December 8, 2021

“You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy.” The first of eight predictions for 2030, made in a video released by the World Economic Forum in 2017, has since become the source of endless Great Reset conspiracy theories.

But until recently, it seemed like we were all meant to aspire to the own-nothing-and-be-happy life. It’s a vision in which travel is easy, possessions are minimal (and delivered by drone), work happens remotely on a laptop, and different geographies aren’t homes so much as flavours to sample on a tasting menu.

Perhaps no voice expresses this more elegantly than the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh, who this week wrote a plaintive defence of the frictionless life: “The myth of the man-child”.

The childless bachelor male, Ganesh claims, isn’t a perpetual adolescent. Far from it: this figure is cultivated, high-minded, “austere” and well-travelled, with “a decorum, almost a formality, born of aversion to the smells, stains and general boisterousness of a kid-filled home”. The most adult conversations, Ganesh reports, “are with the childless”.

This isn’t the first defence of the frictionless life he’s written. Shortly before the pandemic hit in earnest, he made “The climate case for childlessness”, in which he acknowledged that it’s not really about climate at all, but a desire to stay unencumbered. It’s about “a taste for leisure, a dread of sexual monotony”. He and others like him did not, he says, “hate to ‘bring a child into this world’ […] so much as into our diaries”.

And this is driven, he claims, by a desire for “maximum control” over life: “I know with some precision the list of cities in which I want to pass the rest of this decade, and in what sequence” — a plan that, he acknowledges, wouldn’t be workable with a spouse and children in tow. Ganesh realises this makes him selfish. But he sees this as “a bid for a more, not a less serious life”.

There was a time I would have nodded energetically along with this idea. I wanted, I would say, joy rather than contentment. (I’m pretty sure I recall claiming that the latter emotion merely ‘bovine’.) I spent my twenties living light, travelling lots, and resisting the accumulation of permanent possessions or obligations.

I could have bought a flat in London back when it was affordable; but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to be tied down. Nor did I want a long-term relationship. I didn’t feel stable or coherent enough to tolerate the sheer consistency of commitment to just one other person.

As for the most serious such commitment there is — children — the prospect gave me recurring nightmares. In this I was an early adopter of a now-mainstream Western trend: to remain “child-free”. Many frame this in ecological terms, as in the recent COP26 protest by Population Matters aimed at encouraging people to breed less to save the earth. But a recent Pew poll reported the most common reason given by childless Americans for their decision is simply “I just don’t want to”.

I don’t want to sound like I’m picking on Ganesh, who is thoughtful and clearly aware of the inverse correlation between freedom and intimacy. “Our horizons widen as our commitments narrow,” he observes in his defence of the ‘man-child’. Or, as he puts it differently in a column mourning the decline of expat city-states: “shallowness can be emancipating”.

Even as he defends the atomised hyper-liberal lifestyle, Ganesh is not insensible to what can be lost. He comments, for example, on the way pets “fill a hole” for many millennials in a way allotments, or religion, or volunteering might once have done: “Their dog or cat is the only endothermic mammal that some outwardly successful peers can count on for affection, or don’t have to walk on eggshells around.”

And in any case, even he is uncomfortably aware that his preferred way of life as a “middle class world citizen” may be on borrowed time. Climate anxiety, political instability, middle-class wage stagnation and, more recently, pandemic restrictions all militate against the democratic opening-up of the world to mass frictionlessness.

But here’s the rub: swapping emancipation for shallowness is less enjoyable when you can’t afford the consumerist upside of minimal ties. One of the first columns I ever wrote here discussed the growing demographic who have embraced liberal atomisation, only to find changing economic conditions have denied them the disposable income that makes being unencumbered fun.

It’s all very well rejecting loyalties and obligations, if your earnings open the full range of upscale world-citizenship for your delectation. But Ganesh has little to offer those who lose this abundance. His best suggestion is that if you own nothing, having spent your twenties acquiring memories, you can always be happy by marrying into money in your thirties. It scarcely needs saying that while this might at a pinch be plausible advice for the kind of 20-something who reads the Financial Times, it’s unlikely to be of use more generally.

For the bottom tier of the new knowledge class is materially increasingly difficult to distinguish from gig-economy proles: both groups own nothing, and neither seems especially happy. Political unrest is rising and, as I’ve argued, the principal distinction between the Left-wing version of this discontent — antifa — and its alt-Right counterpart is cultural.

Some have belatedly realised they traded deep commitments for horizons that aren’t wide at all but shrinking rapidly. Happily not all of these disappointed would-be world citizens have responded by setting cities on fire. And it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the unlucky also-rans who got the atomisation but not the spending-money are all doomed to a future eating mealworm slurry in tiny one-person ‘pod’ homes.

Many are responding in far more constructive ways. For every doomer meme or creepy WEF video, subcultures are emerging in which people raised to be maximally individualist are trying to work out how to live together. In its most mundane form, this looks like a backlash against waiting till your thirties to have kids, or young parents writing about how to rebuild local community. In its more Bay Area-esque form, the social organiser Richard Bartlett is working on strategies for making ‘decentralised’ communities more capable of long-term interpersonal commitment, and thus less vulnerable to the well-documented tendency utopias have of imploding.

Or further out on the apocalyptic spectrum lie green land-based projects such as the Rizoma Field School, which is one of a growing network of families and groups attempting what adherents call ‘Doomer Optimism’: an approach to life based on the idea that things will probably get a lot worse, but that all is not lost if we can find ‘regenerative paths forward’. It seeks to develop sustainable forms of farming and community life, and also teach them to others. Many of these are a long way from the egalitarian ideals of the hippie commune era, and often explicitly opposed to the progressive and hyper-individualist ideas that drove such utopian ventures.

Will any of this work? ‘Doomer optimist’, smallholder and sustainability academic Jason Snyder is acutely aware of the difficulties likely to be faced by the first generations after Peak Frictionlessness. “An uprooted generation will suffer all sorts of embarrassing contradictions as they try to relocalise,” he observed earlier this year. “They should do it anyway”.

I won’t bore you with how I came to reconsider my commitment to the frictionless life, beyond saying I’m glad I did so just about young enough to form a family before I got too old for that option to be open. But Snyder is right: adjusting to a life organised around the commitments I always feared hasn’t always been easy. It’s not uncommon for family members to get exasperated with me when I do something that implies I still think of myself as a solitary atom-self rather than a member of the team.

I don’t think I’m the only voluntary adopter of a more encumbered life to wrestle with this. The Bay Area technologist Venkatesh Rao captured something of the resulting ambivalence recently. In an increasingly politically unstable world, Rao acknowledged, the frictionless life may be less prudent than stockpiling supplies and working for a durable, secure home. Even so, he doesn’t seem wholly thrilled, tweeting nostalgically: “Remember when the ideal was a backpack, phone, passport, credit card?”. In contrast: “Owning lots of shit and supplies is a PITA [pain in the arse]”.

But what else can we do? Ganesh is right that narrower commitments mean wider horizons. But that’s assuming you can afford to enjoy those wider horizons. And for the rest, when emancipation is unaffordable, all you get is the shallowness.

In response, growing numbers are struggling, however clumsily, to rebuild all those commitments we were raised to discard. It might not work, but I refuse to be cynical towards anyone who’s trying. After all, some loves are worth sacrificing a measure of freedom for. And as the world grows stranger and more unstable, perhaps these are all we’ll be able to rely on.