Our most "heavyweight" possession is an ancient Audi, which my husband needs for his college course, but we plan to sell that and sign up to Zipcar. It's one less thing to worry about, one less object weighing us down. Today we could fly across the world to a new life at the drop of a hat.
Could you live without shelves full of your possessions? (Getty)
No one is more amazed than me how good it feels to be this portable. For years I was fiercely attached to my stuff, believing that my CDs, books, DVDs and knick-knacks said something about me. Without my things, where was the evidence of my personality? I wanted people to nod approvingly at my Coen brothers' films, ask probing questions about my JG Ballard novels and seethe with jealousy at my ability to unearth retro kitchenware in charity shops. Now I realise that living a "lightweight lifestyle" says more about me – and many people like me – than any CD shelf.
In late 2012 the venture capitalist and digital analyst Mary Meeker was among the first to identify what she labelled "the asset-light generation", who access documents, music, film and other media digitally, rather than in some material form. Meeker also alluded to the sharing economy – also known as the "pay-as-you-live" market – as evidence that consumers are increasingly preoccupied with "access" rather than "ownership". And it is everywhere, manifest in the success of companies such as Zipcar, Spotify, Girl Meets Dress and Airbnb, where individuals rent out spare rooms or their homes to total (albeit ID-vetted) strangers via a central search engine.
This is no easy transition – and I should know. It was gut-wrenching to donate our 1,200-strong CD collection to Oxfam. I cried at the sight of the Primal Scream CD – the soundtrack to my teenage years – going in a cardboard box. To David Mattin, a lead strategist at trendwatching.com, this anxiety is a hangover from a time when clutter mattered.
"Historically the physical – and therefore visible – has been the primary way for consumers to display status, and to tell others, 'This is who I am,' or, 'This is what I love.' The record collection sitting on the shelves was a marker of commitment to music, and of taste and sensibility," he says. "Today there are more powerful ways to show that commitment and taste: by curating and sharing online, by devising playlists and so on. That historic link between status and the physical has been definitively broken. It's a key change."
Naturally it maddens me that my copy of The Luminaries on my Kindle can't be passed on to a friend, surely one of the primary joys of reading. And while record collections can be handed down, iTunes libraries currently can't. But the reality is that most of us need the space more than we need a bunch of plastic (or vinyl) memories.
A typical dress on the Girl Meets Dress site
Among my friends there is zero stigma attached to borrowing or renting, whether it's music, film, clothes, cars or flats. It doesn't matter that you hired the Amanda Wakeley gown you're wearing to a work do – you had the taste to choose it, and that is what counts. A couple on a weekend jaunt to a boutique hotel are as likely to roll up in a rental Zipcar as a Jag – a fact of which the American car industry is excruciatingly aware. Today adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 per cent of all new vehicles sold there, compared with 38 per cent in 1985. Fewer than half of potential drivers aged 19 or younger had a licence in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998.
When we lose possession, of course, there are gains to be made elsewhere. "Convenience, access to a wider range of products and services, the excitement of an endless stream of new products and services, freeing oneself from the hassle of ownership – these are just a few factors driving engagement in the sharing economy," says Mattin.
Anna Bance, the founder of Girl Meets Dress, agrees that there's more to it than stinginess. "When we launched back in 2009, the recession mindset dominated, and 'cost per use' was a huge driver. But what seems increasingly important is quality of experience, selection and convenience. Rental is a way for consumers to access items and extract value without overheads and headaches."
Another factor, Bance says, is the rise of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
"The proliferation of social media has a lot to do with an increasing social pressure on how we look, which has heightened the growing desire for people to make a statement with their fashion and for a woman's desire not to wear the same dress twice." Once a single outfit would see you through a summer of weddings, but I now know women who have banished a favourite dress to the back of their wardrobes because they have been Instagrammed in it too often.
I've also detected a new sense among the middle class that the lifestyle to which we aspire can be ours, if we get scrappier, make savings and generate extra income. We're a generation reared on great expectations – a Gossip Girl wardrobe, Mr & Mrs Smith minibreaks, dinners worthy of Jamie – and we've tired of the "ooh, better not" mindset of the recession. So is it the case that we remain as acquisitive as ever but our strategy for getting what we want has changed?
"Some consumers engage in the sharing economy to subsidise their high expectations," says Mattin. "But it's fairer to say that we are so accustomed to material abundance, so surrounded by possessions, that the prospect of owning yet more has lost its lustre. Instead, we've fallen in love with the convenience and sustainability of instant access."
In recent years I've also observed a pervasive eco- and socially minded aversion to waste, whether it's your spare room or the unused tools in your shed. My wardrobe is 90 per cent vintage and second-hand, and I don't really feel as if I own any of it. It is more like borrowing a tweed jacket, using it for a while, and then returning it back to the world it came from. The same goes for everything from our sofa to crockery. Buyer's remorse is a thing of the past: there is no guilt when I can sell an item on should it become obsolete. I buy something from someone who loved it, use it and take care of it, assuming that eventually I will sell it on to someone else who will love and use it too.
While for many Airbnb users the best thing about the site is that it allows you to share your experience, knowledge and décor with others, it's also, of course, a means of generating extra income. When my husband Sean and I were between house moves we stayed at an Airbnb property in Streatham owned by Ceire Clark and her husband, Dario – one of 14,000 hosts currently renting out their properties through Airbnb in Britain.
"We didn't buy our house with the intention to rent rooms," Clark tells me, "but after a while we became more aware of how much we were wasting this space. Our financial circumstances had also changed, and Airbnb gave us a bit more security at an unpredictable time."
It isn't without a downside, however. The sharing economy pivots on trust, and sometimes trust is misplaced. In March the American comedian Ari Teman leased his apartment in New York to guests who used it to hold an orgy. (Airbnb has reportedly offered Teman $23,817 for the damage caused.)
There is also the fact that many tenancy agreements prohibit subletting. We had to get special permission from our landlord to advertise our place on Airbnb, but it has enabled us to rent a nicer home than we would be able to afford otherwise. Others worry about the impact on the hotel industry (Airbnb looks set to become the world's largest hotelier within the year, overtaking both Hilton and the InterContinental Hotels Group) and argue that countries are losing millions through undeclared tax.
"The natural evolution of technology is what disrupts economies, not companies themselves," says Bance. "Technological innovation creates new possibilities and demands from consumers, and then there are opportunities for the likes of Girl Meets Dress, Airbnb and others to fill that gap. Existing companies need to keep up with the evolution of technology and understand how it might shape or make their current operations obsolete or uncompetitive." She points out that a recent Zipcar report estimated that Britain's "pay-as-you-live" market could be worth £22.4 billion.
Whatever your take on it, the sharing economy isn't going away. Lightweight living has enabled my friends and me to be much freer in our decisions. Not being bound to a mortgage meant there was no hand-wringing, no jitters about whether we could meet our repayments, when Sean recently decided to give up his job and retrain in horticulture – it has just required a few adjustments, such as taking a "holiday from holidays" and swapping Waitrose for Aldi – and at some point I hope to take time off to write a book. My sister is moving to Los Angeles, which is far easier when your Zipcar account is valid in both countries and Airbnb essentially allows you to "swap" one flat for another. That takes care of two of the biggest financial burdens while she settles in.
A friend recently left her husband after years of unhappiness, admitting that she stuck it out so long only because she couldn't cope with the upheaval of dividing their things. Post charity-shop purge, she says, "If you don't own a CD collection to merge with your boyfriend's, relationships are a lot less complicated."
And, funnily enough, Primal Scream sounds exactly the same on Spotify as it did on that battered old CD.