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A New Class is Born

Here’s my latest article on Impakter. A must read for anyone concerned with what is happening to the middle class in America! It’s changing, and changing fast and in unexpected ways…

Book Review: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, published by Princeton University Press (May 2017)

Have you ever wondered why in an America replete with 13,000 Starbucks stores, small bars serving totally unknown, unbranded coffees can survive, and even thrive though the coffee they sell may be more expensive?

These are “single origin specialty coffees”, like the ones served by the Intelligentsia coffee company that practices “direct trade”, working with farmers in Guatemala and elsewhere, removing the middleman:

IN THE PHOTO: DIRECT TRADE PRACTICE, LOCAL FARMERS BECOME PARTNERS. SOURCE: INTELLIGENTSIA COFFEE.COM

As explained on their website, the company adheres to sustainable farming and environmental practices and, at the same time, is committed to “paying above FairTrade prices for truly outstanding coffee”. The point is “responsible stewardship of the land and a sustainable business model” for the farmers whom they view as “partners”.

Also, to deliver quality coffee, special rapid roasting machines are used, including some of the last highly prized Gothot Ideal machines that date back to the 1940s and 1950s – they were produced by a German manufacturing firm founded in 1880.

Intelligentsia started off with a coffee shop in Chicago in 1995, and now they are present in four more cities, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta. (In the photo: Logan Square Coffee Bar, in Chicago, one of Intelligentsia’s locations. Source: IntelligentsiaCoffee.com)

It is one of the many fascinating cases reported in Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s latest book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. Do read it this summer, it will change forever the way you view the American middle class. And it will give you a glimpse of what is ahead.

This is not the work of a neophyte. She is a Columbia University graduate and currently a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) where she holds the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and is professor of public policy at the Price School. Most recently she has contributed to a paper co-curated by USC and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on consumption patterns of the rising global middle class – more on this later.

The Sum of Small Things is her third major book after a couple of well-received works focused on art, high fashion and celebrities, and it is remarkable on two scores: the importance of the theme addressed – the rise of a new elite class in America – and the ground-breaking methodology used. The academic community was quick to take note, notably Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class and Richard A. Easterlin, of Easterlin paradox fame (the idea that there is a disconnect between economic growth and happiness).

This is a book that manages to pull together a huge amount of data, for the first time mining American consumption data (the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey) that is usually ignored by researchers because of its complexity. The book draws conclusions that are both insightful and yet highly readable. The trick was to separate the “boring stuff” – all those statistical analyses that occupy a huge part of the book – from the chapters presenting the findings. Those chapters are given pride of place upfront; they are written in elegant English and filled with interesting anecdotes and observations that enliven the discourse and brings it home.

Many people will recognize themselves in this portrait of a new elite in America, that the author has aptly named “the aspirational class”.

In fact, among Amazon customers reviewing this book, several have said exactly that. One reader who defined herself as a “doctor and Mom” noted with surprise: “Our obsession with what our kids eat, their education and music lessons and the breastfeeding felt like a complete insight into my life! I live in Manhattan and we are dealing with the same issues and pressures as the moms in California.” Another wryly remarked, “As a reluctant member of the very class the author describes, I’ve been conscious of the quirky spending characteristics of my hipster cohort in all the places where I’ve lived as an adult (Brooklyn, Washington DC, and LA naturally) but never had an organizing theory for what I was witnessing. The author articulates these principles beautifully, and backs them up with interesting data. Despite its scientific rigor, this is a quick, fun and accessible read.”

It is indeed fun and accessible, which, considering the hefty subject matter, is a feat in itself. The last time a similar effort was made to analyze a rising new class in America was over hundred years ago: It was a stiff treatise written in wooden English yet it was replete with arresting descriptions of the habits of the new rich. And that is what salvaged it from oblivion. Today, it is best remembered for coining a couple of unforgettable terms, “conspicuous leisure” and “conspicuous consumption”.

I am speaking of course of the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), the magnum opus of social critic and economist Thorstein Veblen. His book defined the Gilded Age, and gave a theoretical framework to those lampooning the “robber barons”.

 IN THE PHOTO: “THE BOSSES OF THE SENATE”, 1889 LITHOGRAPH FIRST PUBLISHED IN PUCK. CARTOONIST JOSEPH KEPPLER DEPICTS THEM AS GIANT MONEYBAGS REPRESENTING THE NATION’S FINANCIAL TRUSTS AND MONOPOLIES, THE COPPER TRUST, STANDARD OIL ETC. SOURCE WIKIMEDIA

Likewise, Currid-Halkett’s book aims to define our age, as the title of the first chapter suggests: “The Twenty-first Century ‘Leisure’ Class”. She uses Veblen’s concepts as her starting point and makes some illuminating comments, for example, pointing out that with industrialization and mass production, conspicuous consumption “goes mainstream” and became a defining feature of the middle class in its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s.


To find out more, read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, Economics, politics

Boomer Lit Three Years Later: What Next?

Lear and Cordelia 1849-54 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and subscribers 1916 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03065

Lear and Cordelia 1849-54 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Phttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03065

In a way, Boomer Lit has been around for ever. Any book dealing with the challenges of “mature life” (meaning over 50) could be said to be “Boomer Lit”.

And now that some 78 million baby boomers in the US have reached 50 or are older – and that’s a big segment of the American population – the term Boomer Lit given to the kind of books they want to read has truly come into its own.

Why do I claim “Boomer Lit” was founded three years ago? Some people may say they’d heard the term before, that it was “floating in the air” and they could well be right.

But something specific happened three years ago that made it literally come out of its chrysalis and be born as a new genre –  a genre, I’m convinced, destined to become a great marketing success, given the sheer number of baby boomers. Not just in the US but around the world. And these are people who are rapidly reaching retirement age or are already retired…which means they’ve got plenty of time on their hands to read!

The Love Story stars, reunited today, see here

So what exactly happened three years ago to launch Boomer Lit? By chance, at this time of year (actually September 2012) I had just published a novel about a man facing a new phase in his life after retirement and the choices he makes threaten his marriage.

My problem was I didn’t know in which genre to place it. Romance since it dealt with a marriage relationship gone awry? Yes, but the man is over 60, and he has a love adventure with a woman in her 50s.

As we all know, “classic” romance is like Segal’s Love Story, all about young people. Also my book drilled in depth with how it feels like when you stop working and the rug is pulled out under your feet. Not the usual stuff of romance!

How to market such an odd book that didn’t fit anywhere?

That’s when I turned to a Kindle Forum thread for listing new books under specific genres and asked the moderator to allow the addition of a new genre aimed at Baby Boomers (I figured they were my audience). My request was granted and that boosted my confidence. I felt I was on the right road.

Happily armed with this new Amazon avenue that had opened up for marketing my book, I turned to Goodreads, looking for a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels and possibly get a chance to talk about my book and list it and reach out to more people.

Tough luck. I found no such group anywhere on Goodreads (and there are thousands of groups dealing with thousands of different themes!).

Determined to launch my book, I wasn’t discouraged. I’d been already fairly active on Goodreads for years and achieved the status of “librarian”, so it was a no-brainer to found a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels – or BB novels as I called them, I liked the humorous, facetious aspect of this term. If YA was for Young Adults, surely BB was for Baby Boomers?

I started the group in October 2012 with an explanatory pitch around this BB novel concept and put up a photo-shopped picture of my husband reading his Kindle ( washed over in blue color letting his hair show white – he actually has dark hair!).

By December 2012, the group had attracted over 50 extremely enthusiastic and active members and I started to write about in several online publications  and the Baby Boomer ball got rolling (for details on how it went, click my Boomer Lit tab above)…

In fact, today, three years later, the group has grown to nearly 600 – most of them, if not all, Boomer Lit authors.

That’s a lot of writers who claim to be writing Boomer Lit!  Writers who belong to the Group know that they also have at their disposal a Facebook page to announce their books or special events and a Twitter account (@boomerlit. To support Boomer Lit events, there is a dedicated hashtag: #boomerlit

To go to page, click here

In the spring of 2013, the Goodreads member of our BB novel group discussed the title of the group and there was a unanimous agreement that it should be called “Boomer Lit” because it didn’t cover just novels but also memoirs, poetry etc.

And there was a pointed discussion about the very nature of Boomer Lit: did it cover just challenges facing the “third age” or did it  also evoke the past, what it was like growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s? I’ve always felt that the former was truly Boomer Lit while the latter was not. In my opinion, nostalgia pieces – whether a poem, a novel or a short story –  that deal with, say, a first love that happened some 40 years ago should still be classified as YA romance and not Boomer Lit. Why? Because it features, yes, a “young adult” (or maybe not so young, perhaps someone in their twenties) – but surely not anyone over 50!

At least that was my view and I fought for it, but not always winning that battle. Many Group members felt nostalgia was definitely part of Boomer Lit even if it dealt with a first love.

I believe this is the kind of intellectual “battle” only a Big Publisher could win.

That’s why Boomer Lit, to get truly established and go mainstream, needs to have a traditional publisher, preferably one of the Big Five, set up a Boomer Lit imprint. With a clear definition of what the term Boomer Lit covers and a clear outreach strategy to Baby Boomers.

I’m convinced such an imprint, correctly launched, would automatically access a huge market. Some authors have already made a splash with books that are clearly “Boomer Lit”, notably “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that’s been turned into two films, and there’s no reason that many more Boomer Lit authors of quality cannot be found.

Source: click here

For a partial list of Boomer Lit books, check the Wikipedia entry, here. A publisher could also ask its editors to look among the members of the Goodreads Boomer Lit group. The group discussed a number of books and those discussions were very fruitful in helping to define what was and what was not quality Boomer Lit. And all those discussion threads are online, easy to access.

Furthermore, I’m pleased to report that the Goodreads Boomer Lit Group has started a particularly interesting thread about Boomer Lit, its challenges and potential as a major genre, to read it click here.

Yes, Boomer Lit has a future and in America, its future is 78 million strong! The first publisher who wakes up to this opportunity and establishes a Boomer Lit imprint is likely to be richly rewarded.

Your views? What do you think you can do to help put Boomer Lit on the map?

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