Is conspicuous consumption dead? How culture is becoming the new commodity to ‘flash’

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 didn’t have value. That’s really changed.”

Instead of buying pricy goods to signal entrée to the world’s elite, Currid-Halkett argues we’re using something a little more nuanced: culture.

“Today’s elite spend money on things that signify cultural capital,” she said.

It’s about having particular taste, aesthetics or knowledge – “whether it’s 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 Applebee’s, buying local farmer’s 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 don’t 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 company’s 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, it’s exclusionary, she says.

“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. That’s because, according to Currid-Halkett’s 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 – education, healthcare, childcare (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.

It’s 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 says, 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. … It’s a luxury. It’s everything to do with class today.”

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