The Experience Economy Is Killing Youth Culture
Flyboarding, karaoke, scavenger hunts: welcome to the new cool.
I know what you did last weekend: wine tasting with the uni girls, making sushi with your five-a-side team, a lamp-shade design workshop with your brother, Tough Mudder with Sean from accounts. You exist only for the moment. You are getting your life. The sun will set on this weekend, true, but there will be another. Next weekend, in fact, and you already know what you're doing: a 90-minute crossbow lesson in Eltham. This is living.
Over the past year studies have observed a generational shift away from owning things, and towards activities. Research conducted by the Harris Group suggests more than three in four millennials (78 percent) would choose to spend money on an experience or event over buying something physical. This has been dubbed the "experience economy", and every time you go to the pub or buy a ticket to a festival, rather than buying clothes or books, you're contributing to it. Its impact is being felt. Retailers have observed shrinking profits year on year, while more money is being spent on holidays and eating out.
Many people have celebrated this as a rejection of the material. With most millennials resigned to never owning property, the idea of ownership has become far less meaningful. In a world in which travelling is valued above saving, "living for the moment" has become an ideology for a generation with little else to live for. Which on the surface sounds good, or at least romantic – children of the recession who turned their backs on materialism in favour of the new. Except it's not that, is it?
As carpe diem as the experience economy sounds, the reality is very different. Soap-making workshops, escape room games, colour runs, recording sessions, a tightrope lesson, fly-boarding, karaoke, scavenger hunts, Crystal Maze and golf simulators – a new sort of social life that changes location and pursuit every weekend.
The experience economy has birthed an entirely new sort of youth culture: transient lifestyles built on novelty and fantasy.
I first became wise to the experience economy through my parents. Around five years ago, after decades of struggling to remember which Estee Lauder perfume was my mum's favourite, my dad twigged he could save himself a lot of trouble by buying her vouchers for afternoon tea at expensive hotels. Every Christmas morning would bring with it a printed-out email promising a new luxury opportunity. It was pretty obvious these experiences played on my mum's profound desire to belong to something "better" than the lower-middle-class milieu. They can't afford a night at the Ritz, but by purchasing one of these reasonably priced vouchers they can pretend, if only for an hour, that's not the case. Since then, they've been hooked on red letter days: spa treatments, cheese tastings, package trips to London for dinner and a show.
Lately, that Groupon buzz has spread to my generation, offering them a taste of bourgeois leisure at a reasonable price. You can spend an evening tasting wines for a one-off downpayment of £20, or take a lesson making dim sum with two free glasses of prosecco for £36 – probably the same amount you'd spend on a new pair of jeans, or a long Friday night in the pub. It's also highly shareable; every weekend you can exhibit your free-spiritedness from bold new Instagram-ready territories: a terrarium workshop in Camberwell or a ball pool in Stoke Newington.
The term "experience economy" might refer to the broader groundswell away from owning and towards doing, but these one-off voucher-bought evenings are its most vivid manifestation. The new socialising of pretend pastimes and ping-pong bars.
I'm obviously not attacking trying new things. You'd have to be a certain type of bedroom-dwelling cynic to think that practising yoga or learning how to play the piano makes you a dickhead. And I'm not immune, either. I've been spotted on a cookery course in my time – a very nice bloke in Bermondsey taught me how to chop an aubergine, would recommend – and I'd always rather spend money on holidays than own a car. What troubles me are the implications of experiential culture becoming so prevalent, and the consequences of social lives built around "trying everything once".
I'm sure the Wowcher warriors will balk at my cynicism. This is people having fun, what's wrong with that? And yes, despite the innate corniness of most of these events, they seem mostly harmless – fried chicken tours or prison themed-cocktail bars aside. Largely, they are little more than stag-do activities writ-large. What is concerning is just how central experiential culture is becoming. Go Ape is good craic for a hen do, but as soon as it becomes the dominant social form, things start to look pretty bleak.
In constantly lionising the different and the new, we start to neglect the importance of investment and consistency. Subcultures, scenes, identities and communities aren't built over the space of an evening. If all we value is the new, then how can something exist long enough to grow? The ascent of the experience economy points towards a future where place and ritual come second place to gimmickry. Where people no longer buy studio apartments and become artists, but instead do three-hour crash courses in pottery with two free glasses of bubbly thrown in.
Of course, not everybody wants to be an artist, but the same goes for local pubs or resident nights at nightclubs. It's no mistake that these things are no longer dominant facets of youth culture. The experience economy encourages us to give up and try somewhere else as soon as we get bored. We flit from club to club, following the most exciting booking, and change pubs every Friday based on which one Time Out says is best for us this week. Our restaurants sit in shipping containers, ready to be packed up and discarded as soon as the sheen wears off.
If all we do is "experience" – without rooting ourselves anywhere, or in anything – we risk becoming tourists in our own lives. Skating from pastime to profession like we're glaze-eyed trawling through Amazon. What do you do in your spare time? "Things. I experience things."
There's an insincerity and an insecurity to the experience economy. Ours is a generation adrift in a number of ways. Without the means to afford property we move in yearly cycles from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, following the cheaper rents and even cheaper pubs. We lack a discernible cultural identity, picking and choosing our taste in clothes and art from everything available to us. The experience economy is simply the real world extension of this. Why have a local, why have interests, why have ritual, when you can do something new and be somebody else, every weekend?
Perhaps, ultimately, the experience economy is good for the individual but not culture. In this sense it feels like a bubble that will ultimately burst – after all, is there anything more "late capitalism" than paying £40 to basket weave for an hour while drinking champagne? Until then we should be wary of our obsession with the experiential. "Living for the moment" and "trying something new" are currently indestructible churches. Implying there are downsides to wanting to broaden your horizons is seen as heresy, but it shouldn't be necessarily. Returning to the same places, and to the same people, is how we build something more than ourselves – something that lasts.