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Why Are We So Obsessed With Backpacks? Blame the Gig Economy.

My venture into freelancing sent me on a maddening quest for the ‘perfect’ pack

Want to get sucked into an inescapable YouTube wormhole? Take a journey into backpack reviews. Two years ago, while in the market for a laptop bag, I became pack-obsessed. I took notes in a spreadsheet, comparing every minute detail: the number of compartments, the quality of stitching, the brand of zipper, the presence of built-in USB ports, the balance of minimalism and functionality. Did I need a luggage strap? Was 14 liters too small? Was Cordura ballistic nylon durable enough? And did the “perfect” rucksack even exist?

Mock me if you must, but such rapt attention was a requirement of the life I was embarking upon. Because while in the past, all my backpack had to do was carry my lunch and maybe an umbrella and paperback to and from my day job, my move into the freelance world meant I no longer had an office with a desk for my computer, a shelf for my files or a coffee mug for my morning hit of caffeine. And so, I could no longer tote a run-of-the-mill Nike backpack around London. I needed an optimized bag that could hold some serious weight without sending me to the chiropractor.

“I used to work in a radio studio, so I never thought that much about function when it came to baggage,” says Danielle Stephens, a freelance audio producer who also lives in London. Stephens was laid off from a full-time staff job earlier this year, and as she eased into freelancing, she hadn’t anticipated how much she’d actually be carrying on her back every day: heavy microphones, sound mixers and audio compressors. A good backpack was “the first ‘investment’ I’d make in my business,” she tells me. “I especially wanted to make sure it lasted for a long time.” She spent the first few months of her freelance career comparing packs.

The “investment” in a mobile workplace often includes far more than a pack. Other freelancers tell me they bought noise-canceling headphones and jackets with multiple pockets — not because they liked the products, but because they felt like freelancer necessities. “I recently spent two months of savings on the new Apple noise-canceling AirPods,” one freelancer says. “I usually end up working in cafes or coffee shops, and if there isn’t a screaming baby in there, there’s really bad, loud music that makes it impossible to concentrate.”

“We don’t have the money to consume frivolously, and so, people always want the most optimized thing — the one backpack that you’ll never have to replace or that does everything, for example,” explains Kyle Chayka, author of the upcoming book The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism. As such, he says, more careful, considered purchasing has become a “connotation of minimalism.” 

More profoundly, the shift toward minimalism also changes our relationship to the products we own and use. “Minimalism is popular because it provides a way to adapt to the modern world,” Chayka says. In other words, my hunt for the perfect “investment” backpack wasn’t just about its storage capacity: I needed it to improve the way I felt about myself, especially at a time when my material security was nonexistent.

“If you have less stuff, you’ll think you’re safer and more stable,” Chayka tells me. “It’s essentially a lowering of expectations. Also, if we’re consuming fewer things, we focus more and more on the details of what we’re still consuming. Hence the obsession with great coffee, the perfect backpack or a uniform outfit.”

After watching a convincing YouTube video, I spent almost $200 on my Timbuk2 backpack — more than I’ve ever spent on any kind of clothing or workwear. And sure, it might not be as stylish as the Aer, Ism, Herschel Supply Co., North Face or Fjallraven options I see other commuters wearing when I take the tube home. But I do believe that it makes a statement. Namely: When the next recession hits, I’ll be the one holding the battery-pack rations.