In a famous scene from the 1995 film Clueless, protagonist Cher Horowitz is robbed but, though scared out of her wits, refuses to get on the dirty ground. “Oh, no. You don’t understand. This is Alaïa,” she says of her dress to the gunman. “It’s, like, a totally important designer.”
In the mid-1990s, Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz was comedic relief, an exception to the rule. Today, many of us are Cher Horowitz.
A staggering 34 percent of American Millennials grew up wealthy, according to Forbes, and the figures are likely similar in Canada.
Luxury items, previously reserved for the one percent, are now more accessible than ever and much of the student population at the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver where I study seems swept up in luxury consumerism.
Darren Dahl, who specializes in consumer behavior at UBC, views abundance as the primary ethos of our society. “Previous generations like the Baby Boomers didn’t have the discretionary income some of the kids today have,” he says. “Because there’s a higher level of discretionary income, there’s an ability to spend in this cohort that wasn’t in existence in previous cohorts.”
A casual stroll through the UBC campus reveals as much. Audis and BMWs line the parkade and designer purses hang from the arms of one smug-looking girl after the other. Heads are perpetually lowered and absorbed in the fascinating world of the iPhone.
Although this is not representative of the entire student population, it far outweighs the influence of the nonconformists and those who are simply not as privileged.
Alex Mascott, a 19-year-old commerce student, sees this blatant embrace of materialism as positive. “Money brings the ability to do what you want,” he says. “Getting new stuff is always cool.”
He also says there are material differences among the faculties at UBC, pointing out that the students of the Sauder School of Business have a reputation for being well-dressed and that arts students say they feel out of place when they venture into the building. “There’s a certain need to dress well when you’re in business,” he says, “so having the right apparel matters.”
While Mascott sees clothing as his entry ticket into the business world, there are others who view it as a form of self-expression. Michael Yang, who is graduating with a history degree this year, is among them. Big on expressing himself through flashy attire, the 21-year-old says he is a reformed compulsive shopper who now does his research before buying.
Since his move to Vancouver from Taiwan more than three years ago, Yang’s fixation on appearances has led to a shift in his perception of the opposite sex as well. “It takes a lot to admit this, but I think I’m getting a little more judgmental and materialistic in the way that I view girls,” he says, adding that “fashion is a very conscious thing here in Vancouver.”
Vancouver attracts many wealthy foreigners drawn to the city’s mild climate and picturesque landscapes. This shift has made the city a consumerist mecca on the West Coast where casual luxe, oxymoronic as it is, is manifested in the multi-billion-dollar yoga empire of Lululemon.
“There’s no question people in Vancouver spend money,” Dahl says. “If you look at luxury cars per capita, for example, this is the center of North America for some of these luxury car sales. Why does that happen? There’s a strong culture here that really values those brands as symbols of success.”
Yang agrees with this assessment. “I feel like people want to enjoy the good life here. They want to eat the good food, they want to drive the nice cars, they want to look the part.”
Lianne Wong, who moved from suburban Connecticut to Vancouver in 2009 for university, experienced culture shock upon her arrival. She attributes the city’s material culture to its metropolitan nature and she admits to being a victim of its material exclusivity.
“I really want a Michael Kors purse because all my friends have one but I can’t afford it because they’re a few hundred dollars,” the 21-year-old English major says. “It’s unfair.”
Wong’s parents pay her tuition and are against her spending excessively. “They think it’s more important that I have a career,” she says. While she is bitter, she concedes money doesn’t buy happiness.
Of course, it’s not just in Vancouver that students are becoming more materialistic, even though it’s particularly visible here. Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, conducted a study last year that reveals the troubling reality about Millennials. The results, based on an analysis of nine million high school and university students, found Millennials more materialistic and self-centered than both Baby Boomers and Generation Xers before them.
“The trend is more of an emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame, and image, and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community,” she writes.
Yang, for one, is unapologetic about his spending. “If I am being very materialistic, I often will just say, ‘you know what, I’m going to be materialistic. I’m going to give in to it,’” he says, “why not?”
Vivien Chang studies English Literature and History at the University of British Columbia.