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The New Status Seekers : In the 1980s, People Have Been Forced to Find Ever More Creative Ways : of Showing They've Arrived

December 27, 1987|RONALD BROWNSTEIN and NINA J. EASTON | Ronald Brownstein is a contributing editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine and Nina J. Easton is a Los Angeles financial writer.

WHEN THEY'RE OUT CAMPAIGNING, most of the men running for President make their way around in modest vans or borrowed cars. When they use a plane, it is usually rented, small and cramped. When they fly commercial, it's coach.

These men may know a lot about agricultural price supports and welfare reform and the window of vulnerability, but they don't know anything about arriving in style.

Donald Trump, the New York real estate magnate, billionaire, "Doonesbury" star, People magazine cover boy and occasional commentator on the great issues of our day, may not know as much about national policy as he thinks, but he knows how to make an entrance. When a brief "Trump-for-President" boomlet brought him to address a group of New Hampshire Republicans last fall, he arrived, not in a van or a dingy turboprop, but in his $8-million, black, French Aerospatiale Super Puma military jet helicopter.

A showman if not a statesman, Trump understands how much it takes to turn heads today. In the mass-merchandised, affluent society America has become, finding the right symbol to connote our station in life is, like everything else in the modern world, increasingly complex and demanding. In the go-go years of the 1980s, people have been forced to find ever more creative ways of announcing that they have arrived--like $8-million helicopters. Other decades have been devoted to getting and spending, but none as feverishly as this one. In the Reagan years, it's been as if someone took a tape from the 1920s or 1950s and played it on fast forward. "We really have had a frenzy of it in the last seven years," says Tina Brown, editor of Vanity Fair, one of a few magazines that serve as sort of status umpires.

Nowhere has the game been played more intently than in Los Angeles. "What, after all, is a status symbol? It's a focus on appearances in association with a particular object that you think enhances your sense of self. Los Angeles is an area that is very focused on appearances," says David Brandt, a San Francisco psychologist and author of "Is That All There Is?," a study of baby-boomer disillusionment.

Now, as the decade winds down, the mood may be changing again. Nothing will stop the Trumps from buying new and better toys; we're not heading back to the anti-materialism of the 1960s. But after the frantic acquisition that marked the early 1980s and the sickening thud of the stock market in October, we may be heading for what Brown calls "status burnout." Marketing consultant Faith Popcorn, chairman of BrainReserve Inc., calls the phenomenon "yuppie glut" and sees the next great trend as "cashing out"-- turning down the promotion, the long hours and the hectic coast-to-coast trips to devote more time to family, friends and community. More and more of today's obsessive achievers, she predicts, will begin measuring their success not by their possessions but "by how many friends they've got, what a good family they've got, how the kids are turning out." For a snapshot of that next wave in status, think of Diane Keaton in the movie "Baby Boom."

EIGHTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO,when Thorstein Veblen published "The Theory of the Leisure Class," his classic look at social stratification, the pursuit of status was an uncomplicated affair. Class lines were clear. For the rich, more was better. Much more was even better. Huge mansions, huge masked balls, endless extravagance--all conducted in full public view--marked what the robber barons considered tasteful arrival. All of this left the emerging middle class cold. Sober and grave, America's turn-of-the-century burghers watched these ostentations with pious disgust. But that disdain dissolved once the middle class was able to afford more luxury. By the 1920s people began to model their behavior on the upper class, says UCLA sociologist William Roy.

The Depression derailed both the mass marketing of status and the most conspicuous of consumption. With one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished, fewer people had enough money to get by, let alone impress anyone else.

The boom that followed World War II jumpstarted the stalled rush to middle-class status. Possessions whose scarcity had set apart their owners now became abundant. Home ownership had been a privilege reserved for the few, but the unadorned four-room boxes that spread from Long Island's Levittown to the exploding suburbs of Southern California brought it to the many. As a status symbol, the basic single-family house was thus depreciated. So too were automobiles and televisions, which poured into American homes after the war.

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