The new, nearly invisible class markers that separate the American elite from everyone else


Dan Knopf in Quartz:

Being wealthy has become so passé that rich people are increasingly choosing not to display that wealth—that’s the theory behind a new book exploring the changing consumption habits of rich people in the West.

In 1899, the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen published the classic polemic The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen’s book was among the first to examine how the wealthy used purchasing decisions to demonstrate their class. To describe this behavior, Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption”—defined as spending on publicly observable goods like clothing and accessories. Veblen argued, as an example, that the main point (pdf) of wearing high-heel shoes or a top hat for the rich was to demonstrate that you could not possibly do any manual labor. The book became well-known as an early criticism of the excesses of capitalism.

Almost 120 years later, sociologist Elizabeth Currid-Halkett has taken the baton from Veblen—but with a modified target. In her new book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Currid-Halkett takes aim at “Aspirationals”—the group that she sees as the new elite. They’re best characterized on the book’s webpage as:

Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast. They use their purchasing power to hire nannies and housekeepers, to cultivate their children’s growth, and to practice yoga and Pilates.

Currid-Halkett’s biting, often humorous commentary is not just a send up of the so-called “coastal elites.” It’s a trenchant analysis that combines economic and sociological evidence to describe major trends.

More here.