge before the previous generation is truly affordable to the average consumer.)

We’re so much moviephiles that we often respond to conversation with movie quotes, and we can pretty much quote whole sections of our favorite movies back and forth. We have a DVD collection of about 50 of the 83 Academy Award Best Picture winners, out of a total collection of 300+ DVD movies (and a whole bunch of VHS movies not yet produced or affordable on DVD). You have to realize that this collection goes back to the days well before Blockbuster and Hollywood Video, and even before libraries began to develop a media collection. (Holy Cow!) So, “access” was not a natural or economical vision of the future.

Back to my point. For Christmas our daughter bought us a subscription to Netflix. “I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.”1 at the thought of 100,000 film titles, even though there may be 10 million other subscribers competing for the same movie. (My favorite excited quote is what Clay Stone says about a happy puppy in City Slickers, but that wouldn’t be appropriate here.)

Thus, we Baby-Boomers have begun the transition from our deeply ingrained “ownership” culture to an “access” culture.

So far, this “access” situation has shown only advantages. It is hard to find any fault with 24/7 access to our favorite movies we don’t own (assuming uninterrupted Internet service, which is pretty much a sure deal these days since I can’t remember the last time our service went down), or at least get the DVD within two days. When we move next time, and hopefully to our retirement (dreams Die Hard with a Vengeance) location, we will have fewer “things” to pack and move – possibly only the Best Picture award collection (some habits Die Harder).

Even though there is an anxiety that goes with attempting to rely on “access” after being raised in an “ownership” culture, as I sit here typing and listening to The Beatles classic “Let it be” on YouTube, I now have a better appreciation of the “access” culture that borders on respect. Gen Y and Gen Net young people take “access” for granted, and the totally 21st Century generation may never understand “ownership”, because they expect “access” to become better and even more accessible – continuous mobile connectivity.

1. Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, “A Christmas Carol” (1951)


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4 responses to “From Ownership to Access

  1. I agree with your ideas that the current generation feels entitled to access to everything. When we wanted to hear a song, we would have to re-play our LP’s (records) over and over again. No downloading and having instant access anytime anywhere. My American Dream has included the proverbial home and 2 cars. My career(s), however have been several, and none for more than about 15 years at a time (okay, yes, I’m a “boomer” too). I actually have liked this lifestyle better than working at the same ol’ same ol’ for 20 or 30 years. I am now comfortable working at the Library!

    • Libraries are good places to be, both enjoying as a customer and for a job.

      But, the reason I’m replying is your clarification of LP. EVERY Boomer knows what LP means in that context, but yet we feel it is important to clarify our communications for ALL readers. I can’t help but wonder if that is part of the nature of our generation vs. younger generations that seem not to care whether their communications are understood by all readers. Or, maybe it’s just the nature of ‘writers’ in general.

      I do know one thing that is very disturbing to me is the increased tendency of younger generations for neologism, or more technically correct creating portmanteau words. I heard a disgusting one just last night, and it seems like there are new ones every day. (I doubt Brangelina are thrilled with that tag. BTW: Is that a singular or plural term?)

      At least in our youth we just made up terms and attributed our own meanings – Right On!

  2. Dr. Matthews,

    I am a business student at SUNY Oswego and an admitted library addict. I stumbled upon your blog while looking up information on modern libraries and what they’ll be like. Yet this article really piqued my interest. I am the child of a couple of baby-boomers and am all too aware of the dilemma you are addressing in the American dream.

    You are entirely right about the shift from ownership to access! I suppose my generation is just used to the concept of non-ownership in media. I never thought enough about it to realize it is a reasonably new practice. My parents have also begun adopting the concept with Netflix as well. Much to my surprise(I always thought old people were violently resistant to change! Hardy har har.)

    How far do you think the access trend will spread in our lifetimes? There are now Netflix clones for books, video games, etc. ZipCar lets us share cars(a sadly underused service in my college town. We have two ZipCars that are rarely seen off a campus of 4,000 residents). What other possibilities in information and the physical realm do you see moving into the access realm?

    • Thanks for the affirmation. Glad to know I’m relatively typical. 🙂

      Excellent questions about the access trend, and sharing concept. I actually wrote a Post that addressed that issue, among others regarding change and innovation. Another Look Into Your Future included a segment on a future business model referred to as “The Mesh” model of business that includes ZipCars. (As a business student I may be telling you information you already know.)

      “At the TED@MotorCity 2011 Conference, Lisa Gansky, author of “The Mesh,” talks about a future of business that’s about sharing all kinds of stuff, either via smart and tech-enabled rental or, more boldly, peer-to-peer. Examples across industries – from music to cars – show how close we are to this meshy future. The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.

      What do you think are additional areas into which the sharing model will penetrate?

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