The 1987 Oscar-winning movie Wall Street, with Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, is iconic for a number of reasons. First, it was the definitive film portrayal of 1980s excess, with Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko advocating that “greed is good” and “lunch is for wimps”. Second is the huge brick-like mobile phone that Gekko used – probably the first time ever that a mobile phone was at the heart of a movie.
Thirty years later, Gekko and his brick look ridiculous; it really dates the movie, just like red braces and big shoulder pads. But, at the time, it what rich people had to have. Today, mobile phones are ubiquitous, and have catapulted from being a high-end gizmo for rich people to something that even the poorest developing country has in plentiful supply.
Often it is the richest who begin a trend. So, what else do only rich people do today that could become commonplace for the rest of us? Could their habits help us understand the future? Google chief economist Hal Varian originally posed the question, and I believe it provides an interesting frame to think about what could happen and, indeed, what already is happening around us.
Let’s look to the past to get an understanding. Just over 100 years ago, only rich people had cars, then Henry Ford came along with the Model T, rode down the cost curve through mass manufacturing and ensured that everybody could have a car. You could apply the same logic to Tesla cars – today, only for wealthy people, tomorrow ubiquitous.
Years ago, eating out was what wealthy people did. I can count the number of times I ate in a restaurant when I was a child on the fingers of one hand. My teenage niece would beat that in just one week. She can even get her choice of meals from the best restaurants in town delivered to her door if she wants.
A couple of hundred years ago, the ‘Grand Tour’ was the trip around Europe taken by rich men and women as a rite of passage. More recently, only rich people could afford to fly during the ‘jet age’ of the 1960s and 70s. Now the low cost carriers have democratised travel so that we can book a flight for the price of a round of drinks. The same thing can be said about Primark, Zara, H&M and their brand of fast fashion that takes what’s on the Paris and Milan catwalks and brings it to the high street for ridiculously low prices a few months – or even weeks – later.
What about health and beauty? Personal trainers, personal shoppers, facelifts and manicures used to be just for Hollywood stars and wealthy socialites. Now I can get botox fillers injected during my lunch break (not that I have, just for the record).
Rich people’s habits gradually get more affordable
What you earn for an hour of your time today can pay for a lot more than it would have 30 years ago. Technology and the cost curve are making many things we all do in day-to-day radically cheaper.
The smartphone in your pocket contains all the…