I don’t know how to break this to you gently. I am a 52 year-old, educated and employed father of two — and yet I don’t own anything.
At least not anything that would cause society to smile down upon me. I rent my apartment here in Copenhagen and own no property elsewhere. If I think about my most valuable possessions, it would be a list comprised of bikes and camera equipment. That’s about it.
Two quotes have raised their finger-pointy heads once again over the past month or so. The quote, “A man who, beyond the age of twenty-six, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure” was attributed to Margaret Thatcher.
The other is from David Lloyd George (I had to google him), who grumbled that, “A young man who isn’t a socialist doesn’t have a heart. An old man who is a socialist doesn’t have a head.” Well, there’s little ol’ ME labelled as a headless public transport user — although in my own city of Copenhagen, I prefer to ride a bike like almost everyone else. Luckily, staid and stuffy British politicians have never been the primary lighthouses for me on my life’s journey.
I am well aware that, in the eyes of many of my contemporaries, I am letting the team down. I have failed miserably at fulfilling the economic expectations of human society that were spawned by the Agricultural Revolution. Let alone my beleaguered father who went to his grave knowing that his son had nothing to show for fifty years on this planet — although he was proud of my work and the fine humans my children are becoming.
Instead of trying to rectify the situation and sit all schoolboy rigid across a desk from bank employees while they peruse with pursed lips a stack of documents that prove my worth in the eyes of society at large, and beg for a loan that would enable me to acquire Important Things — I decided to see if I could scale back.
In December 2019, I made a decision to see if I could buy less. I started a spreadsheet where I record all of my purchases that aren’t food or drink or online subscriptions. Physical objects only. I was never an excessive consumer but I decided to attempt to reduce. The COVID-19 crisis certainly made it easier to rein in my already paltry buying habits. The total in 2020 at time of writing for me and my kids? 7053 Danish kroner. That’s €940. On the list are books, clothes, camera equipment, hardware store stuff and homewares.
When I posted about this little experiment on Facebook the expected comments showed up. “What about the economy?!” Indeed, all the talk in late spring 2020 is how to get the economy back on track. Here in Denmark, like elsewhere, there is a desperate urge for citizens to start spending and all manner of initiatives are being considered in order to make this happen on a never before seen scale. Or so it seems to me. When I read alarmist headlines about how car sales are down, I have no problem with that. Fewer failed last-century products in our cities? Winning! Equating car sales with economic indicators is like factoring in rising cigarette sales as a positive impact on public health. This obsession with growth is, to me, baffling. Nor do I appreciate the pressure to go out and buy stuff for the sake of buying stuff.
Even if I take stock of Important Things that I have owned in my life, the list is unlikely to excite. I owned two cars back in the 80's. One was a used Lada which, come to think of it, is the only car I bought on my own because the other car was a used Ford Falcon that I bought when backpacking through Australia. I split the $800 AUD price tag with two Norwegians that I met on the plane from Auckland. There was zero return-on-investment on that beastly vehicle. It ended up dying and I left it parked somewhere in Sydney in early 1990.
Together with my ex-wife, I bought an apartment in a co-op here in Copenhagen. After we split up we agreed that she would buy me out, which she did. My career as a property co-owner lasted about as long as the average professional footballer — around a decade. I have no Mike Tyson-esque plans for a comeback.
Taking stock of what I own NOW is more difficult because, well, I don’t really care. I have never measured myself based on my possessions. For the purpose of this piece, I have attempted it.
I have some bikes: two cargo bikes, a folding bike, two vintage Swedish bikes from the 1950's and my daily ride. Estimated total value: €8500. My camera equipment, including lights, mics, lenses, etc, is probably worth around the same. I have a designer sofa (€1300), a vintage Ellipse dining table by Piet Hein (used €500), a vintage “7” chair by Arne Jacobsen (used €200), a vintage Ole Wanscher Easy Chair PJ 112 (used €300–500), lots of camping and sports equipment (roughly €1500), a ring inherited from my Dad (€2000), my laptop and smartphones (€3300) and… yeah, I got tired just having to think about all this. Although you just got an insight into how Danes love nice, Danish furniture.
Let me get some disclaimers out of the way here. I’ll happily admit that I get a kick out of buying things. Hey, I’m not a monster. I experience the same sense of wonder and thrill as anyone else when firing up a new Surface Book laptop or reverently lifting the new Samsung smartphone out of the box. If I fork out some hard-earned cash on a product, I enjoy the Pavlovian response in myself.
I can also admit to having certain consumer weaknesses. For reasons I’ve never fully analysed in my own head, I seem to have a predilection for sunglasses (20 pairs), footwear and luggage. Perhaps that reflects how I enjoy travelling to warm destinations and walking around a lot in the sun — or a desire to do much more of it. I also have a wardrobe fully acceptable to stylish Danish standards. Hey, I’m not a slob.
It’s hard to find role models when you’re me. When we were in our twenties, my friends and I would talk about career, travel, love and football. More often than not these days, mortgages, interest rates and investments wend their way into the conversation at some point. Luckily, I can check my phone. It’s like everybody suddenly started speaking Finnish. Ours is an established demographic. Stuff has been acquired and now it’s all about maintaining value, investment and expanding portfolios. Don’t underestimate when I say that finding role models is hard. So far, I’ve met exactly one. A Danish architect friend, now retired, who has only ever lived in a rental apartment and who has never had a driving licence.
Most of my life is spent in the company of younger friends and colleagues so I often listen to stories about the acquisition of a first, purchased home or summer house or look at Facebook posts of new additions to acquired property being designed and built. I can fully understand their sense of thrill and enjoy sharing it with them. I get it. Building a nest, settling down. I can see the inherent, human poetry in that. It’s also a rite of passage and a sign that you’re “all grown up” and contributing to society and the economy in a responsible way.
But I can’t decide if it’s more akin to peer pressure or outright bullying, this obsession with us owning stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I embrace the solidarity of our Danish society and the sense of teamwork and togetherness that is so deeply-rooted here. I am proud that my taxes are part of this well-oiled machine.
I just find it odd that I’m expected to do what some old, white, wealthy dudes decided in previous centuries was best for all of us. Even if I am now in that “old, white dude” demographic, it is in appearance only and I am acutely aware of the destructive influence Men in Suits and Uniforms have had on humankind and have no desire to join that club. Nor do I find it dignified that I — or anyone — should be regarded as a worker bee slaving away for the benefit of a queen.
I realise that in other parts of the world the scramble for investments in property and stocks starts early and is a necessity. Homes will be inherited by children and grandchildren. Car-centric cities force people to buy cars because no other transport options are available. Parents have to start saving early to pay for their kids’ university — instead of the State paying you to attend higher education, like in Denmark, for example. This doesn’t mean we can’t continue to question the obsession with buying and owning.
Speaking with my contemporaries about my lack of stuff usually illicits comments about “how can you not save for the future?!” I suppose they’ve been conditioned to play the game with that frame of mind. Although in one conversation with a property-laden friend, I was asked, a little accusingly, “Who benefits from you when you don’t own anything?!”
Who benefits from me? Apart from Danish society through my social contributions and taxes? Hopefully my children. Maybe I’m doing an okay job at parenting. Hopefully citizens in cities through my work as an urban designer, making cities better. Hopefully the viewers of my TV series The Life-Sized City as I curate the work of passionate people in cities around the world and show that urban change is possible and imminent.
Oh, and my local wine bar. Damn, they benefit from me.
As well as restaurants, local shops, hotels. At home and abroad. I was irritated by the question from that friend but I was pleased to have to think about it and come out just fine with the result. Incidentally, another friend once asked if I did own something, what would it be? A little summer cottage in Southern Sweden or Catalonia. The secret is out.
My mother — one of history’s great matriarchs — was much less concerned than my father about my dereliction of duty regarding consumerism. I grew up in a modest, proud working-class home where nothing was taken for granted. Nevertheless, my mother taught me that it was my actions that counted and hammered home the importance of working to make the world a better place more than anything else.
I hope the team is okay with that.