How the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite, and how their consumer habits affect us all
In today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite. Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast. They use their purchasing power to hire nannies and housekeepers, to cultivate their children’s growth, and to practice yoga and Pilates. In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett dubs this segment of society “the aspirational class” and discusses how, through deft decisions about education, health, parenting, and retirement, the aspirational class reproduces wealth and upward mobility, deepening the ever-wider class divide.
Exploring the rise of the aspirational class, Currid-Halkett considers how much has changed since the 1899 publication of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. In that inflammatory classic, which coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen described upper-class frivolities: men who used walking sticks for show, and women who bought silver flatware despite the effectiveness of cheaper aluminum utensils. Now, Currid-Halkett argues, the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. And these transformations influence how we all make choices.
With a rich narrative and extensive interviews and research, The Sum of Small Things illustrates how cultural capital leads to lifestyle shifts and what this forecasts, not just for the aspirational class but for everyone.
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Warhol Economy and Starstruck . Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, New Yorker, and Wall Street Journal. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two sons.
"There is a lot to learn here about the contemporary face of income inequality."--Publishers Weekly
"[The Sum of Small Things] is a rich anthropological portrait of the 'aspirational; class'--a type of neo-yuppie that defines itself through understated modes of consumption and an emphasis on the accrual of cultural capital."--J. C. Pan, The New Republic
"A key companion to Robert Putnam's survey of dwindling US social mobility, Our Kids."--Barbara Kiser, Nature
"The aspirational class gets a kick in the quinoa courtesy of Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small Things."--Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair
"Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of The Sum of Small Things, says a new cultural elite is on the rise: the aspirational class. These are people who aren't necessarily rich but who share a set of views on the most socially conscious ways to spend money. . . . Currid-Halkett argues that they are driven primarily by an aspiration to be--or at least appear to be--‘their version of better humans.’ That's why, for this milieu, ‘a $2 heirloom tomato purchased from a farmers' market is so symbolically weighty . . . and a white Range Rover is not."--Sarah Begley, Time
"The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Los Angeles academic Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, looks at the consumer side of proximity and inequality. Kicking off from Thorstein Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption, in which the leisure class of the 19th century displayed its inherited wealth through material goods, she posits a new 'aspirational class.'"--Dylan Reid, Literary Review of Canada
"What makes Currid-Halkett’s argument powerful is that she mines the data to prove that the members of this group are passing on their privilege to their children in just as pernicious a way as the old aristocrats passed on their estates and titles."--Harry Wallop, The Times
Table of Contents:
1 The Twenty-first-Century "Leisure" Class 1
2 Conspicuous Consumption in the Twenty-first Century 24
3 Ballet Slippers and Yale Tuition: Inconspicuous Consumption and the New Elites 46
4 Motherhood as Conspicuous Leisure in the Twenty-first Century 78
5 Conspicuous Production 110
6 Landscapes of Consumption 148
7 "To Get Rich Is Glorious"? The State of Consumption and Class in America 182
Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: