Which Innovation Will Millennials Be Remembered For?


We’ve all seen the numbers. Nearly half of unemployed Americans are under the age of 34, and half of those who are employed are working part-time jobs, which don’t require a degree. The American economy is crawling out of a devastating recession, which has left the millennial generation of highly educated yet under-skilled, under-30s in search of alternative solutions.

In New York City, two conflicting movements are competing for urban millennial attention: collaborative consumption, and the maker movement. Collaborative consumption is a system of organized sharing, renting, trading, or swapping of goods and services often facilitated by online platforms. The maker movement is a culture of builders, hackers, craftsman, and engineers, who are designing innovative applications of technology, enabling the local manufacturing of artisan and "do it yourself" (DIY) goods. Instead of a maker movement, we need a fixer revolution. We need people to use these same DIY skills of the American craft tradition, to repair and upcycle already existing products, re-designed for longevity and collaborative consumption.

Collaborative consumption already happens naturally in urban areas due to limited space. It can be divided into three types, product service systems a la TaskRabbit, redistribution markets, which enable the renting or reselling of unused goods, and collaborative lifestyles. Gym and car share subscriptions relieve urban dwellers of the burdens of ownership, while still rendering the benefits of the product being shared or rented accessible. Urban dwellers consume less energy per capita than those living in suburban or rural environments, as people who live in densely populated areas require less heat and “less asphalt per capita”. Innovation and the sharing of ideas also thrives in modern megalopolises as people can more easily come together. 

Collaboration and sharing in the public space is the millennial’s modus operandum. We crave accessibility and the democratization and disruption of the production processes therein. We are highly functional, but we also missed out on those practical skills — like home economics and wood shop — that our Baby Boomer parents deemed irrelevant, or didn’t have the time to teach with both parents working full-time jobs.

To compensate, we’ve become crafty DIY-ers. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to create the goods and jobs, and crowd source the funds we need. The question is no longer, "Where can I buy that?" The question is, "How can I make it?

Millennials have hacked it all, right up to the very trajectory of traditional corporate employment our parents enjoyed, skirting around a 40-year career of climbing the corporate ladder by launching high-growth, flat structured startups mostly built around the advent of 21st century technology (read: iPhone). New online markets for artisan goods such as EtsySociety6DIY Drones, and Farmigo have built platforms connecting everything from handmade soaps to locally farmed produce.

In New York City, the maker movement has manifested itself in a 3D printing craze. For nearly $3,000, willing and able consumers can buy a portable desktop MakerBot 3D printer. Either learn the 3D modeling software or download 3D files, and you have your very own widget production factory.

Analysts claim this is the return of manufacturing to America, yet the only current plausible application is for non-commercial medical purposes like prosthetics and tools. There’s a reason most consumer products are mass-produced in offshore factories: Labor costs and conditions aside, it’s economically efficient and competitive to do so, not to mention the labor and expertise required to produce a high quality widget. Just because you give a man a piano doesn’t mean he will be able to play it well.

Simultaneously, companies like AirBnBCouchsurfing, and Vous-Voulez Diner have catalyzed a redefinition of the value of unused spaces, goods, and services. New Yorkers are opening up their homes to travelers, offering a cost-effective solution to temporary food and board. Shared office spaces enable collaborative innovation between social entrepreneurs in urban centers like Hub and Citizen Space. New sites like Easynest connect single travelers to split costs on hotels and other services, which can be consumed more effectively, together.

And here we have it, the NYC showdown between the maker movement, enabling the planned obsolescence of the 20th century, and collaborative consumption. Do we millennials want to be remembered as the generation which made making stuff easier, or one which built a shared and sustainable economy?

Let's be remembered for both.