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Is Technology Really Reducing the Amount of Stuff People Own?

Everyone has lost five tons of junk, but is that because tech is more advanced and people are more eco-conscious, or is it just that generation rent is fucked?

The golden era, when we owned things. Photo by Barry Yourgrau

Stuff. You know stuff, right? It's like those things that are everywhere, making up all of existence. Most stuff is someone else's, but there's some stuff we can call our own: a half-eaten pizza in your fridge, an old N64 gathering dust behind your TV, all the sweaters you never wear but refuse to throw away.

You might think that as we've become a more consumerist society, spending almost all of of our time buying things off Amazon, that we own more stuff than we used to.


Most consumer goods have also gotten cheaper as companies like Asos and IKEA allow us to buy insane amounts of things we hardly ever use. Meanwhile, our love of new tech means that we own a litany of gadgets that older generations could only dream of.

But this week, the Office of National Statistics took a break from bothering you as you're leaving baggage claim at the airport to reveal that the average Briton has around five tons less stuff than it did a decade ago. As a nation, we've gone from a peak of 889.9 million tons in 2001 (15.1 tons per person) to 659.1 million tons (10.3 tons per person) in 2013.

This reduction in "stuff" is mainly thought to be down to rapid developments in technology, as we spend more on services like Netflix and Sky than on physical media. Our appliances weigh less than ever before and most tech such as video and tape players have been replaced by a small hard drive.

So why is my room always messy? Why am I always tripping over Christmas cards from 2013 and empty boxes of Twinkies? I'm not convinced, so I've decided to speak to someone of the frontline of stuff, Chris Smith, who works for a van company and is a removal man of over seven years' experience, to see what he makes of our fluctuating human crap levels.

So it's been in the news recently that people in Britain have way less stuff than they used to. Do you find, as a removal man, that your load has gotten heavier or lighter over the years?
Well, that's a difficult question. Although in some senses people do have much less stuff, moving has become a lot harder. In inner-city moves, the housing can be really far away from the road. For example, if you have a enclosed housing community, like you do a lot of the time in London, you will have to walk a long way from the car on the road to the apartment in the buildings, past the gates, up the stairs, and so on. Also, with some places in London, you will need a lot more of you to do the job, because you need two people to move and one to watch the car while you're doing it.

You're moving stuff farther, then, but in terms of actual possessions, do people have less junk?
Oh yeah, definitely. But then again that's because people need a lot less stuff these days, especially with city moves, because most apartments are furnished and have all the appliances built-in, like a fridge and a washing machine. So people don't ever need to move their sofas, their chairs, and their tables, because they already have them in there. And most of the time people move so often that they don't even want to get their own things and everyone looks for a pre-furnished place at the estate agents or whatever.

What about places outside of cities?
Well, for example when I go to Kent, you do moves that are definitely inclusive of all the furniture and appliances, because people out there tend to move house to house rather than apartment to apartment. They definitely haven't changed the way they move over the years.

Where people do have stuff, what kind of stuff do you find yourself usually moving?
These days the only bit of furniture people ever want to move is a bookshelf. People will just have a load of bags and a few boxes with maybe kitchen appliances in or whatever, although we don't really know what's in them. People definitely seem to have more clothes, though, from all the bags we lug about.

What about tech?
The only thing we'd move is a flat-screen TV, and that's it. I can't remember the last time I moved a HiFi or one of those old big televisions you used to get. It's again just because people have everything on their phones or laptops and don't need to have a lot of technology any longer. People seem to have more clothes and less tech, definitely.