Periods of relative economic and political stability are marked by a pervasive code of reining-it-in and making-do, which prevents individual ambitions from overgrazing the commons. The last such period was the Great Compression of the 1920s through the 1970s.
Peter Turchin's analysis of the dynamics of cycles in ideological climate and in material conditions suggests that popular attitudes change first, followed by their aggregate material effects. The Great Compression was preceded, for example, by the Progressive Era. Likewise, the period of rising inequality since circa 1980 was preceded by a popular push away from the ethos of reining-it-in.
In 1976, Tom Wolfe summed up this decisive shift in attitudes by labelling the trailblazers as "the Me Generation." Why should I have to rein it in, when I deserve better? I see what I want, I'm going to take it, and everybody else better get out of my way. After all, I deserve better.
These people in the early and middle stages of their working years, who were going to shake up the stability of the older incumbents, were the Silent Generation and the Baby Boomers. And ever since, they have made careerism their preferred mode of status competition. That's the closest to what we mean by "status" — job prestige, income and wealth, and the necessary credentials.
Once they began aging into the middle and later stages of their careers, did they gradually work less and then retire to make way for younger generations — in the way that the older generation did for them, when they were starting out? Hell no. They've dug themselves in like ticks on the political-economic body.
This has saturated careerism as an arena for status competition. Later generations can certainly try to break into that arena and do battle with the incumbents, but their success will be far smaller than back when the incumbents in the economy and government didn't put up much of a fight, since in those days they were glad to retire and give the next generation an opportunity to control things.
What options does this leave for the status strivers among later cohorts such as Generation X and the Millennials? Compete over your leisure pursuits, rather than pursuing your career.
I've eaten at more trendy food trucks than you guys have. I've heard of more obscure music groups than you guys have. I've unlocked more achievements in some video game than you guys have. And I'm more up-to-date on some epic TV show than you guys are. You jelly?
This does not boil down to an effect of age, as though young people will always have difficulty competing in the career arena and will therefore invest more of their efforts in lifestyle competition. Remember that in the '70s and '80s, the Silents and Boomers faced almost no pushback from the incumbents. The dazzling success of the Me Generation was not necessarily due to some greater talent they had, but perhaps due to the incumbents following a different, not-too-competitive code. It doesn't take much of a soldier to wipe out a bunch of pacifists, now does it?
An economic study by Erica Segall of age, period, and cohort effects on consumption patterns did find a significant cohort effect of being a member of Gen X or later when it came to what portion of your budget goes to consumer spending.
Now, the Me Generation has always indulged in contests of conspicuous consumption, but only to the extent that they honestly signal the competitors' superior job prestige and earning potential or accumulated wealth. If they compete over food, it will be based on the price of admission and dining per se — not steering the vanguard fad of vegan egg creams.
In general, then, their consumerism will be limited to longer-lasting and higher-priced items such as cars, real estate, and trophy wives. With all of their energies focused on dominating their career, they just don't have enough time and effort to compete over their possessions. Rather, they'll set aside a huge amount, in payments that can be made monthly and automatically instead of having to be attended to on an hourly basis, and for items that are obvious to everyone as status symbols.
The later generations who compete primarily on consumerism don't have much wealth to flaunt, but it doesn't take that much money to enter the lifestyle competition. Let's say your weekly foodie excursion sets you back $50, and that you take two weeks off a year. That's only $2,500 for the whole year — a sum that you'd have to fork over every month to rent in New York City, and even then only in a shoebox far away from all the action.
Competing as a fashionista or as a gadget geek will set you back a little more, but still nowhere near the cost of luxury cars and real estate, or credit cards to keep the trophy wife.
In fact, as long as you're competing more on how trendy rather than how wealthy you are, why not just buy clothes, gadgets, and meals that aren't very expensive at all, provided they run through fashion cycles fast enough? Cheap and static doesn't allow for any kind of competition, but cheap and high-turnover opens up a whole 'nother arena for poor strivers to climb their way to the top of some pyramid, and then another pyramid, and another, and another.
Hence, purchasing the top du jour at Forever 21, the app du jour at the Apple Store, the burger du jour at Wendy's, and to wash it down, the microbrew du jour at Whole Foods.
Then there's consumption's twin, leisure. The early waves of strivers kicked off the higher ed bubble, but it was purely to obtain credentials that would let them shove aside the incumbents in the economy and government, who didn't have an MBA or whose JD was not from Harvard or Yale. Even at the middle level, as long as it served as a launching pad toward a higher-earning career, the Me Generation had no problem going to State U.
For Gen X and the Millennials, however, choosing which college to attend was influenced more by what the choice would tell the world about their lifestyle. Nobody's paying for college out of pocket, so which school they go to reveals little about their wealth. Rather, they're trying to show how much time they researched what the different schools are like, and which one matched up the closest with their lifestyle, and would signal their commitment to competing in that lifestyle.
Not to mention that college is pure leisure these days. Kids do no work and get full credit. Degrees are bought and sold, so as long as your student loans don't bounce, you're in the clear as far as your studies go. That frees up more time for you to compete with the other students over lifestyle pursuits, whether that's being a shopaholic or a video game addict.
The "year abroad" during college is a big deal for the same reason — do you know of a more trendy yet less spoiled location than the other year-abroaders? Ditto for the unpaid internship: nobody is earning money, nor will anybody's gig lead anywhere afterward, so you try to score a more trendy and enviable spot for making yourself busy.
In daily life, the post-Me generations spend a lot of time in coffee shops, foodie joints, and cafeterias at Whole Foods style supermarkets. They're the minority, though. The cocooning majority hangs out online, where status preening takes place on websites where each competitor is assigned an ID card that shows how many points they've racked up within that domain — likes on Facebook, followers on Twitter or Instagram, gamerscore on Xbox Live, elite posting status on HuffPo / Amazon / IGN / Rotten Tomatoes, and so on and so forth. Climbing these ladders doesn't cost much money, but if all you've got is time and effort, you too can achieve internet immortality.
Thus, from the Me Generation to the Stuff White People Like Generation.
There are some interesting distinctions even within the career vs. lifestyle groups. Silents seem to be driven more by wealth, Boomers by influence and power, although both are careerists. And although both are lifestyle competitors, Gen X wants to be cool, Millennials want to be famous. I attribute these splits to how the cocooning vs. outgoing cycle has affected them. Accumulating wealth or having a bunch of followers are less social (you don't interact with fans), while influencing and controlling others is more interactive, and so is membership in a scene that's cool (not lame).
This has been a rough outline, as there's still a lot more to be said about the effects and implications of a generational split in status competition. But I'll save those for further posts, rather than try to cover everything all at once.