Luxury today

Jesper Bo Jensen, Ph.d., Futurist / 11. dec 2008

The standard of living of a modern family in many ways exceeds the old saying “to live like kings and queens”. An ordinary family consumes goods in a way that would not even have been obtainable for royalty 100-200 years ago. If a woman wishes to use the best perfumes in the world every day then that is possible without going broke. Food served by waiters in a restaurant every night is also possible, dressing in design silk fabrics and sleeping in the fin-est and softest bed after consuming wine from the most famous chateaus and spirits from all over the world are choices that are within financial reach of the majority of people. It is even possible to afford good taste in the form of architect-designed furniture, paintings etc., not to mention all the technological creations that are available for just about anyone. A king in the 17-hundreds would envy the display of luxury that is found in everyday life today.

Luxury as pleasure and social status

That luxury is accessible for everyone who wants it is a problem. It is wildly luxurious to sleep in a modern bed compared to the bed recess of the 18-hundreds padded with hay. But when everyone has access to it, it becomes a part of everyday life and is taken for granted. For many people in the world, clean drinking water is an almost unobtainable luxury, but we take it for granted. We would probably miss it, if we did not have it, but it is not a luxury. A part of consuming luxury is that it contains both pleasure and social status. There must be an element of something that is beyond the daily standard and thus is a special pleasure. At the same time the consumption of luxury should give social status in the eyes of others and your own and demonstrate that you are in control of (have power of) a certain aspect of your life. Luxury is not the same today as it was 20 years ago. The concept of luxury has a new meaning.

An illustration of that is the story of one of the nouveau riche created by the IT boom in the 90’es. The nouveau riche could just about buy anything they wanted, but found it increas-ingly difficult to differentiate themselves from other ordinary people – to buy a fancy car, a beautiful house, a far away vacation and expensive clothes was something everyone could do one time, if they wanted to. It was rare to find something that was considered wildly luxurious by others. A rich Dane from that period – a business owner within IT – stated that he, after having searched for a long time, had finally found it – a yacht with staff, own cook and everything. That was out of reach of the higher middle class. That was a luxury that was only for the few – and at the same time it gave social status in the circles where these peo-ple came. It does not necessarily give social status in other areas of society, where certain groups may consider excessive consumption such as having a yacht with crew in the harbour for the limited number of days that you have time to sail a sin – which may be exactly the point. It is okay to associate luxury with sin.

In our post-modern hyper-complex society luxury only gives status within the subculture of people that have similar values. Overconsumption of luxury has lost its status effect in soci-ety as such. However, it may still give status in the tribe or subculture that you are part of. But excessive consumption is still viewed as kind of sin by other people.

The new scarcity factor

When the middle class has access to almost any commodity and has no material needs, there are other areas that you start to define as what you would like to obtain. When you go to bed hungry, you would like food, but when all material needs are more than fulfilled, other areas will be viewed as lost values. As modern people we miss what disappears. That could be i.e. silence and the possibility of experiencing peace and quiet.

In his article from the mid-90’es, Hans Magnus Enzenberger lists a number of areas that he views as the luxuries of the future: Time, attention, space, peace and quiet, the environment and security. Enzenberger views these areas as something that will become luxurious in the future, but rightfully they should be viewed as areas within which luxury moves today. Dur-ing the 90’es it had already become a status symbol to have time, and products and services related to having time were eligible to become luxury products. An afternoon on the golf course is a luxury, because not everyone has the time – that it is also expensive is not a drawback.

Time is a very important luxury. Modern people can only obtain a career and a high income by working a lot and for a long time, and they are at the same time expected to be available for the business they work for, family, fiends and other obligations all the time. Internet ac-cess and mobile phones have made being connected at all times a part of everyday life. In practice that means that many people are available around the clock and rarely have time off. An examination of time spent by Danes shows that it is especially the free time and the time that we use for something else than being with others that has fallen dramatically over the past 15 years.

Attention has also become a scarcity. All media incessantly fight for peoples’ attention and only if you disengage from everything, you may have the opportunity to direct your full at-tention to other people, or wherever you may wish to direct it. The full use of sight, hearing, feeling and knowledge without the interference of the mass media is also a luxury today. You may cal it the luxury of being disconnected – mass media free and with your mobile phone and internet connection closed.

Space and room is a scarce commodity for modern people. The traffic jam on the free way or the queues in the supermarket lines, in the centres of the compact cities or on the way on holiday with 300 others jammed together in monkey class shows that we participate in the modern overconsumption, but at the same time we lack space and room around us. If you have the possibility to obtain more space or go on a vacation where no one else is, that is the new luxury of having room and space around us. If you have the ability to simplify your home in a minimalistic style, it has also clearly become a luxury to throw things away and only surround yourself with the “right” things and create room for unfolding.

Peace and quiet is another scarcity. The absence of noise has become very desirable because we are almost everywhere in our modern society surrounded by noise or bombarded with music and information in a noisy way. The sophistication today is not a huge music centre, but the absence of noise and the possibility of being in peace; the more peaceful, the more exclusive. Therefore, housing sectors where it is peaceful and quiet are more attractive than areas that are noisy. Party in the streets till late at night is not appreciated by the neighbours.

Enzenberger mentions the environment as a new area of scarcity, but it is the luxury of na-ture and purity that we miss and thus long for. The environment has not disappeared – it has changed, while nature and purity have become scarce. The real nature is no longer close to us, but is found in confined areas far away. Consequently, it is hard to get clean air, pure water and food without contamination and additives. Thus, it has become a luxury in our time to be able to eat food prepared from clean produce, to breathe clean air and to be sur-rounded by nature in abundance. This is the reason why the most attractive part when buy-ing a home in the past 10 years has become the woods and the water. Homes near the woods, the ocean or the stream have become far more expensive than the same type of home in other ordinary residential areas.

Finally, security is mentioned, but in the Nordic countries it is not that relevant in our picture of modern society. But the increasing use of security systems and alarm systems, neighbou-rhood watch and an increasing fear of i.e. violent crimes, even though statistics show a de-crease in violence, show that the perception of safety and security is becoming a scarcity. This means that complete security also today is a luxury.

Immaterial luxury

The story of luxury has changed. It is also the story of how you can be set free from the im-personal closeness that has been created in modern society: The closeness of time, the sur-roundings demanding attention, the closeness of space, the increasingly faster and noisier society, the dangerous substances and the pollution and the increasing fear of violence and other crimes. The greatest luxury today is to live on a deserted island! Absence of other peo-ple has become a luxury. We have experienced lately that very rich pop stars and other fa-mous people buy private islands in the Mediterranean and the English Channel.

But it is only the absence of people that you do not have a personal relation to and the result of their existence that is desirable. It is the masses that we wish to avoid. In a mass culture it has become a fantastic luxury not to be part of the masses and to be able to avoid the vol-ume, noise, pollution, invasion and threats. We are running away from the impersonal effects of modern society. But not everybody is running away. Many young people like to live in the middle of the noise and the chaos of a big city – at least for a few years. On the other hand they try to escape the impersonality in another way – they want to be famous.

But that is not the only effect of the mass society. Today, it is also a luxury to have good friends, be part of a community and have family and children. That is also one of the new scarce values. When the family has been threatened through a number of years and when loneliness and isolation is perceived as the cradle of modern society, we desire community and family.

It is the development of modern society from a society of scarcity to a society of affluency that is reflected in defining luxury. Earlier, luxury was the possession of physical goods and having a specific dinner set, as not everyone could afford that. Today – in the period from 1990 – 2009 – it is instead the negative consequences of the mass society that defines the new luxury. It is the immaterial contents of consuming in relation to the areas that we are afraid of loosing that defines today’s luxury.

Luxury is still physical – sort of

Luxury is physical, but the immaterial content is obviously not physical. However, luxury may also be the dinner set. It is a luxury to be able to buy new minimalistic furniture and throw all the old stuff away, if your home looks as if there is plenty of room in it. The imma-terial content is purity, space, peace and quiet and a manifestation of being in control of thing – and of having time to spend. It is a luxury to book a chef to cook dinner for your guests in your own home, so that your full attention is aimed at the guests and you do not have to run in and out of the kitchen all night.

It is a luxury to take two days off before Christmas, to go out to dinner on your birthday, to have a cleaning aid, to be able to live without disrupting noise. It is a luxury not to be stressed. It is also becoming a luxury to turn of the mobile phone – and not to turn it on. This implies that the mobile phone is no longer a luxury – but a nuisance. On the other hand the telephone that will allow only the people you wish to get in touch with to come through will be a luxury in the future.

Today, luxury is connected to products by a negation. Luxurious products may of course still be expensive and beautifully executed, but the immaterial value we connect them with often results in a negation of the original message. When today you buy a summer house, it is to get peace and quiet, and not to invite guests for a week by the beach. A big MPV is only a luxury if you do not need it for transporting 5 kids around in the humdrum of everyday life. A sports car is often a luxury because there are only two seats. You do not buy a home service because they do better cleaning than you do, but because it saves you time.

Luxury is still in most cases something you buy, but it is the story that goes with it that decides whether it is considered luxury or not. The following are examples of today’s luxuries in the period from 1990-2009:

From being something that is demonstrated to society, luxury has in many ways today a more subdued role. It is okay that it shows, but not too much. The ultimate luxury today is maybe best described as a house in Southern Europe in a small village far away from the tourist attractions, where the family can spend vacations close together and possibly with good, close friends. Here there is peace and quiet, you are close to nature and you give at-tention to each other and at the same time there is time and no risk of being interrupted by others. Security is good in a small society, where everyone knows everybody. The complete luxury has become a life that you would not be able to live every day!

Luxury as escapism

Therefore we do not live out this need all the time. But we escape into it in other ways. Our modern world is characterised by escapism, whereby we seek to escape the world of insecu-rity, noise, time pressure, pollution and the masses being squeezed together in increasingly smaller areas. We escape – and what we escape into is often something that we connect with luxury:

  • Nostalgia – old classics, old movies, old regional dishes
  • Into ourselves – spirituality, self-centredness, physical work
  • Into the community – family, kindergarten, school, sports associations
  • Out into the world – to get far away, travel around the world, see something nobody else has seen.
  • Into perfection – aesthetics, arts
  • Do it yourself – crafts, handicrafts, needle work – to do it yourself

In order for connecting escapism with luxury there must be some lavishness. As an example it could be luxurious to have the newest tools from DeWall in the workshop in the basement, while there is no luxury in owning a regular rechargeable drilling machine. It is luxury to go to a spa for a week and escape into yourself, but there is not much luxury in going to a tan-ning salon. It is not only physical – luxury can also be time to think, but not in a bus on the way home from work.

Luxury is the negation of necessity – therefore the definition of luxury changes every time necessities change. That is why new areas of luxury appear in our hyper-complex society to-day, and that is why it will change in the years to com, when we again change our concep-tion of what necessity is.

Published here, 2008

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