Happy to share?

If you read the newspapers, you might get the idea that ‘sharing’ consumption goods – houses, cars, tools… – is a new phenomenon.

They call it the ‘sharing economy’, or ‘collaborative consumption’, and it is apparently all the rage.

The collaborative consumption that takes the limelight, however, is that part which is mediated by commercial services brokering taxi fares, for instance, or holiday homes: companies for whom sharing is just the next business model, with the profits coming from skimming the turn-over of the providers of the goods.

Yet of course, a lot of informal sharing goes on as well, both paid and unpaid. It is hard to measure, but it seems fair to assume that, with the Crisis, this has taken on large proportions since 2008. Only think of all the families who have lost their houses and had to move back in with their (grand)parents.

For the people actually involved in sharing their resources, this is not another business model. For many, it is an economic necessity. Living in someone else’s house, driving their car, wearing second-hand clothes, washing them in the launderette: they are all different ways of saving money by sharing.

Yet sharing does not just happen. People have to do it: it is a capacity, a skill.

A shared laundry basin on the Mediterranean coast, c. 1900. Carlo Brogi, 'Sanremo.  Popolane al lavatojo', cat. no. 12182.

A shared laundry basin near the Mediterranean, c. 1900. Studio Carlo Brogi.

We all know that in order to do some successful sharing, we need the right mindset. We have to trust the people we are sharing with and not be too attached to the things we are sharing. Pleasant sharing is the result of a certain mentality: a mentality that makes it normal, even enjoyable to share things. If you do not own this mentality, to share is hardship. If you do own it, you may in fact prefer to share a lot of things in your life, not (just) from a financial need, but out of conviction, idealism, or simply because that is how you were brought up.

With the world’s cities growing ever more crowded, we have good reasons for increasing the amount of skillful and glad sharing that we do.

You may think this a very hard task; since some people are simply better at sharing than others –

– or because some cultures are simply better at it than other cultures. It is true that the degree to which people are happy to share their homes, their food, their clothes or their cars, varies dramatically between cultures. Those living around the European North Sea, for example, have historically been relatively bad at sharing – or relatively good at doing things on their own, if you want to put it that way (a lot of people do: they see history as a Robinson Crusoe epos). These Europeans organised their lives in nuclear families, each inhabiting a separate home rather than the extended-family farm or homestead common in many other parts of the world. This was related to the fact that many did not work for a family business, but earned an independent wage as employee elsewhere for much of their life.

The good news that historians can bring, however, is that people have a huge capacity to change their attitudes.

We may at this very moment be entering an era when sharing becomes more appreciated again. In western Europe and the USA, car ownership for example has been going down for a while now. (Second-hand furniture has also become more desirable, but that may have a purely economic cause.) Most Europeans are yet far removed from wanting to share everything they own, but the point is that the desirability of sharing can change over time. A culture can rapidly alternate between embracing the sharing of certain goods and rejecting it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, similar shifts in preferences for sharing have taken place. Together with current developments, they form a long-term wave movement. (This is what I will be arguing at a conference of the Royal Geographic Society in Exeter this September.)

But in your own lifetime, too, you have probably experienced fluctuations in how used you are to sharing. You may have worked happily in a noisy classroom as a kid, but perhaps prefer to work in a quiet office of your own nowadays. You may also have grown more averse to sharing a bed, a dressing-room, or a coffee mug than when you were little.

Yet because the historical evidence also shows developments that have moved in the opposite direction, towards more ‘collaborative consumption’, we may be optimistic about our potential for these changes, too.

Now let’s think of ways to turn this potential into reality. How can we make sharing easier for the many of us for whom it is not?