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What Young People and One-Percenters Have in Common

Their outlook on spending.

StateofIsrael/Creative Commons

The rich are like you and me, it turns out — if you're a millenial. In a New York Times opinion piece, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy who is writing a book on Thorstein Veblen and 21st-century consumption, says that the way the uber-wealthy now spend their money has changed. The wealthy of earlier generations spent their money conspicuously, so that their neighbors might know they'd spent it. Veblen's famous example was that of silver spoons, but a purse dotted with Louis Vuitton logos is a more recent expression of that impulse. But, according to Currid-Halkett, the people spending that way aren't the very wealthiest one-percenters, it's what she dubs the "aspirational" class—those making between $114,000 and $394,000, who want desperately to look like the richest class, and so consume goods at a rate that's in fact out of step with their wealth. The truly rich are more preoccupied with experiences than silver spoons. This includes education for their children, but also, "they spend to secure more of what Veblen’s elite already had—leisure. Nannies, gardeners, housekeepers and first-class nonstop airline tickets are the means." 

Another group that's gotten publicity in recent years for spending more money on experiences than stuff: the young. Millenials are less likely to buy cars or homes than earlier generations, but more likely to spend their spare money on vacations, concert tickets, and especially on eating out obsessively and with an eye to gourmet conquest. The young and underemployed tend to have plenty of the leisure that the rich of Veblen's era had, and the rich of this era are apparently seeking, and so this makes sense.

Like other people under 30, I tend to spend this way, too, and justify it to myself with the rationalization that money spent on time with friends is money well-spent. It can even feel virtuous, like a rebuke to all the materialistic boomer excess of the pre-crash years. But are millenials merely doing the same thing that our parent's generation did—that is, imitating the spending patterns of the wealthy? Acquisitiveness, after all, doesn't have to result in a Ferrari in the garage.  An Instagrammed photo of a dinner out is, in fact, a nearly textbook form of conspicuous consumption. The modern version of those silver spoons, perhaps, isn't the utensil so much as what's carried on it.