Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

The Endless Pursuit of Better

How the aspirational class lost its way.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Sisyphus; THP Creative/Alamy Stock Photo.

You shall know them by their aspirations. Or so one might think, judging by the manifold ways in which Americans brand themselves by the things they seek to acquire and the ideals they seek to live by. Americans of all classes and identities aspire to various things, of course. The pursuit of happiness remains a central element of their national creed. But the meritocratic class has become the aspirational class par excellence. Aspiration connotes movement upward, and the meritocrat lives proudly and ostentatiously (some might even say overbearingly) in tireless pursuit of better. Little wonder that meritocrats come to think that what they and their offspring aspire to is manifestly and even morally superior to what others strive after.

For all of the well-intentioned idealism of today’s aspirational elite—their politically sensitive wokeness, their belief in hard work and education over birthright, their environmental awareness, their earnest suspicion of the excesses and injustices of capitalism—there is a dark side of meritocracy that is never fully concealed in the strivers’ displays and proclamations of goodwill. The simple fact is that most people—if we consider 90 percent of the country’s population “most”—do not learn piano from the age of five, do not attend private school, do not have SAT tutors (even if standardized tests are falling by the wayside), do not attend a “top twenty-five” school, or earn PhDs or MFAs. Laudable as these activities and achievements may be, they are underpinned by both wealth and cultural capital. While about 35 percent of Americans go to college, less than 0.5 percent graduate from Yale, Princeton, and their ilk. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that students whose parents are among the top one percent economically are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League university than those with parents in the bottom quintile. In short, you have to have the money and, just as important, know what to spend it on.

In 1899, when Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class, the rich were idle and made a point of showing it to signal their position on the social ladder. Silver spoons, tight corsets, and gold-tipped walking sticks were expensive objects of little or no utility, signaling one’s freedom from the demands and schedules of a workaday life. The idle rich still exist, of course, but most of today’s top ten percent work an awful lot.11xIt is hard to pin down the exact number; the top 10 percent is likely the most accurate cutoff for the purposes of this essay. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s latest data, the top 10 percent cutoff is $158,002. However, I also draw here from Richard Reeves’s discussion of the top 20 percent’s hoarding of resources and mobility. See Richard Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2017). Members of the aspirational class are not slackers. They work hard at everything—their careers, their well-being and the well-being of the planet, and promoting equality and social awareness. In other words, they “aspire” to be better humans, and like members of previous elites, they have their own ways of signaling their position in the social pecking order through behaviors and styles of consumption that signal effortful striving and virtue rather than indolence and superciliousness. The aspirational class has eschewed silver spoons for Whole Foods reusable grocery bags, yoga mats, NPR bumper stickers, and self-conscious engagement with social justice.

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