Veblen’s Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption (1902); American-born son of Norwegian immigrants who owned a farm where he spent his youth; his rural background may have led to his prejudice against the so-called “wasteful consumption” urban dwellers engaged in, leading him to write this essay

Context: beginning of the 20th century, during a period of rapid urbanization; the influx of Americans to large cities allowed the economy to grow because of the rise of the middle class, or the “leisure class” as he calls it

Language: he seemed to have disdain for the rise of the leisure class; he often mentions these people’s spending habits as wasteful and unnecessary

Audience: seems to be written for educated individuals, perhaps directed at those within the leisure class; may have been an address to enlighten those who participated in “conspicuous consumption” about the faults of their actions

Intent: again, it seems to have been written as a wake-up call to those within the leisure class to prevent them from further spending wastefully; he wished to highlight the divide between the middle class (those who in his eyes spent money wastefully and those who appeared to be more thrifty)

Message: The essay noted the rise of a socioeconomic class that fell somewhere between the upper class as he knew it and the lower class. This developing class could not be grouped as consistent however; those living in urban areas adapted the traits of those around them–the upper class–by spending money on things other than what was necessary for survival, like clothing, for this group of people was wont to appear to fit with those around them. Meanwhile, others of similar economic situations living in rural areas found no need for such frivolous spending because of the lower amount of human interaction. These, he argued, were people who spent their money wisely, because it was only done in an effort to survive, and not to acquire unnecessary materials. He scorned those in urban areas for trying or pretending to be something that they were not, and asked them (although not directly) to look to those he considered fiscally responsible for guidance on how to spend money properly.