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Technology, Identity, and Post-ownership: The Rise of Virtual Worlds

3 April, 2018

Trevor Hardy

It has often been said that we are living in a period of unprecedented change and rapid acceleration. The references are invariably related to business. However, some of the most dramatic transformations are happening in our personal and social lives: redefining family, friendship, and even our notions of self.

The era of the nuclear family — defined as a husband and wife with one or more children — is approaching the end of its life cycle. Beginning in 2014, the number of Americans who described their status as ‘single’ reached a significant milestone, passing 50% for the first time. While the nuclear family was a concept around which much of 20th-century cultural, political, and economic life was centered, the question now is: what paradigm will replace it? “Your best friends are your family” has moved beyond a cliché to a reality, and with the help of technology and social media, the modern family no longer requires physical proximity to create strong, emotional bonds.

Adults and children are now beginning to explore the possibility that they might conduct relationships not only via computers, but, in a very real sense, with them. Artificially intelligent systems are fast evolving beyond glorified user interfaces into entities with which consumers are developing authentic, emotionally indebted connections — they don’t only help run the family; they are now part of the family.

As technology allows people to feel as though they are part of a family despite being away from one; there are other factors driving the interest in setting up new homes abroad. One of these factors is that European and American cities and suburban communities are increasingly difficult environments in which to grow old.

In a survey by the Red Cross in late 2016, half of UK adults reported feeling lonely at least sometimes, while 18% said they experience loneliness always or often; the pace of life today often gets in the way of developing and nurturing meaningful relationships. According to the Modern Families Index 2016, parents in the UK are almost twice as likely (42%) to feel burnout compared with all UK adults (22%), while more than a third of parents (38%) are willing to take a pay cut in exchange for a more manageable lifestyle, compared with 28% of the general population.

For many families, living apart is increasingly a reality, and the link between locality and identity is waning as consumers continue to pursue new, borderless lifestyles. A 2016 survey by GlobeScan revealed that, for the first time in 15 years of tracking by the organization, nearly one in two people (49%) see themselves more as global citizens than as citizens of their country. One indication that this is affecting the ways in which we conduct our relationships is the increase in what demographers call ‘living apart together’. Studies estimate that 40% of US adults in dating relationships now fall into this category. Many consumers are already familiar with managing family life remotely. It’s just over a decade since Skype introduced the general public to the concept of video-calling your friends and relatives from your computer. By 2016, the company had hosted nearly 2 trillion minutes of free video chat. “New forms of communication have opened up enormous possibilities for families who have disruptive work schedules, meaning the guy who lives in Canada is more likely to take that job in Kuwait because he can still video-call home several times a week,” explains Prof. Ross D. Parke in his book Future Families: Diverse Forms, Rich Possibilities.

As the shine wears off Western life for many who dream of a more enriching existence in Eastern countries, and as technology enables them to have a rich family life despite being separated by time zones, another significant transformation is removing a final barrier to relocation: the sharing economy. Over the last 50 years, the attainment of success, achievement, and worth has been closely aligned to the acquisition or accumulation of ‘things’. Increasingly, people are realizing that having more stuff does not necessarily lead to more happiness, and that access over ownership is the new, admired paradigm.

We used to say ‘you are what you eat’, and then this became ‘you are what you wear’. Now, the prevailing narrative is ‘you are what you share’. This is also a new signifier of a good life, as people more commonly gravitate to learning and experiences instead of mindless consumerism. In our recent research among luxury consumers globally, there has been a growing shift in the motivations behind shopping for luxury goods. A decade ago, the major motivation was to show one’s discernment and worth through the acquisition or possession of goods. Today, people are motivated by transformation or experiences — specifically, products or services that enrich lives or help people do or become something new.

A final and significant driver of people’s new openness to and interest in considering and purchasing an additional home away from their primary residence is the changing nature of identity. Identity used to be something that was fixed; we decided who we were when we reached adulthood and we generally stuck to that definition for the entirety of our lives. Today, however, identity is fluid; it can be assembled, re-assembled, and redefined contextually.

Today, many people are letting go of the idea that they are ‘from’ one place, and are rather embracing the concept of being people of the world. These ‘borderless citizens’ comprise a significant and growing universe of individuals who have open minds, are eager to learn and experience, and recognize that a better, more fulfilling life may be waiting for those who are willing to stretch their definition of family, home, and relationships, prompting them to explore a more enlightened purpose.