These days, there is a new aspirational class that is emerging, and it has a lot to do with money, but with a new values aspect creeping in with social and cultural capital playing a big part of this new class.
Instead of a leisure class, you have the aspirational class.
A lot of this post is based off this book Sum of small things (excellent read) but I have a reading list at the end with the other books I’ve also read on this topic.
Luxury spending changes
There is a decline at the upper class levels to buy less conspicuous luxury items (though the dollar amount is still large, but a smaller percentage of their overall income), and there is an increase in the middle and lower class to essentially buy their way into having status in society (this is not a new concept).
The rich, are basically not spending on visibly luxurious goods. They’re buying services now, and spending on invisible goods and services. The rich are buying invisible, expensive goods and services that afford them more time, give their children a huge head start in life and shape how they are able to spend their time (e.g. not cooking, cleaning, doing lawn care, etc).
I am partly in this group as my money buys me time to stay at home with Little Bun, and my job in and of itself, is flexible and affords me a lot of money while being able to stay at home and also educate Little Bun one-on-one, instead of having to go to a retail store to make ends meet.
The head start Little Bun has in life, is immeasurable, being immersed in two languages from birth, to full-time attention from BOTH parents on the education front for math, and so on, to the point where he started to reading and spelling at 3 or so is a head start that is not afforded by many families. I had a lot of free time to spend doing things like flash cards with him, and that’s a luxury.
The ones with wealth, are spending money on things you can’t see: invisible labour such as childcare, cleaning, chefs, lawn care, organic food, and in education for their children to make sure they secure their spots in the upper echelons.
Cultural and Social capital
To have time to learn about, read, and wax on about social issues, is a privilege.
If you’re working 60+ hour jobs for little pay, you don’t have time to also pick up a book to read about feminism or to scroll social media for it. You’re likely trying to get the home clean, kids fed and cleaned, homework done, and life takes over because there’s no other choice and no other help aside from you and presumably, your spouse if you’re lucky (some are single parents).
To be able to spend time learning about these issues, being an activist, thinking and talking about it? It’s all a privilege, and it’s used as an example to show how different you are, aspirationally speaking than the others.
That you would know or be concerned about drinking plant-based milk instead of cow’s milk, or that all sunscreens harm the coral reefs, but mineral ones do the least amount of bleaching/damage — all of this is knowledge you spent time gathering.
I see myself in this 100%. I am definitely in this aspirational class because I have time to immerse myself in these issues, advocate, and talk about it. I never thought about it, but all this ‘knowledge’ I have about the environment and thinking for the short-term and long-term, or making decisions to be as plastic-free as possible — this is a privileged life.
Think about very rural areas that don’t have access to such knowledge capital, or worse, their grocery stores ONLY stock plastic-laden items; they don’t have the choice or the option to walk to a farmer’s market to buy vegetables grown locally. My options to be able to do this, show my privilege.
A real increase in educational spending has been seen in the rich, from private schools, to tutors, to special books and tools to help their kids, including language tutors in Mandarin, etc, is not anything new.
The new status symbol essentially, is bragging about sending your child to a private school, and I have noticed that in recent years with Little Bun, hearing snippets of: “Oh which school? X or Y?“, and names being thrown out of very $$$$$ schools where they’re sending their children.
When I responded I was just sending him to the local one, the conversation stopped, and they turned away. I didn’t pass the gatekeeper test into their circle.
Another family, mentioned their nanny was Spanish, so she spoke Spanish to their little girl, they spoke English and French at home, and they brought in a Mandarin tutor twice weekly to speak to the little girl in Mandarin, hoping to give her a language leg-up. (Honestly, it sounds exhausting for them and their child.)
Another colleague I met, spent $3000 a month on a school for his son, where the classes were 10 or smaller, with a special sports curriculum embedded into the school day. He didn’t make a ton of money like the other families above, but he wanted his son to reach the highest level of education possible and he put a good half of the household income towards paying for their son’s education because he believed it to be the key to an even better job.
Even in the middle-class, you’re seeing a rise in services for labour – everything from having someone grocery shop for you, to clean your home, walk your dog, come to your home to give you massages so you don’t need to leave your home — those with money are paying more for outsourced labour because they can afford to.
An executive working 60+ hours a week doesn’t have time to clean her home (nor her husband, presumably, who may also work 60+ hours a week), so they hire a cleaner, contrasted with a service worker who also works the same hours, but isn’t paid as generously, so he has to come home and clean his own home because he can’t afford a cleaner to take that labour load away.
Or how about nannies?
I have met families with a nanny for each child. I have met families with both a private chef who comes by once a week, and a housekeeper. These are all services they’re paying for, to release them from the burden of labour because they can afford to.
I’m sort of the oddball out in these groups because I don’t have a nanny, but everyone is surprised that I do not, as I can clearly afford one (they’re colleagues, so we make the same amount).
When I am pressured or shamed (?) into revealing why I don’t have one, I reveal yet another privileged aspect of my upbringing that we did have a nanny for a brief time when I was younger, and it’s kind of why I am turned off having one (she wasn’t very nice, which I know is a blanket statement to apply to all nannies but .. it didn’t make me amenable to them).
My partner did not have a nanny when he was younger (he grew up much poorer), but he simply doesn’t like having non-family/friends in the home, let alone full-time, which is a sentiment I and my siblings all share, to be honest.
Organic food, breastfeeding their child, reading incessantly to educate themselves, buying specific types of clothing that is fair trade, etc — all of this is privileged spending of their time and money.
They’d rather pay $3 for an heirloom tomato that is misshapen because it’s ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ than $1 for a conventional one. Or to buy tomatoes of various colours to show diversity in your food, rather than just one red tomato type.
They’d spend hours reading about social issues, feminism, racism and so on because they have the luxury of time to be able to do so, having made enough with their jobs to afford them leisure.
They buy organic, free-trade, fair-trade clothing made by artisans whom the company founders meet on a regular basis with, to pay them fair wages for their work.
I see myself in ALL of these examples, and this hit home pretty hard. I am exactly this person they’re describing, in many aspects.
Where the rich are also showing off, is in their bodies (not a new concept) because if you have time to work out in the gym for 2 hours a day, in your $100+ Lululemon pants and then “pop by” the local Whole Foods grocery store to take a selfie with some organic heirloom tomatoes to buy to make a fresh plate for your lunch, you have a lot of time on your hands.
Lululemon pants by the way, feel and fit better than mainstream pants (to me), but essentially, they both do the same darn thing at the end of the day – you wear them and sweat in them. That is another example of conspicuous logo spending, but subtly.
Their bodies, sculpted with hours of work, show the time and investment in classes and workout gear that goes into them.
I know this, because I used to be able to go to yoga daily even while working (I had flexible hours), and that in and of itself was a privilege of my job as a professional.
Someone in a 9-5 job, working minimum wage shifts, can’t just leave for lunch to drive leisurely to their yoga studio, do a class, then come home, shower, eat a fresh lunch and pick up where they left their desk work and work flexibly or at home.
They have to stay in their uniforms, eat their lunch on a bench outside, and get back to their stations or their post in the store or building before the end of lunch.
In the ultra rich circles, they do things like fly private, not commercial. You’re a weirdo if you have the money, and DON’T want a plane to yourself (LOL!)
A family with a NetJets service, immediately sets themselves apart as simply having it. If you don’t know what NetJets is, you’re already not part of that circle (I had to search what it was, initially), and it’s a private jets subscription service that costs $5000 an hour.
You can read more about it here:
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What is on ‘show’ now, is not as conspicuous
You’re never going to see people with money, walking around decked out to the nines in logos and bling – I even wrote a piece on my observations about Quiet versus Loud Luxury.
The ones who WANT to show off with major logos and in your face pieces, are the ones who didn’t have money before, so they want to prove it, and by doing so, reveal their lower to middle class upbringing in their need to flaunt it to everyone that they’ve made it (good for them!).
The ones who don’t want to show off, are trying to distance themselves from those who are “new money”, and are trying to do the OPPOSITE of what mainstream does.
That’s basically what being rich seems to be all about – trying to set yourself apart in various ways, and avoiding what the masses are doing.
The way that they do show off, is in subtle logos – a very discreet Céline or Hermès logo that is barely seen, the small Lululemon octopus-like logo (haha) on the back of their leggings, or their jewellery because if you know the brand Pomellato, you’ll know it’s the one preferred by the upper class as it’s very discreet and very expensive (I personally don’t see the appeal).
Each of these rings is $6000 USD or so, and you normally wear 2-3 of them stacked if you have any upper class tendencies (I only know about this because I read about it):
Where the truly rich can spend and show off ‘quietly’, is as I mentioned above – in invisible spending from buying labour to services to education.
These are all out of reach for those in the middle to lower classes – who can afford all of these private schools starting at $25K a year, language tutors and language-specific nannies for children under 5? It’s the ones with real money, not just a few thousand or even a hundred thousand in the bank.
Or in labour services, to buying ethical/correct organic foods to show that they understand the implications/impact of buying locally and not mass-produced. If you can buy from someone’s garden around the corner, you’re showing your privilege and status versus someone who can only buy in a grocery or convenience store because that’s all they have ‘around the corner’.
Final Reading List
These are books I read to learn more about social class/status, and I’ve seen similarities across all of them in various settings. It’s interesting to read about the differences.
I’ve also read a lot of memoirs and history-based books, but I won’t list them all, although they’re interesting in determining as well, different social classes and statuses based on experiences.