On Hipsters

2013-05-22 19:28:00 +0000 — Stone Hill, Baltimore, MD

While having a convivial conversation1 over a couple beers2, my friend, Mike McCaffrey, started me down this direction around a few ideas about what being a “hipster” means and what it is representational of. It was interesting stuff: thinking about how we consume and what we buy and what that might mean about us as individuals.

The discussion went something like this: People typically have spent their money on cars, houses, name brand clothes, and plenty more as objects that show concrete proof of a social station or class. Basically, these objects legitimize one’s personal belief of their proper place in our society. Those we currently refer to as “hipsters” are doing the same thing. However, instead of buying a Mercedes Benz (a new one, not just an old 300D from the late 70s that is meant to be converted to biodiesel), as perhaps their parents or former cultural counterparts (Are hipsters the new yuppies? — this is a completely different conversation) might have, they purchase fancy fixed gear bicycles or the trendiest of vintage finds. A reason for this may be that the current gaggle of 20 and 30 somethings haven’t been gifted the mythical golden jobs promised to them throughout high-school and college. These jobs were to have granted access to the resources for buying fancy cars and gold watches. Instead, many of these young adults (with visions of success based on their parents’s generation) work in restaurants, coffee shops, the few remaining bookstores, temp jobs, etc. Without the flow of income expected, hipsters must make do with custom painted bike frames and vintage (but subsequently re-tailored for a tighter fit) jackets and pants instead.

Beer-generated musings aside, I find the idea that the purchases we make may represent our (or our desired) class, station, or cultural stereotype an interesting one. What, for instance, does the forgoing of most other expenses [health insurance, HBO, gasoline, designer clothes] so that I can pre-order a special heritage breed of turkey for Thanksgiving say about me?

I don’t really remember my parents spending inordinate sums of money on the food we ate. We didn’t eat hamburger helper, Chef Boyardee, or solely subside on canned beans, but we certainly didn’t eat free range meat or eggs, locally grown vegetables, or ethical-dayboat-and-linecaught-fish either. However, while none of the salamis we ever bought were artisanally cured, they also weren’t cheap bologna. We just had nice, plain, middle of the road food that always came from the town grocery store (actually, it was probably even better than middle of the road — I mean some of our cheese came all the way from Norway).

So, since I wasn’t brought up buying/eating (particularly) expensive food, do I now buy “expensive” food because my dad drives an Audi? Is that my equivalent status symbol since I don’t care about owning cars? [except maybe an electric one, (and I care about bikes, but mine aren’t particularly fancy or expensive)]. I care about where my food comes from, is this my equivalent upper-middle-class extravagant spending?

I attempt to base my purchasing decisions on ethical arguments and informed research of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an object. So I would say my decisions are based on beliefs, ethics, and ideals — not social standing. Sometimes aesthetics plays a role. But, often this results in a higher cost for a product than that found elsewhere from a different manufacturer, supplier, or store. I suppose that this method of making choices can be viewed as an elitist one. But, is it truly elitist to make a decision this way? It doesn’t seem like it to me, it seems like an honorable, intelligent choice, but maybe that is just what elitists say to justify elitism.

One needs to map how these things connect — do you think that a Mercedes Benz, a Mission bicycle, or a heritage-breed turkey show the same symptoms of an American culture that only knows how to convey individuality via purchases?

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  1. This conversation was originally had sometime around november 2011. This essay took a little gestation before it could get out.

  2. It should be noted that the beers we shared were of the high-craftsmanship micro-brew variety. Perhaps another status symbol object.