“Generation Light”: The Brave New World of Not Owning Stuff

Kids today live lives of such splendid buoyancy.

One of those ubiquitous articles about the death of print journalism—this one from Editor & Publisher, written by “new media consultant” Alan D. Mutter—has introduced me to a term I’d never heard before: “Generation Light.” According to Mutter, twentysomethings these days, in reaction to parents who have to rent storage units to hold their overflow acquired-due-to-rampant-materialism stuff, have become stripped-down, airy-as-gossamer souls flitting from apartment to apartment, job to job, city to city, unencumbered by all the worldly possessions that weigh their plodding elders down.

Mutter cited a presentation (PowerPoint, of course) by one Mary Meeker, a partner at Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, that captures the psyche, and the lifestyle, of these “Digital Natives,” who grew up with YouTube, Facebook, laptops, cellphones, and all the other screens they rely on. It’s a fascinating portrait, and it rings absolutely true. How effervescent are these kids? They don’t have to go to record stores to buy CDs or albums; they download iTunes or Pandora. They don’t buy books; they download those, too. Instead of staying at hotels when they travel, they couch-surf. They don’t own cars; they own car shares, or let Uber Cab know when they need a ride. They grocery-shop online, and have the goods delivered. They use robot vacuums; they work from the comfort of the sofa at home. They send out their laundry. They don’t even have to carry a wallet or credit card; the iPhone does it all.

I got a little giddy reading about the remarkable untetheredness of this generation, which includes my 23-year-old daughter. She’s a typical thistledowner: She travels at the drop of a hat, visiting friends in Boston or D.C. or New York City, making her reservation for the Bolt bus on her iPhone, texting her hosts to let them know when she’s arriving, spending her time en route checking and updating Facebook and taking care of email. So efficient! So liberated! So buoyant! So, as Mary Meeker terms it, “asset-light”!

Now, it’s true that I’m paying for that iPhone. Marcy may be a grown-up, but she’s still on our Verizon plan. On our insurance plan as well, come to think of it. And we pay her rent, since she’s in grad school. And her electric bill. And her gas bill. And for those groceries that she’s ordering online.

But it’s also true that the tiny Powelton Village apartment she shares with her boyfriend doesn’t contain much stuff. Our two-car garage, though, serves as her rent-free storage unit. It contains the kitchen table from her old apartment that no longer fits in this new one, plus the matching chairs, plus the two twin beds (plus mattresses and box springs) she and the boyfriend no longer need now that they share their queen-size. There are also three bureaus, a desk, an electronic keyboard, assorted stereo equipment, and a boxful of old lacrosse and hockey sticks, plus balls. The new apartment only has one closet, so Marcy’s old bedroom serves as home to cartons of her and the boyfriend’s summer clothing. (There’s more in our attic.) They don’t have room for bookcases in their new place, either, so more cartons hold their undergrad textbooks, plus recreational reading—novels and magazines they’re holding onto—and various old photos, CDs, DVDs, diplomas and awards. I can’t fit them in her bedroom closet; it’s stuffed with old prom gowns.

The end of Saturday delivery by the post office won’t affect Marcy. She still gets her mail delivered here to our house, along with that of her undergrad roommate Susan, who’s from Kenya and so aerated that she doesn’t even have an address of her own; she travels for her job and lives in hotels. The boyfriend, whom we adore, uses our house as a drop for all the merchandise he buys online, since it’s more likely Doug and I will be at home to greet the UPS man than that he and Marcy will. When Marcy orders a month’s worth of the pouches of Indian food that she eats for lunch at work every day, she has those delivered here, too. I gather up all this stuff every so often and haul it in to work, then drop it off in West Philly. Hey, I don’t mind. It’s not like I have a Roomba to let loose or anything.

But to get back to Alan D. Mutter and his concerns about print journalism, Marcy doesn’t get a daily newspaper delivered. Like most GenLighters, she gets her news via the Internet. This may explain why she recently asked, in all seriousness, whether elves are real. (“Well, dwarves are,” she said in self-defense.) She doesn’t subscribe to any magazines, not even the ones I write for. She knows if I write anything about her, I’ll send along a link. I’ve watched in envy as over the years, the handbags she carries have waned in size, even as mine grew larger. These days, she’s pretty much down to her iPhone with a rubber band around it to hold her cash and credit card (on my account, of course). I just found this nifty gadget that’s designed to do the job better than the rubber band. I’m definitely buying one for her, in Jungle Green and Wisteria Purple. Or maybe Froly Pink.

I think she cleans her bathroom, though I do generally wipe up a bit when I visit. This “Generation Light” thing extends straight through to housekeeping. Some days I feel weighted down by the burden of being the repository of Marcy’s past. And her boyfriend’s. Not to mention Susan. But then I remind myself: She ain’t heavy; she’s my daughter. I am the wind beneath her wings.