Ownership is dead. The access economy has arrived.

Joan Westenberg
Published in
6 min readApr 3, 2024


The American Dream — and modern capitalism itself — was built on the idea of owning a home, owning a car, and accumulating possessions over the course of a life. For generations, ownership was a key marker of success, stability, and social status.

But this long-held belief system, the concept of ownership as our north star, is dying out. Technology, limited and oppressive consumer options, and economic stagnation have created an era of access over ownership. Rather than aspiring to own, we are increasingly opting to rent or subscribe to the goods and services we need. From housing and transportation to clothing and entertainment, the “renter economy” has taken over.

It’s changing our economic incentives, our social behaviors, our family dynamics, and the nature of our communities.

Some — most notably those who profit from the shift — argue this transition is creating a new level of freedom, flexibility and sustainability. But the truth is, we’re losing the economic mobility and stability that ownership traditionally provided.

The Decline of Ownership

Home ownership rates in the U.S. have fallen dramatically, with young adults either delaying home purchases or being locked out of the housing market entirely. The average length of time people own a vehicle has decreased as leasing and ride-sharing proliferate. Physical media sales have plummeted as people shift to streaming movies, TV and music. Apparel companies are launching clothing rental services as an alternative to stocking a closet with purchased items.


  • Digital Disruption — Technology has enabled a transition from physical goods to digital services in many industries. Owning DVDs and CDs is no longer necessary when Netflix and Spotify provide on-demand access to vast content libraries. E-books, cloud storage, and software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscriptions are replacing physical book and media collections and software licenses.
  • Financial Constraints — For Millennials and Gen Z drowning in student debt and facing soaring real estate costs, ownership is financially out of reach, even if it’s desired. Renting or leasing provides access at a more affordable short-term price point. The flexibility to scale up or down as needed might not be “appealing” but in a cold and unwelcoming economy, it’s a necessity.
  • Urbanization — As more people migrate to population-dense cities, space is at a premium. Minimalist lifestyles that revolve around access over ownership are often more practical and aligned with busy, on-the-go urban lifestyles. It’s easier to rent a car or bike only as needed than deal with parking and storage in a city.
  • Shifting Values — Shut out of traditional markers for success, facing wage stagnation and an astronomical cost of living, and with shrinking hopes for the future, younger generations are less convinced that ownership is integral to the “good life” — we’re becoming more experience-focused. We see ownership of possessions as an unnecessary burden, when life is both finite and unstable.

The Rise of Rentership

As ownership declines, rentership is filling the void. The “sharing economy” has normalized and glorified peer-to-peer renting of everything from homes on Airbnb to private vehicles and even entire wardrobes.Companies in every sector from fashion to furniture are pivoting to provide subscription and rental options:

  • Housing — Co-living communities targeting young professionals provide rental housing that includes amenities, programming and flexible lease terms. Startups are offering rent-to-own models and long-term apartment leases with bundled services.
  • Transportation — Car leasing and subscription services are booming. Ride-hailing and micromobility services (e.g. e-bikes and scooters) are offering on-demand transportation without car ownership. Even airlines now offer subscriptions for frequent fliers.
  • Apparel — Major clothing brands like American Eagle and Urban Outfitters now offer rental services akin to Rent the Runway. Bag and watch rental is gaining traction as broke but status conscious consumers look for short term variety over permanent collections.
  • Furniture & Appliances — Ikea and West Elm are testing furniture rental programs. Rent-A-Center continues to expand its rent-to-own offerings for furniture, appliances and electronics. Even co-working spaces offer furniture and office supply rentals.
  • Entertainment — Depending on your perspective or your skin in the game, streaming services have either revolutionized or utterly enshittified music, TV and movie consumption. Now, video game cloud streaming aims to do the same for gaming. Subscription and loot boxes for everything from meal kits to kids’ toys provide rotating access to goods.

The Business Case for Rentership

For companies, the business case for rentership is a no-brainer. Recurring subscription revenue provides a more consistent, predictable income stream than transactional product sales. Memberships deepen brand affinity and allow businesses to capture a greater share of consumer spending in a category. Some studies are projecting that the subscription e-commerce market will reach $473 billion by 2025.

There’s a claim that rentership lets businesses serve a broader audience at varied price points. Luxury goods become accessible through rental to those who couldn’t afford outright purchase. Subscription tiers from basic to premium allow companies to segment customers and capture value across the demand curve.

For the providers, rentership models have much more favorable unit economics. Renting an item multiple times generates more cumulative revenue than a one-time sale. Rental allows companies to retain control of the customer experience end-to-end. And with manufacturer-controlled “re-commerce” of used rental goods, businesses can generate supplemental revenue streams.

The access economy clearly makes sense for businesses and, to a lesser degree, consumers on a micro level. But the broader societal implications are much more complex and unpleasant.

Historically, ownership, especially of homes, has been a key tool for building a stable middle class and enabling upward mobility. Home equity, built through mortgage payments over time, constitutes the majority of net worth for middle income families. Rentership fucks this dynamic. Without owned assets to fall back on, families are vulnerable to financial shocks and displacement. Racial wealth gaps are expanding as communities of color are disproportionately consigned to rentership. It’s hard not to see this as the emergence of “neo-feudalism”, as society stratifies into property owners and perpetual renters.

Ownership of possessions has been a key part of how people construct their identities and signal status. If you are what you own, what happens to the self in an access-based economy?

Rentership provides variety but it doesn’t give anyone the deeper sense of personal meaning and memory associated with owned objects. Minimalist millennials may construct identity through experiences and digital curation instead. But others may feel adrift without the physical emblems of self and accomplishment that ownership provides. The objects in our lives shape us as much as we shape them.

Ownership encourages people to invest in and advocate for their communities. The pride associated with ownership promotes civic participation. Rentership leads to a more transient population. People with shallow roots in a community are less likely to plant deep ones through volunteering, local politics, and community-building. As more and more people are trapped and pressured into rental living, the positive social externalities of ownership are dwindling.

If this story has a happy ending, it’s that rentership could create a positive new social paradigm:

Access instead of ownership = more sustainable consumption, as durable goods are shared across users instead of sitting idle. When liberated from the financial and mental burdens of ownership, people might invest more in relationships and experiences, not things. There’s a movement towards a neo-nomadic future where people flow between locations and vocations with unprecedented freedom and variety.

But without tangible action, all of this is wishful thinking.

Where practical and financially possible, at an individual level, we have to seriously consider the long-term value of ownership before forgoing it entirely for the expediency of rentership. Yes, renting can provide valuable flexibility, but owning select assets like a home, if possible, is still going to offer more financial security for most people.

Before we abandon aspirations of ownership, we should reflect deeply on our personal values and what role possessions and place play in our identity, relationships, and sense of rootedness. Prioritizing access over ownership may maximize flexibility and minimize hassle in the short term – but only at the cost of deeper meaning and connection.

As consumers we can’t solve a systemic problem through individual choices. And far too often, rentership is forced on us through economic and access limitations.

The death of ownership is here. And the access economy has arrived. What happens next is yet to be seen.