How the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite, and how their consumer habits affect us all
In today’s world, the leisure class has been replaced by a new elite.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 crackles with original insights about consumer goods and the individuals who choose them. Currid-Halkett's concepts of ‘the aspirational class' and ‘conspicuous production' advance consumption studies and provide fresh news about the search for distinction. Fast-paced, well-told, and unfailingly interesting, this book is an intellectual treat across the board."--Harvey Molotch, author of Against Security
"What are the status consumption habits of the twenty-first century? In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett blends social science and keen observation to present the new, best guide to this topic of never-ending interest, for the status-conscious in all of us."--Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class
"'Organic', 'artisanal', 'boutique'--these are the catchwords of what has become, in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's view, a new self-regarding social class, grounded less in money than in elite education, and inured to the problems of those less fortunate. This is a timely, original, and disquieting analysis of contemporary American society."--Richard A. Easterlin, University of Southern California
"Exploring how the consumer choices of today’s ‘aspirational class’ express identity and values yet reinforce social exclusivity and economic status, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s lively book offers a thoroughly researched and fair-minded update to Veblen’s classic look at the leisure class. Eschewing mockery and polemics, The Sum of Small Things challenges readers to think hard about culture and consumption in a postscarcity economy."--Virginia Postrel, author of The Power of Glamour
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: