Opinion » Letter From The Editor

The Death of Status Symbols

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Are we seeing the death of status symbols? I'm talking about the things that wealthy people — or those wanting to appear wealthy — own in order to impress the rest of us. Was anyone impressed that Kim Kardashian was robbed in Paris while wearing $10 million worth of jewelry? I doubt it. Most people, if they thought about it at all, said to themselves, "What an idiot."

When's the last time you were knocked out by someone's flashy Rolex or Patek Philipe? Watch sales have dropped 50 percent in the past two decades. Less than 25 percent of millennials wear them. Jewelry and expensive timepieces are symbolic items, their purpose being, basically, to let other people know you're wealthy. The coming generation may have to be convinced of the value in that, which will be a challenge for jewelry purveyors. Diamond-encrusted phone covers, anyone?

How about cars? Used to be that if you drove up in a $90,000 Ferrari or a tricked-out Hummer, people were impressed. Now they just think you probably have a tiny penis — or more money than sense. Who needs an expensive automobile in the age of Uber and Lyft and self-driving cars? Cars are a reflection of suburban culture, and the next generation is moving back into our cities. If they're going to own a car at all, it'll probably be a hybrid, so auto dealers are also facing changing times.

And speaking of suburbs ... that big McMansion out in Eads? Better sell it before you get old, Mr. and Mrs. Boomer, because the coming generation has no interest in moving to the "country" and isolating themselves on two acres with a three-car garage. A three-car garage! How quaint. Break out the buggy whip, gramps.

That million-dollar wine cellar? Who cares? If this generation wants to drink wine, they'll grab a $15 dollar bottle on their way home or just drink it at their local bistro. Craft beer is where it's at, anyway, bro.

Your massive record collection? Sure, there's still some status in owning vinyl. And it's cute that you want to get up every 15 minutes and mess with your $1,000 turntable, just like your Pop did. But the truth is, music isn't "stuff" you collect any more. When pretty much every piece of music ever recorded is available anywhere and anytime via your mobile device, your vinyl collection isn't that much different than your rich uncle's wine cellar. Impressive in its own way, but sort of pointless. Have you thought about stamp-collecting?

The web has connected and changed us all, and it is in the process of reinventing the very nature of what — and how — we consume. And, as a corollary of that, it's changing what we value — and the nature of status itself.

This is a good thing. For too long, we've attached too much value to owning stuff. We've fallen for the adage, "He who dies with the most toys, wins." It's a trap, one that too many in our culture have bought into. And it's a trap our political system has propagated, one election cycle after another.

Candidate Trump, for example, is a true believer in the religion of wealth. He represents a tin-foil vision that's inexorably tied to the past: a worship of accumulation — big houses, private jets, private clubs, gold-plated toilets. False gods, all. He's tapping the anger of people who think "other" people are keeping them from owning more stuff.

It isn't going to work, because increasingly people are understanding that the only real "stuff" that matters is comfortable housing, decent food, affordable health care, and a way to make a living. The real status symbols are extrapolations of that list, ones that have always been there: a job that truly fulfills you, people who love you, and freedom to travel and live your days to their fullest.

More of us are realizing that in the end, what matters is how well we spend our alloted time on this earth — not how much we spend to keep track of it.

Bruce VanWyngarden
brucev@memphisflyer.com

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