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How millennials are reshaping the economy

Recent graduate Verity Babbs – paint on her fingers, a formal dress on under her coat – is hunting for jobs in the arts. She’s spent the morning painting an art installation for a well-known artist, having volunteered her services via Instagram, and is about to attend the official launch of a major festival. She’s been doing some Instagram posts for it and hopes the launch event will be a chance to do some networking. Trusty business cards aside, it has all been arranged via her smartphone.

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Luckily, she also has just enough time to meet me for an interview at an outdoor hub for street-food start-ups in Brixton, south London.

Welcome to job hunting, millennial-style.

For today’s young people looking for a step up, it is from this kind of networking (almost always originating from a social-media conversation) that a career begins – informal, give-and-take transactions that exemplify the somewhat amorphous term ‘the sharing economy’.

From owning to sharing

According to Harvard Business Review, the sharing economy is an umbrella term for a wide range of “non-ownership forms of consumption”. Think swapping, bartering, trading or renting.

The revolution went mainstream with Uber, Airbnb and services such as Spotify, which provide access rather than ownership for users. Without wishing to cause offence, if you think it ends there, however, you’re probably over 40.

For a generation that grew up during or after the 2008 financial crash, the sharing economy makes life more affordable. Even more fundamentally, 43 per cent of US adults familiar with the concept say ownership feels like a “burden”, according to a 2015 report, The Sharing Economy, by global consultancy PwC. So, sharing it is then – and it’s getting big. PwC predicts that five key sectors of the sharing economy – travel, car sharing, finance, staffing, and music and video streaming – will grow from $15 billion globally in 2014 to $335 billion in 2025.

Whether they’re making a little extra cash by renting out their home while they’re away, enjoying the flexibility (or not) of a job driving for Uber or making themselves a standout candidate for a graduate job, for most millennials the sharing economy is the economy.

Making friends

Back in Brixton, Babbs opens her phone to show off the constellation of apps that help her navigate this world. First is Bumble. Ostensibly a dating app where women make the first move, it also hosts Bumble Bizz, a platform you may not have heard of but where employees of some of the biggest law firms, banks and brands are networking, far away from the yawn-inducing world of LinkedIn (dad-dancing in social-media form). In Bumble Bizz, professionally-dressed young men and women – with skills in software engineering, accounting, designing and more – share, swap or sell their skills. 

And then there is Daisie, the brainchild of Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams, where 130,000 artists, musicians and generally creative people can connect and collaborate.

“Having just arrived in London, I’m on the lookout for these opportunities,” says Babbs. “I recently got contacted and asked to do some research on Renaissance art. In return I’ve been told that these guys will make an app for me, if I ever want one.”

With that, Babbs’s networking super-computer – an iPhone 5s – returns to her pocket.

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Powered by smartphones

It is hard to overstate the impact of the modern smartphone, originating with Apple’s first iPhone in 2007. As a means of speeding up communication between people and in commerce, perhaps only the railway can better it. An early international train journey from Brussels to Paris took a quarter of the time it would have by stagecoach. Writing in 1842, Victor Hugo, the journalist and author of Les Misérables, suggested that railways would lead to the arrival of a global culture with a single language.

The jump from the relatively horse-drawn world of 1990s Nokia mobile phones to the smartphone is doing the same for millennials. And what really made the technology take off was the development of apps. Millennials (and, yes, a few oldies) know there are few problems that an app can’t solve – or at least claim to.

Need to get across a city fast? Try Citymapper, a public transit and mapping service that tells you when your bus is arriving or how far your journey would be to walk or cycle.

Got a car? Turn yourself into a taxi with Uber. Or Lyft. Or Haxi.

Or use Shazam to check who that song on the radio is by and end hours of frustration and argument over the group behind Blue (Da Ba Dee). (Answer: Eiffel 65.)

Changing the world

Others have harnessed the new technology to tackle social issues. For a generation that has reached adulthood hearing constant updates about the dire state of our planet – along with the odd economic calamity – the link between ‘shared economy’ and ‘shared resources’ is obvious and unavoidable. 

“We’re about to witness a wholesale change from an unsustainable consumption economy to a sharing economy,” says Tessa Clarke, co-founder of Olio, a food-sharing platform that is seeking to redistribute food that would otherwise be thrown away. In London, big names such as Selfridges have signed up, while individuals who’ve grown, made or bought excess food are also able to let Olio app users pick up food destined for the bin. “What’s important is that no food goes to waste. An area the size of China and a quarter of the world’s fresh water is used to grow food every year,” adds Clarke.

Olio isn’t alone in its quest to lower food waste. Too Good To Go is an app that allows customers to pick up excess food at the end of a store or restaurant’s day at a discounted price. It seems services such as these are overturning old-fashioned taboos about what is waste and what isn’t – and finding traction with enthusiastic and appreciative millennials.

Other apps taking on social issues include Eco Buddy, which helps you calculate your carbon emissions throughout the day, and Buycott, where a barcode scan can instantly inform you if a product meets your own ethical standards. Such apps, and the sharing economy in general, provide a convenient mobile way to do good – vital for a generation for whom increasingly vegan-friendly menus and reusable coffee cups hold near religious importance.

New approaches

The same thinking can also be seen in the rise of ‘open source’ projects. Taking inspiration from early software developers who published their code for others to build on (that’s why anyone can build an iPhone or Android app), open collaboration has spread as an idea and reached into a range of ventures from Wikipedia to Bitcoin. The approach is even creeping into established industries as they face ever-more complex challenges. Nearly 150 industry partners have come together to support Apollo, an open-source platform where car manufacturers and software developers can test their self-driving car technology. And even NASA now makes some of its software open source.

Beyond industry, there are further opportunities to see what this shared-economy thinking means for city life. Wuppertal, 30km from Düsseldorf in Germany, has a five-year research project called Urban Up, looking for “upscaling strategies for an urban sharing economy”.

Dr Karoline Augenstein, co-leader of the project, says: “The aim is to gain a better understanding of how sharing… can contribute to urban transformations and vice versa; how a focus on sustainable cities can help realise the social and environmental potential of the sharing economy.” Ideas include urban gardening, digital workshops, food sharing and repair cafés for putting broken items back into action.

“The sharing economy can rejuvenate traditional communal spaces like parks or public libraries,” she adds.

Growing older

Millennials may have ushered in a new age, pioneering trends such as hot-desking in the workplace and embracing new ways of booking their holiday accommodation, but maybe the true test will come as they start having children. Will they carry on their new sharing approach or just revert to the behaviour of their own parents?

Annalise is a young mother of two boys aged two and four and is keen to draw on the expertise and guidance of other parents. A London-based app called Happity gives her access to her local baby and toddler community, helping her to find free local playgroups, for example. An app called Peanut – tag line: “Meet as Mamas. Connect as Women” – aims to help bring parents together to offer support through the highs, lows and occasional loneliness of pregnancy and early motherhood. Log on to Hoopla, meanwhile, to find kids’ football teams, drama lessons and gymnastics clubs.

“I also use Facebook groups to find second-hand baby clothes and toys,” Annalise adds.

In fact, as millennials move through the key stages of life there is every sign that they are bringing the ideas of the sharing economy with them – all the while aware that the true digital natives of Generation Z are in hot pursuit.

This is part of the reason why Olio’s Clarke believes the new economy is still taking shape. “We’ve barely started this transition, so there are loads of opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs to get in this space,” she says. After all, if PwC’s forecast is right, the sharing economy is set to grow into a market worth $335 billion.

Meanwhile, even our job-hunting graduate Babbs sees potential for growth.

“I’ve found that most of the apps aren’t specific enough for the kind of visual arts job I’m looking for,” she says.

Then, as a true millennial, she starts seeing this not as a problem but as an opportunity that can be solved by the sharing economy.

“Maybe I’ll head back on Bumble Bizz to find that app maker to help me!” she adds merrily.

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