Inconspicuous Consumption and the Rise of the Aspirational Class

Monday, September 11, 2017 - 3:58 pm
A tattooed woman holds a copy of Kinfolk magazine

Inconspicuous Consumption and the Rise of the Aspirational Class

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labor and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratization of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favored by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the “aspirational class.” This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it — preferring to spend on services, education, and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviors are what I call “inconspicuous consumption.” None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

Men play basketball on a NYC street court.

(Evan Karageorgos / Unsplash / Public Domain Dedication (CC0))

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top one percent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement, and health — all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top one percent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost six percent of top one percent household expenditures, compared with just over one percent of middle-income spending). In fact, top-one-percent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top one-percent-spending on education in the U.S. is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 percent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just six percent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritizing as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signaling — from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption, in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the U.S. to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 percent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 percent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare, and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption — whether breastfeeding or education — is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself — simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove


This article originally appeared in Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Contributor

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on the arts and culture and most recently, the American consumer economy.

She is the author of three books The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City (Princeton University Press 2007), Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) and The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (Princeton University Press 2017).

Her work has been featured in numerous national and international media outlets including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Salon, the Economist, the New Yorker, and the Times Literary Supplement.

She received her PhD from Columbia University and now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.

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  • Gabby

    One might include also private gym and yoga studio memberships, exclusive camps, and foreign travel, including global “service” trips for teenagers.

  • Susan

    There is so much truth in what you say that I nearly didn’t ask this question that rises up for me. “Is this a new form of anti-intellectualism?” Many of us remember the Chinese Red Army of the 1960s and its mighty campaign to correct those who seemed academically privileged (among others).

  • Laurie

    “The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.”

    Or, you know, maybe the person just wants to read a magazine and enjoys learning. Spending money on education, healthcare, and retirement is wise and shows planning for the future. It’s not just a way to preserve status, although it may also function as that.

    “In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favored by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.”

    I don’t have a fancy TV or a nice handbag. Nobody I know has leased an SUV. Millennials spend money on education and travel because they believe it is important. What you spend money on reflects your values.

    • Gabby

      I don’t think the author suggests that people spend large amounts of money on education and travel only to communicate status. She says that these sorts of expenditures are typically out of reach for the poor.

      I do think she would say that it is false that those who don’t spend large amounts of money on education or on travel do not value these things. They are more likely priced out of them.

  • Gabby

    I think by pernicious she did not mean purposely or strategically harmful to others but rather having the secondary effect of increasing the gap between the privileged and the less fortunate. I agree that the author’s choice of words here could have been much better.
    She cannot have meant to discourage people from pursuing education for themselves and their children (She is a professor!) or to suggest that they should not breast-feed or save for retirement!
    What she writes here is not at all original. Many writers have pointed out that the continuing gap in educational attainment between rich and poor is driven in part by the increasingly large supplementary expenditures affluent people make for their children and their working of personal networks to secure for their children special opportunities.
    What people in the field of public policy typically propose is that a society that cares about all children should be willing too to step up investment in the education and opportunities offered to poor children.

    • Laurie

      I work as a teacher and the differences in parents providing opportunities for their children differs quite dramatically from lower to upper middle class. Public education would ideally provide more of a balance, but due to zip codes and property taxes, it often does not. The real battles are not whether or not someone reads The Economist, but whether Americans can find places that might offer a common good again.

  • AKP

    Echoing many of you, I would like the author to comment here to clarify her intentions in writing this essay. Is it merely observational? If not, please clarify your thesis.

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  • nancy mansson

    After reading this piece, I too am a bit foggy on the point…I grew up in a home of public school teachers in rural central New York. My parents were both from Brooklyn, and were also first generation. They valued books, talking, the outdoors.

    With a trailer in tow we got to see much of eastern Canada and New England. It was a middle class home. The values I have now, came from them. Never will material goods bring me as much joy as the “inconspicuous consumption” things my parents shared with us.

    But that’s just me. And if someone else enjoys buying certain material goods, what is wrong with that? I have often felt that curiosity and knowledge is seen as odd, or geeky, or somewhat suspect in this country. It’s just different. We should respect people’s different interests no matter what they are.