Airbnb and the Death of the American Dream

Something funny happened after World War II – America experienced an unprecedented economic expansion that lasted 65 years. Three generations grew up in an era of profound materialism rooted in a culture of rugged individualism, and it has shaped a world where we all have, want, and desperately need our own possessions and our own services. But in the wake of this great recession, we cannot afford our individualism any longer. This great recession has borne a new movement toward sharing and communalism that will change the way we consume and perhaps erode our sense of individualism forever.

America’s economic expansion lasted 65 years. It lasted so long, in fact, that many people – especially the people who try to sell you retirement funds – really started to believe that it would never end – that America’s economy would continue experiencing bull and bear markets, but that the general trend would be up, up, and up.

We were all told that we deserve our own house, with our own white picket fence, our own car, a second car for sweetie, a third car for junior, because how else would we all get ourselves from our 5000 square foot houses to the starbucks across the street from the super-target (with a starbucks) across from the barnes and nobles (with a starbucks) across the street from the mega-mall (complete with its very own starbucks). Why should Don Draper mow his own lawn? He can buy a riding-lawnmower and drive-around the back yard on the weekends. In fact, why ask the neighbor boy to mow it when he can hire a lawncare service that will even clean our pool?

We were told that if we want to vacation – get your own hotel room. If you want to visit a lakehouse? Why not buy a vacation home? Like fishing? Buy a boat. If a Stepford wife said she needed a new car every two years, then goddamit she was going to go out and buy one. For we all had to keep up with the Jones.’ And in an era when the middle class was growing and the American Dream was alive and well, this all seemed to make sense.

We were all told sold this American Dream by the media and by marketers, and when we couldn’t afford it, we bought it on credit.

Then the great recession happened. And right around the same time, services that espoused sharing emerged. More than just espousing it, these new services made sharing sexy and new. “Can’t afford your own hotel suite with kitchenette and two bedrooms for you, your wife, and the kids?” “That’s ok – rent mine!” Or better yet: “Can’t afford the mortgage on that vacation home any more?” “Been trying to sell it for months to pay the bills but no one is buying?” “No problem: Rent it out every weekend!” Services like Airbnb, more so than couchsurfing, tapped this Amelie-esque desire to see the world on a budget, to be quirky and creative and thrifty in their adventure-seeking. Its a new form of aspirational message that is conscious of the consumer’s limited-means.

Airbnb has been growing steadily for four years, and is now a Silicon Valley darling. And hot on its heels are a slew of others. Their elevator pitch is something like “We’re Airbnb for X” where X may be cars, bikes, storage space, office space, tutoring, or errands.” There’s RenttheRunway – where you can rent a designer gown for the weekend – they’ll even send you two sizes to make sure it fits. ToolSpinner lets you rent tools like lawnmowers.

They’re calling this space “collaborative consumption” and saying that Airbnb is screwing big corporate hotel chains and democratizing the travel industry, but it’s actually doing much more than that. This movement represents an economic and cultural shift in reaction to the great recession and the resulting erosion of the American Dream. It represents a shift in how we define the aspirational American life. And this shift is long overdue.

So why didn’t this fundamental shift occur sooner? Why did I we spend money on that riding-lawnmower that sat around in the garage accumulating dust after it stopped working? It’s a depreciating asset that we’ll only use twice a month – why in the hell wouldn’t you want to spread the cost of it out?

The answer is American individualism. If I still lived in a 5 bedroom house with my brothers, sisters, their wives and families, and our parents, we would all buy one lawnmower together. But the American dream, suburbanization, individualism, and materialism all conspired so that each of my siblings now has their own house with white-picket-fence lawn, so we can’t share. And organizing a group of neighbors who want to share a lawnmower would be so much effort, and would make the other Stepford Husbands think I couldn’t afford my own.

Political scientists have observed that the communalism that is prevalent in European and Asian cultures if often missing in the American way of life. Americans would much rather rent a hotel room than stay with their cousin. They would much rather send their family member to a retirement community than have their parents move-in with them. And as long as we were wealthy we could afford our individualism but we no longer can.

And coinciding with our inability to afford everything we need and a slew of new online services that take old ideas like Avis and ZipCar, mix-in our facebook friends-lists, and create an online community of peer-to-peer sharing.

Over the very long term, the idea of Airbnb may crowd-out a vast segment of the hospitality industry. Just as, over the long term, car-sharing services like GetAround and Wheelz may crowd-out the idea of car-rentals. In fact, today ZipCar – which is a client-server model of car-sharing, lead the Series A financing round in peer-to-peer car-sharing network Wheelz. This speaks to the idea that ZipCar sees Wheelz eventually crowding-out the client-server model.

So in a way, the idea that the internet is creating a global village, an idea that may have seemed corny to me a decade ago in the time of geocities and yahoo groups, now seems relevant again. The communalistic approach to possessions and services which we may have lost, we are finding again through these services.

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