Is conspicuous consumption dead? How culture is becoming the new commodity to flash
USCs Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the well-off have found new ways to show off — in ways that still hurt society
Luxury goods like Louis Vuitton handbags, Rolex watches and Ferrari sports cars have long signaled one thing cha-ching.
But USC public policy professor and author of The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the age of conspicuous consumption may be ebbing.
Historically, we used material goods to signal status, she said. The argument was leisure classes spent a lot of money on things that were aesthetically pretty but didnt have value. Thats really changed.
Instead of buying pricy goods to signal entrée to the worlds elite, Currid-Halkett argues were using something a little more nuanced: culture.
Todays elite spend money on things that signify cultural capital, she said.
Its about having particular taste, aesthetics or knowledge whether its listening to NPR, breastfeeding your baby or going to yoga, she said.
They pride themselves on going to hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants instead of Applebees, buying local farmers market eggs and wearing Toms shoes, she writes in her book.
She calls these cultural omnivores who read The New Yorker and only buy free-range chicken the aspirational class.
Impact on shopping habits
The shift has impacted retailers as well.
People dont want to go into an anonymous store and buy an anonymous sweater anymore.
People dont want to go into an anonymous store and buy an anonymous sweater anymore, she said.
Now, shoppers care about the meaning behind the product or a companys history. They care that items are made locally and that manufacturing practices are transparent.
For example, wearing shoes from Toms a retailer that donates shoes to nations in need can show something deeper than a love for alpargatas. It signals social and environmental consciousness.
Inconspicuous consumption, as Currid-Halkett calls it, is less about economics and more about knowledge. It can appear to have a lower barrier to entry than, say, a $1,000 handbag. An unemployed screenwriter might opt for almond milk or use reusable tote bags. But that status being in the know is learned, and because of that, its exclusionary, she said.
A lot of that comes with a college degree and a family that cultivated that knowledge, she said.
To talk about inconspicuous consumption is to talk about the elite. Thats because, according to Currid-Halketts research, conspicuous consumption is going down across the socioeconomic ladder but within the top 5 percent, inconspicuous consumption is actually eclipsing the old, lavish ways.
That top group is spending more on inconspicuous consumption experiences, learning and long-term investments than everyone else. They travel, learn foreign languages and send their kids to college.
The changing leisure class
Also, the leisure class is changing. The rich are working much longer hours than their predecessors and, because of that, they spend money to get back time hiring nannies, gardeners and tutors.
Currid-Halkett argues these divergent ways of spending money on music lessons instead of a Maserati are just as damaging to society.
The things the wealthy aspirational class actually spend money on education, health care, child care (not silver spoons, fancy cars or fine china) are the very things that build social capital and create class boundaries across generations that are almost impossible to overcome with material goods, she writes.
Its a practice that can widen the gap between the rich and the poor, she writes.
There’s nothing wrong with getting an elite education or buying organic, but it’s important that this “aspirational class” looks outside its bubble, she said, and sees the way these less visible markers can impact low- and middle-income families.
A thing I think is a problem with consumption practices among the elite is even though they seem less materialistic or less about wealth, it’s actually all about wealth, she said. A $60,000 education costs more than a handbag you can buy. … Its a luxury. Its everything to do with class today.