In Plain Sight

The Things We Cherish: How Status Symbols Change

From marriage to cell phones, take a look at our evolving status symbols and their cost.


For generations, owning a home has been a symbol of economic well-being and the site of most American family wealth. Yet in the last decade, home ownership has taken a bruising. The financial and housing crisis of the late 2000s accelerated the decline in economic stability among the bottom 90% of families, who by 2012 had an average of about $80,000 in wealth—the same as in 1986. Much of that loss came from foreclosures and declining home values.

Meanwhile, getting a home loan is now more difficult than it was before the recession. Many young Americans are putting off buying a house and there's less faith that property remains a sound investment. Even so, a 2014 MacArthur Foundation survey found the overwhelming majority of renters still say they want to own their own home.

Levittown Public Library ; Julie Jacobson/AP


The car has long been considered a status symbol in America, but is that still the case? Not exactly. In fact, recent research conducted by Experian Automotive found that most Americans with incomes over $250,000 drive cars less than $40,000 (the average price of a new car today is about $32,000). Among the top ten best-selling cars for this income bracket, seven are non-luxury brands, including the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord. Even Google co-founder Eric Schmidt drives a Toyota Prius.

Noticeably absent from the list are American-made cars, despite the Ford F-Series truck claiming the prize for best-selling automobile in the country last year. So, while cars arguably remain status symbols for some, for others it’s not as black and white.

Keystone; Reed Saxon/AP


Before athletic brands like Nike and Adidas took off in the 1980s, sneakers were simply shoes you wore to play sports or walk the dog. Today, sneakers have become a new status symbol with different styles, prices, and materials. The change can be traced back to 1985, when Nike released the first pair of Air Jordan basketball sneakers, named after then rookie NBA star Michael Jordan.

Adidas had grown popular earlier in the decade, but it was Nike’s first ever celebrity endorsed kicks that changed the game. Jordan wore the shoes that bore his name on and off the court, inspiring millions of young fans to ‘Be Like Mike.’ But they come with a hefty price tag. In 1985, a pair of Air Jordan shoes sold for $65. Last year they were priced at $175.

Orlando /Three Lions ; Ethan Miller/Getty Images


Marriage is no longer the coveted status symbol that it once was – a broadly shared symbol of family and economic stability. In 1960, nearly 60% of 20-year olds were hitched. In 2010, only 20% of 18 to 29 year-olds had tied the knot.

But it’s not just young people that are saying no to marriage. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of American adults who have never been married is at a historic high. The steepest declines have been among less educated and lower income groups. Even though marriage is on the decline, having children outside of marriage is not. More than 40% of new mothers are unmarried.

GraphicaArtis ; Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images


Long gone are the days when cell phones – heavy, brick-like things – were exclusive to the rich and the powerful. Today, nearly 90% of American adults own a cell phone, not including all those under the age of 18 that have one, which means more people have cell phones than college degrees.

But don’t think your phone doesn’t say anything about you. According to a survey from media company Vuclip, 61% of men say their cell phone is the first thing people notice about them. Only 38% of women say they feel the same way.

Charles Sykes/AP ; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


Baseball has been called America’s Favorite Pastime, but catching a ballgame nowadays isn’t as economically practical as it once was.

In 1960, a ticket to a New York Yankees game cost $3.50 for box seats, $2.50 for reserved seats, $1.30 for general admission, and 75 cents for a seat in the bleachers – that’s an average of $16.10 when adjusting for inflation.

Today, the average seat for a Yankees game will put you back $51.55 – hardly a casual expenditure for most American families. Factor in parking and snacks and the bill easily approaches $250 for a family of four. Not the kind of pastime most can regularly afford.

John Rooney/AP ; Christian Petersen/Getty Images


From Mark Zuckerberg to Justin Bieber to Trayvon Martin, the hoodie has infiltrated American culture across the country. What used to be marketed to blue collar laborers that worked in cold temperatures, has today evolved into a universal staple – even among the country’s most elite (Oprah once included a hoodie in her “List of Favorite Things”).

Known for its warmth, practicality, and comfort, the hooded sweatshirt first took off in the 1970s, popularized by Sylvester Stallone in the movie “Rocky” and the growing influence of Hip-Hop and skating in urban culture. In the mid-1990s the hoodie went mainstream and lined the shelves of high-end and low-end retailers alike – turning the hoodie and other performance apparel into a multi-billion dollar industry.

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In the United States, more people than ever before are working in other people’s homes. But it’s hardly Downtown Abbey. Besides wealthy families, tens of millions of households with incomes less than $200,000 are also employing workers in their homes – approximately 2.5 million domestic workers. And that number is expected to rise 50% by 2022, in part due to the baby boomer generation. The result will be over a million new jobs in homecare over the next decade.

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