How the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite, and how their consumer habits affect us all
In today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. 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. In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett dubs this segment of society “the aspirational class” and discusses how, through deft decisions about education, health, parenting, and retirement, the aspirational class reproduces wealth and upward mobility, deepening the ever-wider class divide.
Exploring the rise of the aspirational class, Currid-Halkett considers how much has changed since the 1899 publication of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. In that inflammatory classic, which coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen described upper-class frivolities: men who used walking sticks for show, and women who bought silver flatware despite the effectiveness of cheaper aluminum utensils. Now, Currid-Halkett argues, the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. And these transformations influence how we all make choices.
With a rich narrative and extensive interviews and research, The Sum of Small Things illustrates how cultural capital leads to lifestyle shifts and what this forecasts, not just for the aspirational class but for everyone.
Currid-Halkett (Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity) updates sociologist Thorstein Veblen s 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class to explore the motivations of the contemporary aspirational class. Rather than the conspicuous consumption of the post-WWII U.S., Currid-Halkett argues that this class favors inconspicuous consumption of goods that make their lives easier, such as childcare and housekeeping services, or set them apart as well-educated and socially conscious, such as New York Times subscriptions and artisanal goods. Consequently, members of the aspirational class develop an inflated sense of self that allows them to ignore the growing inequality all around them. Their ability to invest in expensive healthcare and education sets them up for success in a way the dying middle class cannot afford. It is these economic differences, rather than flashy purchases, that create the new division between the rich and the rest. The material can be rather dense, as Currid-Halkett analyzes economic data that breaks down spending habits by income, age, race, and education level, and her focus on urban centers leaves out vast quantities of the population. She insists, condescendingly and improbably, that no one in West Virginia or Pennsylvania is even considering buying an expensive cup of coffee. Still, there is a lot to learn here about the contemporary face of income inequality.