Owning a Louis Vuitton handbag, multimillion-dollar Italian Bugatti supercar, or shiny Rolex has always been a marker of elite status.
Yet such flashiness is becoming less ubiquitous among the ultra-high-net-worth crowd.
They are spending more than ever before on security and privacy – trading in hilltop houses for homes in hidden neighbourhoods invisible to the prying cameras of Google’s online street view.
And in an era where mass consumption means both the upper class and middle class can own the same luxury brand, the rich are foregoing material goods to invest in immaterial means as a way to signify status.
It is what author Elizabeth Currid-Halkett called inconspicuous consumption in her 2017 book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of an Aspirational Class.
It is the opposite of “conspicuous consumption” – a term conceived by American economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class.
It focused on the evolution of the affluent classes of society, and refers to the concept of using material items to signify social status. At that time, silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position.
Today, driving a luxury car, for example, shows that a person can afford to drive a car that others may admire; this admiration comes not from the car’s ability to get the job done, but from the visible sign of wealth it provides.
Such a concept is the hallmark of previous elite spending, Currid-Halkett wrote in an online article, titled “The new, subtle ways the rich signal their wealth”, published on the BBC website.
Essentially, showing off wealth is no longer the way to signify wealth.
In the United States particularly, the top 1 per cent of the population – people earning upwards of US$300,000 per year – have been spending less on material goods since 2007, Currid-Halkett wrote, citing US Consumer Expenditure Survey data.
However, it’s not only a growing trend among millionaires and billionaires – it’s also practised by what Currid-Halkett calls “the aspirational class” – middle-income groups earning about US$70,000 per year.
She wrote: “This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it.
“Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy.”
Education investment propels social mobility
That inconspicuous consumption often goes unnoticed by the middle class, but noticed by a fellow elite, is what makes it so discreet – Currid-Halkett called it a shorthand for the elite to signify their “cultural capital” to each other and cement status.
It “reproduces privilege” in a way that flaunting luxury could not, she said.
Displays of knowledge, such as referencing articles in New Yorker magazine, expresses this cultural capital, giving one leverage when climbing up the social ladder and making connections.
“In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility,” Currid-Halkett wrote.
J.C. Pan of the The New Republic magazine wrote that parents are trying to reproduce their class position for their children.
“They buy their kids boutique health care, take them on enriching trips to the Galapagos, and – most importantly – equip them with every educational advantage, from high-end preschools to SAT [the standard test used for university admissions in the US] tutors to Ivy League tuition.
“In 2014, the top 1 per cent [of the US population] spent 860 per cent more than the national average on education.”
Just consider the rich families who are spending millions to live within walking distance to the country’s best public and elementary and secondary schools, or those paying as much as US$60,000 for a university tour via private jet – they make such an investment in education in the hope of setting their children up for a successful, well-connected future.
And the parents themselves invest in their own knowledge and achievement by working all the time – another modern way of signifying status, Business Insider’s Shana Lebowitz reported.
As Currid-Halkett wrote: “For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.”
Health and wellness also signify status
Vogue magazine previously reported that health and wellness have become a luxury status symbol – and it makes sense.
“The cultural elite spends relatively little on beauty products, but splurges on exercise, because it thinks that bodies should look natural,” The Financial Times reporter Simon Kuper wrote in an analysis of the cultural elite.
“The thin, toned body expresses this class’s world view: even leisure must be productive. Instead of trawling shopping malls, class members narrate their family hikes on Facebook,” Kuper wrote.
Some wealthy New Yorkers pay up to US$900 a month for a gym membership to Manhattan’s Performix House – with a rigorous application process, private entrance, and content studio for social media influencers, the elite gym promises the best in health and wellness.
It is the same feeling evoked by stepping out of a US$30 SoulCycle class to buy a US$10 green juice or having a US$200-plus membership at one of America’s swankiest gym chains, Equinox – where, according to rumour, only beautiful people work out and classes are taught by former Olympians.
It even offers a US$26,000 ultra-exclusive membership for the travelling mogul.
“It’s like the only acceptable lifestyle brag,” one SoulCycle spinner told Vogue.
“You are a douche [an obnoxious or contemptible person] if you brag about your car or how much money you make, but bragging about how much you spin is normal, though still very annoying.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider .