ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
By now, you've probably heard about the so-called rental or sharing economy, where young people own a lot fewer things than their parents did. Instead, they rent and share a whole lot more - houses, cars, music, workspaces. In some places, this rental life has gone to an extreme.
NPR's Sam Sanders has one such story.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Steven T. Johnson works in social media advertising, and he spends most of his days using things he does not own.
STEVEN T JOHNSON: I took an Uber to Equinox to shower before we met and then went to PodShare and then came to WeWork.
SANDERS: Steven took a ride-share to get to the gym he uses. He does not own a car. At the gym, he rents a locker. He uses the gym's laundry service because he does not own a washing machine. He doesn't even have an apartment, actually.
SANDERS: We were going to meet at PodShare, this co-living space where Steven rents a bed - just a bed - in a big, open room with about a dozen other people. But it was too loud. So we went to his co-working space, a place called WeWork, where Steven rents a desk. WeWork is also an NPR sponsor.
How do you keep track?
JOHNSON: That's what's great. When you don't own things, you don't have to keep track of them. You just show up.
SANDERS: Steven owns so little, he can carry most of his stuff in his hands.
JOHNSON: I actually gave up my backpack about - that was the smallest I got down to - and I gave that up two months ago.
SANDERS: Steven also only owns two outfits - well, two of the same outfit.
JOHNSON: Under Armour brand-less sport shoes, Lululemon pants, Lululemon socks, Lululemon shirt, Lululemon underwear.
SANDERS: Steven is part of a newish group of young people - kind of well-off but also, in a way, homeless.
Does Steven represent a fundamental shift in American capitalism as we know it?
SKYLER WANG: The fact is that we can't afford to sort of hoard anymore.
SANDERS: That's Skylar Wang. He's a Ph.D. student at UC, Berkeley. He studies the sociology of the sharing economy. And he thinks one of the biggest factors in this economic shift is younger people buying fewer houses and choosing to live in dense urban areas and rent smaller places.
Part of this is houses just being more expensive than they were for our parents. But when you're more OK with renting the place you live in, it's maybe a lot easier to accept the life where you rent and share a whole lot more.
Wang does point out even if young people own less, they still have a lot of stuff, stuff that isn't tangible.
WANG: I talked to a lot of minimalists. They are the type of people who love to couch-surf, right? They own, like, 30 things, but then the interesting thing is that they hoard digitally.
SANDERS: They hoard digitally.
WANG: They have tons of photographs. They have thousands and thousands of Instagram posts.
SANDERS: It's still an economy of stuff. It's just different stuff. It's experiences. So how do businesses deal with this? For starters, a lot more companies are getting into rentals. Even IKEA is starting to lease its furniture. The outdoor chain REI announced recently that it's vastly expanding its rental program for things like camping gear. Eric Artz is the acting CEO of the company. He says this requires a different kind of outreach - selling experience more than the actual item.
ERIC ARTZ: We're selling joy. You know, we're selling inspiration when you get out on a trail or go for a bike ride. You know, we're selling the adrenaline buzz at the end of a run. We're just trying to enable that in any way we possibly can.
SANDERS: We should point out REI is an NPR sponsor.
Juliet Schor is a sociologist at Boston College. She studies the rental and sharing economies. And she says not everyone's in it for the same reasons. Some are doing it just for joy. Some are doing it to move towards more personal and less corporate transactions. Others are willing to spend more for convenience. But a lot rent and share because they're broke and they need to save money.
JULIET SCHOR: So I think it's a mistake to characterize them with one kind of economic orientation or orientation to money.
SANDERS: Which makes it really hard to predict whether renting and sharing is our long-term future or just a fad, even for Steven Jones (ph) who is totally plugged in to a rental life.
JOHNSON: It's not something that you can do forever because you do need to have a place that you can genuinely point to and say this is my home.
SANDERS: I asked him how long he can live the way he's living now - a bed in a large, shared room. He's already done that off and on for more than a year, sometimes for months at a time.
Steven tells me he does not know, but he also says he didn't think he'd make it this far.
Sam Sanders, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Near the end of the audio version of this report, we mistakenly refer to Steven Johnson as Steven Jones.]
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