It’s the end of another day at work and you’re ready to head home.
“Home”, as you’ve explained to people at work a couple of times this week, is not quite the usual thing. You’ve chosen to rent a small studio unit in a collaborative housing block. That means you’ve got a fairly small room of your own, but there is plenty of other space around that you share with others. Some of your co-workers wonder about you: you’re single and you make a decent living; you could afford a nice big apartment to rent, or even buy. But, as you’ve told them, you’re a minimalist – and you like being around people.
So home you go, kick off your shoes and grab a beer from your mini-fridge. You relax for a half hour with a new book on your kindle, then head down to the big dining room. Kayla’s cooking tonight and she’s set out a long string of taco fixings on the counter, including warmed-up soft tortillas and a particularly spicy chili sauce. You pull up a chair beside Sam and his daughter, with your good friend Sal opposite. (It’s no coincidence that Sal lives here, as you both decided to head into the venture together a few months ago when you discovered this complex.) It’s a quiet night, only eight people dining, but conversation is convivial and Kayla’s outdone herself with the food. After dinner, you and Sal confer and decide to put both your names down on the roster for a roast chicken feast next week. You take a moment to tick the nights you’ll be eating in yourself, so whoever’s cooking can calculate how much to buy and prepare. Then you announce that you and Sal are going to watch the last episode of Breaking Bad in the entertainment room, and would anyone like to join you? (Sam’s daughter wants to but Sam won’t let her.) Geoff and Kate, who own one of the one-bedroom units, say they wouldn’t miss it.
You all help clean up the kitchen, empty and then fill the dishwasher, and head out to see if Walt (of Breaking Bad) survives the night. As you leave, Kayla says, “See you tomorrow morning at yoga.” You’ll be there all right, with your mat laid out in the sunlit studio in the common area, getting mind and body in shape before you head into work again. No, hang on, you think; maybe you’ll work from home tomorrow, taking advantage of the high speed internet and comfy workstations in the shared office space. After all, you can get the human contact you need right here at home.
This scenario came to me as I reflected on an article I read this morning, from Forbes, called Collaborative Housing Aims to Build Housing for the Sharing Economy. Author Tomio Geron explores a “new model for urban development combining private and shared residential spaces”, awaiting development in the San Francisco Bay area. On close inspection, the project looks more like a gleam in someone’s eye than bricks-and-mortar under development – but it’s not an unusual concept. There are many such residences in existence across North America, Europe and Australia, where people can buy or rent, paying less for much more available space – providing they are willing to share a good deal of that space.
…And that’s the heart of it. It’s all about sharing. One of the things that struck me about the article was the assumption that there exists such a thing as a “sharing economy”. Think Airbnb, or Couch Surfing. Think of all those Velib bicycle racks that you see everywhere in Paris and other European cities. Think of the car and ride sharing that are now such a part of life in big American cities. We are all potential participants in an official phenomenon called the “sharing economy”.
This is a big step away from the fierce independence that marked my parents’ way. At the same time, it’s nothing like the bleak existence that dominated the Soviet years of communist collectivisation.
Two images come to mind.
One is standing beside my father, as a child on the farm, watching a new invention of his at work – a conveyor belt that picked up grain from the granary, mixed it automatically with protein pellets and carried it to the trough where the cattle nuzzled it down. This was one of dozens of labour-saving devices that he designed and constructed to make his work easier – indeed to make it possible for him to do by himself the things that required the strength of several people. Farm life on the Alberta prairies was nothing like an Amish barn-raising community. Farmers tended to be independent, and if you didn’t have seven sons to provide the labour, or great wealth, it required you to be resourceful. This is my background. I come from stock that says, do it yourself, own it yourself, look after it well – and you’ll reap your own rewards.
The other image in mind is a photo I saw in National Geographic some time back, taken during the bad old days of the Soviet collective, of a broken harvester sitting in a mouldering field of grain. The article labelled the photo as a symbol of a time when, in the richest of farming country, equipment went unrepaired and crops unharvested. When everything you produce is taken away to be shared, why be the one to go the extra mile? It was a time when people’s initiative fell to the lowest common denominator.
When you think about these strong influences, it’s extraordinary that I am where I am now, a Shedder to the core, right at the eye of the sharing economy hurricane.
And what about yourself? Back to the scenario: you, living in the collaborative housing unit – will you still be there five years from now? Will you regard it as a great time in your life? If you’re Of A Certain Age, where you’re not as inclined to uproot and move on every few years, do you find yourself able to happily settle into that lifestyle?
Will you find that you grow tired of being the one who always has to sweep the walkways and fix the dishwasher, and decide to leave? Or will you find that day after day, night after night, you enjoy and grow from the company of others and the richness of the experience?
Either the scenario appeals or it doesn’t. Your answer is likely to be a clear yes or a clear no, with the possibility of a cautious “maybe” somewhere in between. I think it is a good thing that we approach this sharing economy with caution. It takes something to share well. Think of the emphasis in child-rearing about learning to share. Needless to say, some of us didn’t. Sharing is a skill, a learned art. It brings with it the opportunity for some very human frailty to exert itself.
Perhaps we are learning what it is to jointly care for things, and to jointly care for this planet we inhabit. Perhaps, as Tomio Genon says, we are becoming cannier about what it means to share. Perhaps we are becoming less enamoured of large and abundant possessions, and more of touching souls with one another.
I do not have the answer, but I’m glad to be part of the experiment.