December 2016 | 6 min read
Did that question make you think of your bank account, your house, your friendships or your mum?
Lets take your mum. Can you tell me how much time or money she has given you over the years? Go on, what’s the number? Oh, there isn’t a number.
Wealth is commonly quantified. It is typically understood financially. Numbers make comparisons easy, and comparisons are as seductive as gossip. But real wealth cannot be quantified. There are many softer, less tangible, versions of wealth that are as - or even more - important than numbers in a bank.
A recent study by UNLIMITED powered by UBS of over 2,000 18-34 year olds around the world found that 86% of financially successful millennials consider wealth to be about something other than possessions. A third of which went on to define their closest embodiment of a wealthy lifestyle as being a life of fulfilling experiences. Once the necessities of life are afforded for, other types of wealth become increasingly important.
We seem to be moving to an age that values access over ownership. In this shift towards experiences rather than possessions, a “sharing economy” spurned by the technology sector, is growing. Millennials increasingly stream music, films and TV, rather than buying physical copies. We download books and audiobooks to our phones. We rent out our homes, spare bedrooms, and take rides in other regular people’s cars. Sometimes we even "pool" them. Books and tapes have become nostalgic objects.
We also do a lot of things for free. Government research indicates that the amount people do for each other for free in the United Kingdom is already bigger than our Gross Domestic Product. Yet we have very little awareness, acknowledgment or even tools designed to facilitate this shadow economy.
Traditional economies are deeply embedded in traditional ways of doing business and thinking. Our successes of the past, may now become our straightjackets.
Emerging economies, such as China and India, may be better equipped to cater for the diverse financial aspirations of the future. According to UNLIMITED’s research, that is how their respective millennials feel. 77% of millennials questioned in India were confident of achieving their financial goals, compared to just 62% in the UK. The research also underlined a more risk-averse, cautious outlook in traditional economies; successful millennials from the old world superpowers are the least likely to anticipate starting their own business - just 63% in the UK, compared to an extraordinary 99% in India and 98% in China. New economies are also not bound by the constrictions of a wavering economy brought on by events such as the financial crash and recent Brexit vote.
So traditional markets need to wake up. Shifting our understanding and conversations about wealth is important, not just in our personal lives, but also in business. And I believe there are signs of movement. Typically, most businesses are valued according to their bottom line, and are legally accountable to their shareholders only, which makes financial profit the principal - and sometimes only - wealth sought.
However there is an emergence of new social businesses that are instating different values into companies. These businesses can take many forms - CICs, Yunus Social Businesses, B-Corps - but share a similar mission to use business as a means to drive alternative ideas of social and environmental value and communal wealth.
We recently certified Impossible, the technology company I co-founded, as a B-Corp as a means to this end. This means a bi-annual audit of our operations, and a legal commitment in our Articles of Association that makes us accountable to all stakeholders of the company: shareholders, the community, the environment, and our employees. We are amongst a movement of companies taking this step - from Kickstarter and Patagonia, to Fairphone - because we believe that in a world where business is so impactful and wealthy, its impact ought be positive and its wealth ought be redefined.
In an age ripe with economic uncertainty and the very real prospect of automation threatening many of the jobs we have today, it is more important than ever that we have a broader conversation about wealth and value and where to place our emphasis.
On my journey building Impossible, someone I met whose philosophy really resonated with me was Mark Boyle: the author of The Moneyless Manifesto. Mark talks about the need for a diversity of economies, drawing analogy with how nature operates. On living without money for three years he said, "I discovered that my security no longer lay in my bank account, but in the strength of my relationships with the people, plants and animals around me. My character replaced sterling as my currency." Financial wealth has its place, but it is only one small part of the reality of being a wealthy human.
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