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The Impending End of the Leisure Class

There’s a new breed of people in town, and I think it all stems from the Baby Boomer generation’s ability to continue to spend money and influence the spending habits of younger generations. (I just like being able to blame things on the Baby Boomers, it would be nice if someone started a blog about that). But in my mind, this breed is a dying one.

Bling! I used to be able to peg people pretty well into classes, you know, “Jim’s Nouveaux Riche because he’s got a new ski boat”, or “Tony’s middle class cause he buys his tools at Sears”. White Collar, blue collar, was easy, even with green collar things weren’t too tough. But nowadays it seems to be a little tougher with the introduction of the Leisure Class into mainstream society. What was once the purview of white shoed retirees in Florida, or Bling covered black rap icons can be your neighbour’s too. But shift things around from flashy diamond rings and hotted up cars, to less showy alternatives to spend your cash. The status symbols are less conspicuous, but the products can still be expensive –

“Refloored your kitchen?”

“Yes Sustainably Harvested Organic Bamboo transported by carbon-emission free sailing ships and manufactured in Worker-Positive factories.”

Less Conspicuous, but none the less status symbols in their own right. IT seems to be more about private pleasure, the ability to enjoy the finer things in life…

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Inconspicuous Consumption

At some point, luxury becomes less a tool of public status competition and more a means to private pleasure….
…consider David Brooks’s observation in Bobos in Paradise that, for today’s educated elites,
it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Where will this end up?

Luxury activities and exotic goods will likely get squeezed out as part of the housing bubble/peak oil and food security crisis. Disposable incomes will become less disposable, communities will re-engage and life will settle back down to somewhere near pre-oil levels of activity and transportation. The leisure class is nothing but a product of oil and economic policy peculiar to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

It’s interesting that the idea of the Leisure Class actually first popped up in a book by the American economist Thorstein Veblen over a century ago, I just think it became more defined than ever before as the Baby Boomers reached retirement:

The Theory of the Leisure Class – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Veblen referred to the emerging ruling class as the “leisure class.” He argued that while this class did perform some work and contributed to the tribe’s well-being, it did so in only a minor, peripheral, and largely symbolic manner.

Doesn’t this sound like the retired folks you know?

What does this have to do with sustainability? I guess it tells me that we should be careful what we wish for. That we should check the premise of our “ruling class” for consistency  tenants of sustainability. That we should take more interest in politics and leadership.

Does the excessive, even inconspicuous, consumption of society bother you?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.