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Rise of sharing economy reshapes young adults’ work and life

LIU XIUXIU | 2018-08-16 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Students from Shanghai Jiao Tong University rent shared umbrellas without paying any deposit, a service provided by Zhima Credit of Ant Financial, Alibaba’s finance arm. Photo: China Daily

As information technology has advanced, it has brought forward striking economic growth, and the booming sharing economy in recent years has pushed the network economy to the center of public attention. In March 2016, the sharing economy was included for the first time in the Chinese government’s work report. It was clearly stated that it will “support the development of a sharing economy and see that resources are used more efficiently and that more people take part and benefit” while “boosting the development of a sharing economy through institutional innovations.”

Due to the affinity between the sharing economy and young adults, the sharing economy shows a vitality distinct from other economic forms and has broad prospects for development. This article attempts to examine the meaning of the sharing economy for the youth community; the impact it has on their work, lives and perceptions; and the driving force the youth will play in its development from a sociological perspective.


Major participants
By definition, the sharing economy describes a type of resource recycling with broad social access. It improves the social utilization rate or reduces the potential idle rate of idle resources by taking advantage of the internet platform as an intermediary. The sharing economy can be either profit-driven or for the public good.

Judging from the population distribution of China’s internet users, young adults are the main participants in the sharing economy. According to the 40th China Statistical Report on Internet Development released by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), by June 2017, the number of internet users in China had reached 751 million, accounting for a fifth of global netizens. By then, a total of 724 million Chinese used mobile phones to go online, accounting for 96.3 percent of the online population, a 1.2 percent increase from 95.1 percent at the end of 2016. The majority of internet users fell into the age range of 10 to 39, accounting for 72.1 percent of the total. Among them, the proportion of internet users between 20 and 29 years old was the highest, taking up 29.7 percent.

The sharing economy plays a unique role in reshaping society. For example, the sharing economy has brought about new changes in organizational models, new changes in market competitions, new requirements for industry management, new challenges for the property rights system, and new changes in market regulation. As young adults become more involved in the sharing economy, it will promote resource flow, reshape the relationships between people and establish new emotional patterns, thereby profoundly impacting the social life of those young adults.

Within the sharing economy concept, the recycling of idle resources is key. This technological advancement makes direct collaborative consumption between people possible, and it greatly improves the matching range of supply and demand and the efficiency of underused resources.

The post-85 and post-90 generations grew up in the era of excess and abundance. They have little memory of material shortage, and they don’t have as strong a desire for material possession. “Material” should be understood in the sense of something from as small as pencils and erasers to as big as cars and houses. The new generation that loves new things and likes to share and dares to share constitutes the social foundation of the rapid growth of a sharing economy. In a way, it is safe to say that consumption itself has no special appeal to many young adults.

Furthermore, young adults who have witnessed the consequences of high consumerism are distressed by environmental pollution and deeply disturbed by the lack of community. Therefore, they are more impressed by sharing ideas such as “Use without possession,” “We instead of I,” and “Share everything.”

In fact, the sharing economy is born with and thrives on the creation and participation of the young. In the sharing lifestyle, transportation and travelling are shared the most. We now have last-mile shared bikes and cars, as well as cross-region shared accommodations. As the popular saying goes, “The world is big, and I want to see it.” Nowadays, that is no longer a dream, but a reality. With a simple click, young backpackers can end up on a stranger’s sofa. From “consuming everything” to “sharing everything,” the sharing economy built on the internet has reshaped young adults’ perception of consumption.

From a social perspective, scholars generally agree that the sharing economy and collaborative consumption are conducive to enhancing community members’ sense of togetherness and strengthening a community’s unity and integration.


Patterns of online community
Since the emergence of the internet, scholars have been arguing about whether the internet facilitates the formation of community through online connections, or whether lack of communication makes people more distant. One of the reasons behind their disagreement is that they refer to different types of online interactions.

The sharing economy brings about young adult social interactions in two senses. First, it enhances people-to-people connections. Second, such enhancement only occurs within a group, whereas people are still separated by the digital divide, and there is a trend of reinforcement, meaning that the gap among different social groups is widening.

To be specific, the sharing economy’s integration of young adults’ social life is based on network technology, because all sharing economy platforms work to provide the participants, both buyers and sellers, with information symmetry. For example, the housing sharing platforms require both parties to verify their identity with their real name, real face, and ID number. They provide refund guarantees and insurance services, and they publish a cumulative credit evaluation of both parties. These methods strengthen the degree of trust, thus developing friendships brought about by shared space and fostering a new kind of community.

However, different groups of young adults have varied perceptions of the sharing economy, resulting in less frequent exchanges among groups, which impedes the realization of an open, free, highly participatory society. What’s more, the digital divide is not only reflected in the difference between urban and rural areas, but also in education, family background and income, which in turn leads to differences of participation in the sharing economy. For example, in the field of knowledge sharing, young people with the same cognitive level tend to bond, whereas people with different cognitive levels may not meet at all.


Impact on youth
In the booming sharing economy, we can see mixed emotional factors. From the individual level, many young people are expressing themselves through their participation in the sharing economy. Their participation may represent a resistance to high consumerism. Many young adults love to pursue greener, healthier and more environmentally friendly lifestyles.

As a result, posting images of the “Environmental Protection Currency” and “Health Currency” earned as digital rewards for riding shared bikes is quite popular on WeChat Moments, as are images of burned calories and weight loss. Other young adults find emotional value in inviting friends to the shared bike platform to get seven-day free rides. Or, as Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes puts it, we don’t have a stronger sense of social responsibility; we’re just willing to make cooler choices. Being cool, as a unique emotional style, represents a distinct attitude of young adults nowadays.

The participation of young people in the sharing economy embodies their yearning for community. Different types of online behavior may lead to different sorts of real-life interactions. For example, online consumption has become a highly individualized behavior. In today’s world, consumers have retreated and disappeared into a large and invisible consumption system. However, the sharing economy, as featured in the organic combination of online and offline collaborative consumption, reflects a trend toward forming a community. Car-sharing is certainly a financial consideration, but the stories and emotions shared along the way are not to be undervalued. In long or short shared journeys, big or small shared spaces, young adults have a choice to engage in a face-to-face interaction, making deep emotional communication possible.

From a social perspective, the rise of the sharing economy promotes a downright trendy lifestyle. Social media, which used to promote “Consume everything” in a consumer society, is now hanging up the slogan “Share everything.” As Chinese sociology scholar Liu Shaojie pointed out, due to transformations in communication, experience and power, social structures will change drastically and human society is likely to take on a new social form.

As a new form of network that emphasizes idle, platform-based and interpersonal relations, the sharing economy has reshaped young people’s social life in terms of resources, relations and emotions. Yet, the chaos in the sharing economy is also alarming. Sometimes, the so-called idle resources are not idle, and energy conservation products are indeed a waste of resources in disguise. Therefore, effective regulation is particularly important in the new internet economy.


Liu Xiuxiu is from the Beijing Administration Institute.

(edited by YANG XUE)