Forget the silver spoon and the crystal chandelier; today’s elite has moved beyond such material trivialities. With the rise of middle-class spending and a greater availability of cheap foreign made designer goods, one percenters have had to find new ways to signal their wealth and superiority – sneaky tricks like reading The Economist, buying pasture raised eggs, and investing in education. BBC reports this startling discovery:
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 behaviours 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.
The rise of this new elite – which the author calls the aspirational class – is most evident in the United States. Here, they have cleverly infiltrated areas formerly frequented by the middle class – and even some mere peasants. This is a rather obvious ploy to show off their wealth and rub out inferior noses in the dirt, but as the saying goes, turnabout is fair play. Now that just anyone can afford designer handbags and brand new SUVs, they have no other way to wealth signal.
The signs are subtle, but they’re easy catches for the trained eye. The aspirational class – as the name suggests – aspires to new heights of greatness. As such, they invest in education, retirement, and healthcare. Despite the inconspicuous nature of their consumption, the whimsical nature and carefree attitudes that come from being well insured are a conspicuous tell. Further signs include reading The Economist, buying pasture-raised eggs and breastfeeding their babies for a whole year. These people are even sending their children off to school with quinoa crackers and organic fruit for lunch. Why not? Even poor children know that Mom and Dad can’t buy quinoa and organic fruit on the SNAP benefits formerly known as food stamps and it’s best they get used to this economic bullying while they’re young.
Perhaps the most devious aspect of this new investment in inconspicuous consumption is its ability to reproduce privilege in a way never before seen. With elites breastfeeding their infants for an entire year, feeding their whole families healthier foods, and spending money on healthcare and education, they secure their progeny’s ability to show off their privilege to future generations.
These self-important elites are so confident in their own greatness; they often don’t even feel the need to put their pretentiousness on display. You could be rubbing shoulders with a one percenter at your local farmer’s market, and not even know it! The BBC report concludes:
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.
Have you noticed the alarming trend in these “wealth signaling” practices yet? If you’re a member of the middle class or live in a rural area, they probably look familiar. Healthier living – whether buying organic food or breastfeeding infants longer – is a growing trend, and not just amongst the elites. Two-parent families across the nation are breastfeeding for the whole recommended year and mothers hear that advice even at their free Department of Health visits. Even some single mothers and working mothers are pumping and saving milk to be fed to their infants when they can’t be with them. Rural middle class – and yes, even poor – families are buying organic fruits, vegetables, and meats from local farmers, both at farmer’s markets and directly from the farm – and that’s when they aren’t raising the food themselves. Education does cost more now than ever before, but there are now more grants, scholarships, and loans that make it available to nearly everyone.
The author of the BBC article did get one thing right. Farmer’s markets certainly are elite venues. The best food you’ll ever eat comes fresh from the farm, and the farmer from whom I buy my monthly meat share and pasture raised eggs and veggies drives an old Chevy pickup with just as many dents and scratches as mine. Elite they are, but not exclusive. If you’ve never been to a farmer’s market, look one up in your local area.
In the true aspirational class spirit, everyone is welcome.
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