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Rent or own? The new sharing economy values access over ownership

To rent or own, that is the question posed by the burgeoning sharing economy. For a growing population engaged in this high-tech, low-cost 'collaborative economy,' access to cars, clothes, cuisine – or even a cat –  is better than ownership.

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Generation Y especially, he says, is bailing on owning cars. "First, they can't afford it, and second, they value their freedom. When I grew up, the car was freedom; now it's a ball and chain. Freedom is an iPhone. That's what liberates you and what connects you to your peers," he says. "That's a really huge shift."

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Evidence of that is Aubrey Harding, a 24-year-old medical student in Portland, Ore., who saw renting her 2003 Mazda Protégé as a way to help pay for books, school supplies, and high-priced car insurance. She began renting it last April through Getaround.

Each person to whom she rents has a profile and reviews on the site, so she can vet them. Her rates are $7 an hour, $35 a day, and $175 a week. She gets 60 percent of the fee, and Getaround takes 40 percent – which goes toward insuring the vehicles while they are rented. While her car is being used, Ms. Harding and her husband bike to work and school. This is her first experience with sharing, and she says: "I'd like to do more of it. I'm really open to it now."

But for some, it's more than money; it's common sense – a philosophy and a way of life.

Gorenflo, who at 48 teeters at the upper age range of Generation X, once had a traditional corporate marketing career. His entry into the sharing economy was the result of a seismic emotional and philosophical epiphany, he says. While on a business trip to Brussels in 2004 as an executive with DHL, he took an afternoon run, stopped at an abandoned warehouse, and suddenly started crying. At the time, he recalls, DHL's mission statement "said something like 'To be the best box mover in the world.' What is that? I realized I was not doing the work I wanted to do."

Gorenflo had already decided that sharing was an important way to live, both personally and within his community, but didn't feel he could live that life while working for a corporation.

"Money and things are a means to an end," he says, "but not an end in themselves. I went back to my hotel room and sent out a letter of resignation."

Soon he was gathering like-minded individuals into a monthly salon in San Francisco, to talk about living a life that involved sharing. Their brainstorming sessions focused on how a sharing economy might look, tossing around ideas like time banks where hours are the currency or community exchanges.

"People talked about the projects they were working on and where they needed help," says Gorenflo, who even made his career into a shared project. "I began to see it's foolish to live your life and lead your career as if it's an individual project. I open-sourced it. I said this is what I want to do in the world; this is my purpose. And that inspired people to help me. In my old career it was all about competition and struggle.

"This is the total opposite; it's about flow, not competition."

You can even share a dog

It seems the sky is the limit when it comes to the kinds of things that can be shared, individually or on a corporate level. Take Katherine Long's tiny dog-sharing business in New York's Central Park. A Fordham University grad student, she started it in June: For $5, those itching to see what it's like to have their own dog can walk Ms. Long's for 20 minutes. (She is raising money to donate to animal shelters.)

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