Status is now about what you read, not what you wear

Anyone with a credit card can buy a Swiss watch or an Italian bag today.

Anyone with a decent income and a higher credit limit can buy a prestige German car. What do the real high earners buy now to stand out? They are buying `intangibles’, says an article in Aeon.

The days when money announced itself with diamonds, silverware, and big cars–conspicuous consumption–are passing. “The democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status… Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position.“

What are these signifiers? Taken together, they can be called `cultural capital’. They prefer to “spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods,“ writes Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California, and author of The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. She cites US data to show “the country’s top 1% (people earning upwards of $300,000 or Rs 2 crore per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward.“

The `inconspicuous consumption’ of the rich actually costs a lot more than luxury goods, but is seen as an investment for reproducing privilege. For instance, education makes up “almost 6% of top 1% household expenditures, compared with just over 1% of middle-income spending“. Over the past 20 years, the rich have increased their spending on education 3.5-fold.

Status is now displayed in a far more subtle manner, for instance with the choice of magazine you carry in your office bag. Do you read The Economist, or something lowbrow? Can you reference the right New Yorker article in a chat? This acquisition of cultural capital provides entry into “social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools.“ Those splurging only on designer shoes, dresses and bags are at serious risk of being left behind.

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