- Long synonymous with dripping diamonds, flashy Lamborghinis, and shiny Rolexes, rich people are being more discreet about their money.
- Showing off wealth is no longer the way to signify wealth.
- Investing in things like education and health helps the rich propel social mobility and gain access to what the middle class cannot.
But such flashiness is becoming less ubiquitous among the ultra-high-net-worth crowd. They’re spending more than ever before on security and privacy, trading in hilltop houses for homes in hidden neighborhoods invisible on Google 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 forgoing material goods to invest in immaterial means as a way to signify status. It’s what Elizabeth Currid-Halkett calls inconspicuous consumption in her book “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of an Aspirational Class.”
It’s the opposite of conspicuous consumption, a term conceived by Thorstein Veblen in “The Theory of the Leisure Class” which refers to the concept of using material items to signify social status – a hallmark of previous elite spending, wrote Currid-Halkett in an article syndicated on BBC.
Essentially, showing off wealth is no longer the way to signify wealth. In the US particularly, the top 1% have been spending less on material goods since 2007, Currid-Halkett wrote, citing US Consumer Expenditure Survey data.
But it's not only a growing trend among millionaires and billionaires - it's also practiced by what Currid-Halkett calls "the aspirational class."
"This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it," Currid-Halkett wrote. "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."
Investing in education 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 couldn't, she said.
Displays of knowledge, such as referencing "New Yorker" articles, 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 New Republic wrote that parents are trying to reproduce their class position for their children: "They buy their kids boutique healthcare, take them on enriching trips to the Galápagos, and - most importantly - equip them with every educational advantage, from high-end preschools to SAT tutors to Ivy League tuition. In 2014, the top 1% spent 860% 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 $60,000 for a college tour via private jet - they make such an investment in education in hopes 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, reported Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz.
As Currid-Halkett puts it, "For today's aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it," she wrote.
Health and wellness also signify status
Vogue 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 (like food) should look natural," wrote Financial Times reporter Simon Kuper in an analysis of the cultural elite.
"The thin, toned body expresses this class's worldview: Even leisure must be productive. Instead of trawling shopping malls, class members narrate their family hikes on Facebook," Kuper continued.
Some well-off New Yorkers pay up to $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's the same feeling evoked by stepping out of a $30 Soul Cycle class to buy a $10 green juice or having a $200-plus membership at one of the nation's swankiest gym chains, Equinox - where, according to rumor, only beautiful people work out and classes are taught by former Olympians. It even offers a $26,000 ultra-exclusive membership for the traveling mogul.
"It's like the only acceptable lifestyle brag," one Soul Cycle spinner told Vogue. "You are a douche 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."