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Rolex and Mercedes Out: Who Are the New Elite?

Salience distinguishes the new elite from the old.

Key points

  • The essential idea that distinguishes the new elite from the old one is the “salience."
  • The new elite consumption patterns are based on values, ideology, and symbols that do not demonstrate status.
  • The new elite does not "consume wealth" like the old elite. They do not have luxury cars, fancy bags, or expensive watches.

How would you identify a rich person 50 years ago? They apparently wore a Rolex watch, drove a Mercedes or Ferrari, wore Versace, and walked around with an original Fendi bag.

In the past, we identified who belongs to the elite class out of conspicuous markers, but today the new marker of the elites is a consumption that is not conspicuous or eye-popping. If in the past the elite was characterized by silverware (Silver Spoons), a Rolex, or Mercedes, today the elite group shows behavioral patterns that are 180 degrees different from the ones we used to associate with the "rich" people.

Salience Distinguishes the New Elite From the Old

The essential idea that distinguishes the new elite from the old one is the “salience."

The people of the old elite used to inform their surroundings that they were capable of using status symbols — compared to the new elite, whose consumption patterns are based on values and ideology like organic vegetables, Pilates, the New York Times, and other symbols that do not demonstrate status symbols.

In 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen scathingly critiqued what he called the “conspicuous consumption” of America’s upper class. The rich were so obsessed with their social status, he wrote, that they would go to gratuitous lengths to signal it. His famous example was silver flatware: handcrafted silver spoons, though no more “serviceable” than and hardly distinguishable from aluminum ones, conferred high social rank and signaled membership in what he called the “leisure class.”

In the same way, as soon as we placed a Nike, Prada, or Apple logo on the shoe, its value immediately increased significantly. These products are perceived as "sublime" because they are not purchased for the purpose of fulfilling basic needs — they are far beyond utility considerations. Take, for example, good manners. It's something that requires spare time; one has to learn how to eat with seven different forks or fold a napkin.

So manners are basically proof of excess money, of the possibility of taking time to learn something completely unnecessary. This is something that indicates that you are a member of high society.

Indeed, if we analyze the leisure culture in the past and today — it seems that 50 years ago, people were considered successful if they had free time, while today, people are perceived as successful if they do not have time.

Celebrities like to showcase their success with tweets like "Bummer, I’m flying to New York tonight, and from there I have to take off for photo shooting for the Versace campaign in Vegas, hashtag — I have no life" — this is considered the pinnacle of success nowadays.

The behavior demonstrated by the old elite, the one with the Rolex and Ferrari has roots in evolution. This is a problem known as "Darwin's headache" or "peacock's tail": How is it possible that the forces of evolution — that is, the adjustment of organisms to their environment in order to improve their chances at survival — led to the creation of such a magnificent and heavy tail that burdens the peacock, impedes its movement and increases its chances of survival?

The answer is that peacocks with a glamorous tail are more likely to mate during evolution than peacocks with a less fancy tail. The tail serves as a sort of peacock statement: "My genes are so good and make me so strong that I can afford to hold such a tail."

The peacock tail is a means of channeling certain traits to the other side, such as health, fertility, and dominance. This theory is called "behavioral signaling." It states that external cues are evidence of internal features. In the same way, buying certain products sends a message of certain capabilities. For example, a luxury car expresses economic ability that allows a certain social status.

Only in recent decades have we seen that status symbols are on a trend of change. A group of real estate entrepreneurs approached me several months ago. They wanted to build a "boutique" residential complex and understand how to design the "look and feel" of the complex, how to market it, and what is currently considered prestigious.

When I asked the entrepreneurs if they knew their target audience, the answer was clear. They wanted to attract quality people with high social status who are educated and hold sublime values. I conducted a study to examine their consumption patterns and found distinct characteristics that describe them.

The New Elite

The new elite group is first and foremost highly educated, with at least a bachelor's degree. The mothers in this group breastfeed their children. They like to spend money on organic food and Pilates or yoga classes. They believe in sustainability and recycling, regularly donate, read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and boast political correctness and equality as part of their identity.

If in the past, the upper class acquired status symbols to signal to the world that if I had a Rolex, it meant I could afford to spend $20,000 on a watch. Today, these consumption patterns are perceived as cheap and even vulgar. True, there will still be oligarchs who will purchase private jets and yachts, but it will be perceived as a ridiculous act by the new elite.

When I examined who nowadays buys silver spoons, in interviews held by Elizabeth Halkett, she found that indeed it is not this upper class that spends money on status symbols but rather people we tend to call "choppy" or show off, characterized by low intelligence and more and more often without academic education.

Halkett found that the new elite's spending goes on purchases of "inconspicuous consumer goods." The upper class did not mention the new and luxurious car in interviews but talked about buying organic products because it is good for health and the environment. They talked about studies demonstrating the benefits of breastfeeding. They purchase hybrid vehicles. But they do not "consume wealth" like the old elite. They do not have luxury cars, fancy bags, or expensive watches. One can see a change in spending patterns among the rich, away from the outspoken and in the invisible direction.

Perhaps the most important thing is the privilege that the new upper class has. The fact that you know which articles in the New Yorker to talk about or what to refer to during small talk communicates that you have cultural capital and that valuable knowledge actually provides entry into circles that, in turn, help pave the way for key positions, social connections, and private schools. Inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

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