This month, Consume This! authors Michelle F. Weinberger, Jane R. Zavisca, and Jennifer M. Silva consider the range of “experiential consumption” so prevalent in the lives of middle-class young adults. Not yet married or parenting, young adults seek a range of illuminating and novel experiences — new thrills, authentic restaurants, growth and travel experiences. It is a fascinating analysis of the extended quest for cultural capital among young adults socialized through “concerted cultivation” in middle class families, and a jarring contrast to working-class young adults who emerge from tumultuous childhoods seeking stability. A powerful reminder of the class-culture nexus, and the potential for sociologists of consumption to unpack it.
– Ashley Mears
Consume This! Class-Based Experiential Consumption and Inequality
By Michelle F. Weinberger, Jane R. Zavisca, and Jennifer M. Silva
Nalya, a middle-class 26-year-old, reflects:
“…I would want to really emphasize [to my grandchildren someday that] I did all these crazy cool things…Like I went to Guatemala and backpacked, and I worked at the White House, and I lived in San Diego, and I traveled to Egypt one summer…I think it’s really important people do that. Because I have a lot of friends that did get married at 20, and they don’t do anything. They’re living in the same town, and the same house, and their lives seem so boring. And I’m like, don’t you want more for yourself? Life experiences, or a sense of identity apart from being a mom or a wife or anything? Because I think these are the years when you build up who you are as a person.”
Many young adults are putting off traditional markers of adulthood like marriage, childbearing, and home ownership. Social scientists have shown that middle-class “emerging adults” (Arnett 2006) delay marriage to make time for higher education and career development (Somers 1993; Vitali et al. 2009). Yet, many unmarried middle-class young adults also spend significant time consuming a broad range of experiences: they travel, try out living in different cities, participate in a broad range of leisure activities, enjoy dining out in a range of seemingly authentic restaurants, and are attracted to novel, learning oriented experiences. While social observers claim that these young people are “just” delaying adulthood to have fun, our research sought to understand this consumption orientation more deeply and to consider its implications for their adult futures.
In our research, recently published in the interdisciplinary Journal of Consumer Research, we conducted in-depth interviews with middle-class and working-class emerging adults by talking about their lives: their pasts, how they currently spend their time, and how they imagine their futures. Most interviewees were no longer living with their parents but had not yet gotten married or had children (however, some were married or engaged to provide some additional comparison).
We found that, indeed, middle-class emerging adults delay marriage for education and career advancement. However, they also spend this time voraciously consuming a wide array of learning oriented “exploratory” experiences. Not all experiences are sought and valued. Rather than just doing the same activities over and over, they seek experiences that are varied, provide a sense of novelty combined with depth of perspective, present a challenge, and are oriented away from the domestic life. Experiences like moving to a new city “on a whim” to work and live like a native, prioritizing travel to seemingly “off the beaten path” places, or even just exploring restaurants in different parts of town provide new knowledge and often produce great stories as well. But still, we ask for what?
Their orientation towards exploratory experiences makes sense when looking at their pasts and imagined futures. Looking back, they describe idealized, stable childhoods full of a range of educational and extracurricular activities in which they excelled. They are the product of what researchers call “concerted cultivation” (Lareau 2011) or “intensive parenting” (Hays 1996), a hands-on, highly involved parenting strategy used by those in the middle class. And, despite their current non-committal orientation, when these young adults imagine their futures, they imagine getting married, having children, and becoming those intensive parents.
Emerging adults fear that opportunities for exploratory experiences will become scarce when they settle down. This creates a tension for them between the present and the future. In our research, we theorize that they resolve this tension in emerging adulthood by hyper-accumulating a range of exploratory experiences not just for their current self, but stocking up on these experiences for their imagined future selves. They delay marriage and childbearing to voraciously consume exploratory experiences, preparing for that imagined future scarcity.
What value does knowledge from these experiences provide? While our research only looks at the present, we believe that broad-based knowledge from exploratory experiences gives middle-class young adults “soft skills” (Balcar 2014; Carnevale 2013) that are not innate but learned dispositions (Heckman and Kautz 2012), embodied as cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984). These soft skills not only provide highly sought after skills in the workplace (Morrison 2014; Rivera 2012; Lizardo 2006), but these stories about working in particular cities or novel hobbies also provide a social signal of similarity (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook 2001) to develop a bond with potential partners and friends who have had similar types of experiences. In short, these stories and orientations help middle-class emerging adults connect with each other and secure knowledge economy jobs, solidifying their status in the middle class.
The story is not the same for young adults from economically disadvantaged families, where participants describe very different pasts and presents. As Silva’s (2012, 2013) past research has shown, they grew up with more instability as their families moved often and activities and vacations were rarely financially feasible or even considered. Their memories of school often involve feeling unprepared, bewildered, and rudderless. In the future, they hope to have a stable family life, but their present lives remain insecure as they bounce from job to job and memories of their own difficult family pasts continue to haunt them. As a result, working-class emerging adults had a different orientation. They seek stability, self-empowerment, and escape. We find that they do so, in part, by engaging in different types of experiences: reading and watching self-help and escapist media, trying to find their way to stable work and relationships, and consuming comfortable, familiar, relaxing experiences. A very different set of experiences than those in the middle classes.
Our research suggests that the consumption of exploratory experiences in emerging adulthood is another subtle but powerful way that class trajectories and inequality are reinforced as middle-class emerging adults prioritize the consumption of exploratory experiences, and those in the working class focus on stabilizing and resolving issues of the past. Moving into the future, those in the middle class, but not the working class, will have developed soft skills that are socially advantageous for the workplace, relationships, and childrearing.
Arnett, Jeffrey J. (2006), Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Balcar, Jiří (2014), “Soft Skills and Their Wage Returns: Overview of Empirical Literature,” Review of Economic Perspectives, 14 (1), 3–15.
Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Press.
Hays, Sharon (1996), The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood: Yale University Press.
Heckman, James J. and Tim Kautz (2012), “Hard evidence on soft skills,” Labour Economics, 19 (4), 451–64.
Morrison, Andrew Robert (2014), “‘You Have to Be Well Spoken’: Students’ Views on Employability within the Graduate Labour Market,” Journal of Education and Work, 27 (2), 179–198.
Lareau, Annette (2011), Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life: University of California Press.
Lizardo, Omar (2006), “How Cultural Tastes Shape Personal Networks,” American Sociological Review, 71 (5), 778–807.
McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M Cook (2001), “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks,” Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (1), 415–44.
Rivera, Lauren A. (2012), “Hiring as Cultural Matching The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms,” American Sociological Review, 77 (6), 999–1022.
Silva, Jennifer M. (2012), “Constructing Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty,” American Sociological Review, 77 (4), 505–22.
——— (2013), Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Oxford University Press.
Somers, Marsha D. (1993), “A Comparison of Voluntarily Childfree Adults and Parents,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 55 (3), 643-50.
Vitali, Agnese, Francesco C. Billari, Alexia Prskawetz, and Maria Rita Testa (2009), “Preference Theory and Low Fertility: A Comparative Perspective,” European Journal of Population, 25 (4), 413-38.
About the Authors
Michelle F. Weinberger is Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her research focuses on how people use consumption to create and span symbolic boundaries through analyzes of substantive arenas such as collective rituals, gift giving, and tastes.
Jennifer M. Silva is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University. Her first book, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, examines the transition to adulthood for working-class youth. She is currently completing a book about working-class political beliefs and behaviors in a Pennsylvania mining town.
Jane Zavisca is Associate Dean for Research in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Associate Professor in the School of Sociology at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses in the areas of housing, property rights, stratification, and politics in the post-Soviet region. She also studies cultural understandings of mortgages in the United States.
Full Paper Citation
Weinberger, Michelle F., Jane Zavisca, and Jennifer M. Silva, (2017), “Consuming for an Imagined Future: Middle Class Consumer Lifestyle and Exploratory Experiences in the Transition to Adulthood,” Journal of Consumer Research, 44(2), 332–360.
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