One should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption has evolved into conspicuously inconspicuous consumption:

Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1% now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6% of top 1% household expenditures, compared with just over 1% of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1% spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.


While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit.

One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27% of mothers fulfil this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11%).


Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    You wouldn’t believe how good school food here, when we were still a socialist republic, was. We got fish pâté to eat, or a slice of sourdough bread with a piece of real cheese, or a bowl of sauerkraut with sausage bits in it, we ate like rich Americans! If you ever got a chicken finger, it was a literal chicken paw in a stew! And there was never anything with bubbles to drink, ever.

  2. Kirk says:

    @ our Slovenian Guest,

    I can’t tell whether you’re being satirical, sarcastic, or something else entirely. Or, alternatively, you’re doing a “…In my day, we walked to school, six miles uphill and in the snow, both ways…” thing…

    In any event, good to see you back here. It is always good to hear from the one half-way sane Balkans country.

  3. Sam J. says:

    Quinoa crackers. Poor kids. They need lard. More lard.

  4. David Foster says:

    Why does he call it *inconspicuous* consumption? There are few things more conspicuous than an Ivy League degree. (check out the Harvard bumper stickers on cars of people who’ve been out of school for 20 years)

    “Intangible” would work better.

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