The Theory of the Leisure Class

There are two ways of being happy: We may either diminish our wants or augment our means – either will do – the result is the same; and it is for each man to decide for himself, and do that which happens to be the easiest… But if you are wise, you will do both at the same time… and if you are very wise you will do both in such a way as to augment the general happiness of society.                                                               –Benjamin Franklin

J.D. Foster, an economist and senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC based think tank, regards the upper 20 percent of earners as “upper income” and the lower 20 percent as “lower income.” He regards the 60 percent in the middle as “middle class”, with household incomes roughly between $25,000 and $100,000.  The economic class structure of the United States of America is often divided into fifths.  The upper fifth, the upper middle, the middle, the lower middle and the lower class.  The main factor that plays into where one household or individual falls within this ranking is income.  How one achieves this income is not necessarily important, nor is educational background, ethnicity or lineage.  However,  those people within the upper fifth income bracket quite often have similar educational backgrounds, ethnicity, and means of acquiring wealth.  For example, many in this bracket earn income through investments and capital gains versus the vast majority of the population which derives its income from salaries and wages.  Socio-economically speaking this upper class is often referred to as the “leisure class”.

Thorstein Veblen, author of the The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (1899) saw the maximization of status as the ultimate goal for those members of the leisure class.  This maximization of status was even more important than accumulation of wealth.  Conspicuous consumption was a primary means of demonstrating status, as was conspicuous waste and conspicuous leisure.  Higher social status is also demonstrated through the lack of necessity to perform physical labor or  any meaningful addition to economic production.  Veblen pointed out that this was often an irrational pursuit of social status; it was frequently done at the expense of one’s own happiness.  I would contend with Veblen’s placement of the leisure class with the wealthy elite; I believe that the leisure class exists throughout the economic spectrum.   All income brackets contain individuals who have discovered that money whether you have it or don’t doesn’t need to be a priority.  Family, love, health, happiness, helping others, and countless other things could take precedent.

I find myself living at the lower end of the economic spectrum, the low end of the lower middle class.  I do not have a household, a double income or kids.  However I would not hesitate to say that I am in the leisure class and I would put many of those with whom I surround  myself in the same category.    I work 25 weeks out of the year.  That leaves me with roughly 27 weeks off.   That is a fair amount of leisure time.

For me the difference between the upper fifth’s leisure class and the one that I reside in is that most of the people in the lower leisure classes don’t usually suffer from affluenza, which is centered around the ostentatious display of wealth, conspicuous consumption, and the need to “keep up with the Jones’.”  In the leisure class that I fall into there is often more of an ostentatious display of lack of wealth.  Living for months in Yosemite, the Creek, road tripping, or living off a bag of potatoes for a week or $2 a day, they are all bragging points, earning us dirtbag status.  Ground scores, free bin finds, dumpster diving treasures, scarfing meals, and rogue camping all gain us credentials and social status. We still strive to achieve higher social status only we strive with different means.  The less one works, the harder one should climb.  I remember reading an article in Climbing or Rock & Ice several years back stating that the average 5.14 climber made $8,000-$10,000 a year while the average 5.9 climber made $60,000 or something of the nature.

Veblen’s idea that the pursuits and education of the leisure class were often centered around concepts that carried little economic worth, the study of philosophy or fine art being prime examples, do resonate with me.  My work on perfecting the art of choss wrangling or run out slab climbing could easily fall into that category.

The concept of the leisure class displaying status through conspicuous waste also doesn’t seem to hold true the lower one looks on the economic spectrum.  Waste comes in many forms, i.e. throwing something away when it is still useable, purchasing or possessing something that is frivolous (and I tend to be very opinionated about this), purchasing things we already have, or not using things to their full potential (and that includes our ability/intellect/etc).  My lack of conspicuous waste is rooted in my environmental ethics (reduce, repurpose, reuse) as well as my firm belief in the economic principle of “it is not what you make, but what you spend.”  I try to buy things of quality, take care of them, and fix them when they are broken.  The people in the lower income leisure classes who do demonstrate conspicuous waste often won’t stay in the leisure class long.  Am I not using my intellect and ability to its fullest potential?  I don’t know; maybe I am wasting talent, skills or intellegence, but I would contend that I am not a drain on society.  In this realm I can speak for myself and honestly say that I am not however, as Veblen postulated, sacrificing happiness.  I am not poor and I feel like I have freedom.

I am the lucky one.  I am living the dream and am for the most part, happy. I have diminished my wants and augmented my means while at the same time providing education and experiences that help shape the futures of young adult’s lives.  I believe that this helps improve the general happiness of society and for me that is a good place to be.

Subscribe to

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

admin Written by:

A little bit less of a nomad now, Jared still likes to refer to himself in the third person.