For as long as we can remember, designer bags, expensive watches, and other material objects were paraded around as indicators of social position and status. But as luxury goods become cheaper and easier to produce, we’re seeing the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.
This democratization of consumer goods has made so-called luxury items less useful as a status symbol. Since everyone can now buy designer handbags and fancy cars, the rich have taken to more subtle signifiers of their social position. Yes, the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions, but the dramatic changes in spending come from what’s called the ‘aspirational class’.
This ‘aspirational class’ shows off status by prizing knowledge, building cultural capital, and they spend accordingly – preferring experiences, services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. Rejecting flashy materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and wellness – all of which are immaterial, but cost more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy.
While this inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through other ways like reading The Economist, buying pasture-raised eggs, or sending the kids to private preschool (and packing their lunch bags with kale and fruit instead of packaged snacks). For the aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure a certain social status, even if they don’t outwardly display it.
Take for example Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness lifestyle company GOOP. This past weekend, over 600 guests paid between $500-$1500 to attend the company’s first wellness summit. The price of admission included access to a day’s journey worth of services like intravenous hydration drips, crystal therapy, and even a photograph of your aura. While many are chasing Birkin bags, the aspirational class are transforming themselves.
It seems like the ultimate luxury really is investment in one’s self.