Unclassed Behaviour: Understanding The Change In The Old Consumption Social Pyramid


The way to analyze behaviour influences and consumption doesn’t necessarily follow the social income pyramid’s top-down logic anymore.

by Lorena Sganzerla illustration Julian Boledi translated by José Osmar

Unclassed is a behaviour tendency in which people become the protagonists of their own actions, they don’t want to simply appropriate ideals of the higher social strata anymore. Born from a much less dualist, but also contemporary and hyperconnected world – where any information can flow freely between individuals – this emergent behaviour not only opens the possibility for people to reach common references regardless their social class, but also helps them find multiple channels to out their voices and even become a potential influencer of many other people.

Evidently the income gap still exists (and is not negligible at all) worldwide and in Brazil. However, looking at it alone is not enough to predict behaviours anymore. Consumption is now guided together by one’s financial parameter and by their preferences and lifestyles influenced by a myriad of people from any social strata.

Consequently, the way to analyze behaviour and consumption influences do not necessarily follow society’s top-down income pyramid. The challenge has changed: it’s time to step out of the comfort zone and go beyond the comprehension of market shares, income range or social class; it’s time to start thinking about affinities and, most important of all, people.

Gray Malin
Gray Malin

Insufficiency of social classes

Picture the scenario where your family heritage would define your destiny – where you live, what clothes you wear, your work, your food, and even who you marry. Back centuries ago, you could be a noble person or a peasant. People who could change that fact literally entered history.

In the modern world, that changed. The notion of being an individual appeared, molded by the french and the industrial revolutions. One simple step from that point to the idea that every human being is born equal: social mobility was born.

That means being born a commoner was not a rock carved destiny anymore, just another obstacle to be surpassed towards comfort. Learning a profession, qualifying oneself, and earning and accumulating money, these all became the path towards the top of our (well know) social pyramid. It’s all about how culture and purchasing power walk holding hands: while the top layer houses the ones with financial and intellectual patrimony and the consumer goods, middle and lower layers try to reach the top.

Unclassed pirâmide social

In this context, stratifying population in classes to read their behaviour and consumption patterns was a successful strategy. It was fairly easy to identify the universe of a person by the places they went, their car, or the neighbourhood they lived in. Everyone’s repertoire was a reference ladder towards success – and success, as we know, was what your money could buy.

Everyone was classified under an umbrella of vertical concepts that today is unable to accurately represent individuals and their realities. Classifying people based on the social pyramid confined particular histories to a representation that is not appropriated by people, and which they do not identify with.

Today, anyone that insists in delimiting their possibilities based only on vertical patterns is destined not to failure, but to a much worse fate: oblivion.

Down with top-down: from the pyramid to the prism

Welcome to a future where no one fits in demographic definitions anymore. We crossed the information borders without a permanent visa, having nowhere to return to. It’s as if we traversed to a new dimension, capable of melting what we know about social location, where family income, geography, social strata and filiation become less and less significant in determining one’s life journey of decisions and choices.

The world has changed. It’s interpretation has changed. The dualist comprehension of the pyramid’s base and top is not enough anymore to measure the social aspirations of a population. It gave place to a more flexible, two (or more) sided version of itself. Enters the social multiverse, hugely influenced by the brand new information universe. What was a pyramid before, now turns into a prism.

We were used to think things as flat, two dimensional as a pyramid. But a pyramid can also be a prism, whose effects propagate way beyond itself.
We were used to think things as flat, two dimensional as a pyramid. But a pyramid can also be a prism, whose effects propagate way beyond itself.

Quick explanation: imagine social, behaviour and consumption influences as rays of light. What was restricted to the inside of the pyramid, from top to base, stiff, unidirectional and monochromatic before, now expand, multiply and go beyond the universe inside the walls of a pyramid. A prism has no hierarchy. Any of its sides can transform a light beam into a rainbow – and the light beam can come from any direction.

The colors bath the world and mix up to give birth to new tones. There is not an angle determining the top or the base anymore, because that begins to lose importance. They light, multicolored through the prism, expands and reflects everywhere. And just like the colors, construction of the reference, behaviour, and consumption repertoire becomes much wider, toned by a variety of cultural representations, capable of taking independent paths and influencing one another. In that way, we subvert our notion of social pyramid to talk about behaviour, and we use a very democratic metaphor – the prism and its multidirectional multicolored light beams – to represent what is happening to people.

Result: everything is mashed up. Now, more than income, affinity is what brings people together and apart.

This is the base of Unclassed behaviour. Just as a chemical element would connect to another to form new molecules and so on, people do so too. Once they have access to one another, to information and to their mutual repertoire, they are capable of creating together more flexible behaviours to fit better the social world. They connect.

Connectivity became a meeting spot for everyone to out their voices and see themselves, occasionally for the first time, represented by a drawing more realistic than ever in history, whatever their class, origin or income.

That’s the reason speaking of connection is a two way street: you consume more information, but you create more information too. You play a game, but you are also part of the game. You watch content, but you create content too. Both happen in a wide way, at the same time, and they feed back each other.

“The network is much more than a medium for communication. It is a means of personal interaction, organization and long distance relation, and a medium in which personal life is integrated.”
— Manuel Castells

Having access to entertainment and educating oneself became simpler and cheaper, so more people access more content. People who weren’t able to spend their hard earned money with entertainment, culture or information, now can find a universe of possibilities one click away. People who could afford it can too.

Klaus Leidorf

As a consequence to that, there is no more automatic alignments, and the class behaviour starts to be reframed in new symbols, such as experiences, authenticity, connection, well being, an ethic life, sustainable organics and much more.

Today, the way people are building their identities, how they express themselves and how they choose is more oriented to individual preferences than ever.

Now let me ask you a question: what a blue eyed blonde guy that lived in New York, studied administration and worked at Citibank has in common with a suburban young man, son of a domestic helper, that worked as construction worker and as office assistant? Nothing beyond the place of birth in the passport? In this new context, we can imagine a lot of things.

We are talking about two big names of the Brazilian music: Cabal and Emicida. Yes. Both of them. They met for the first time in an improvisation rap battle – a niche event, very restricted to the geography of the groups. Important detail: Cabal was the one who came from the center to the suburbs to search for new references while Emicida earns more followers thanks to the virtual environment.

This exchange, as real as possible today, is the richest expression of the transformation we are going through. If you think about it, every cool or really innovative thing is a mix of different behaviours and realities. That is, the multiplication of human histories and trajectories grow in geometric progression, forging new relations and comprehensions of reality.

second life
Second Life

Individual freedom has never been more shared. As if by the spontaneous combination we could make true the IV BC poet Pindar’s sayings: “Learn what you are and be such.”

Unclassed Brazil

All we talked about up to now – social mobility, non-vertical behaviour models, connectivity – is very much valid to Brazil. To illustrate, let’s travel back briefly to the time lan houses were a thing. This phenomenon from around the 2000’s made social gaps outdated way beyond parks or beaches.

To play games in Rio de Janeiro, both the 16 year old boy from the hill’s slums and the 30 year old playboy went to the same lan houses. Their motivation were different, though: while the first was after the computer he didn’t have at home, the latter was after connection speed. Just like the beach or the streets, lan houses became a place of gatherings. And, going one step further, in the online environment social classes would straight up vanish. This is a picture of what we have been experiencing in several environments and social strata of the country.

If, in the past, one had to become a doctor to be someone in Brazil, now this picture evolved to a much more favorable situation: in 20 years of economic growth, 65% of the population completed high school, more than 80 million people are connected, and 3/4 of brazilian internet users are from the so called class C. Previously centered in the top of the pyramid, the buying power expanded, making parameters more horizontal than ever: it became deformed, more like a diamond/rectangle, and better life conditions granted more people access to college.

Unclassed infográfico

This means: the majority of brazilian baby boomers, born in the 1960s, didn’t attend college, but they sent their sons and daughters to school. And, way beyond the numbers, Brazil changed, because the convergence of a healthy economy (money), education and connectivity lit in the brazilian people an unprecedented pride in being who they are: their origin, and yes, their social class. Today, 89% of young people in Brazil are proud of their nationality, origin and social condition.

“The aspiration of ascending classes today is not anymore to repeat the success of the well succeeded strata from the past, when basic middle class professions were limited to be an engineer, a medic or a lawyer. Professions of the future are being invented today, by the new ascending middle classes, professions that cannot be learnt in schools or universities, but within the work itself, making and learning from one another.”
-Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil’s ex-president and sociologist

More than on the speech of intellectuals, we see it in the streets. Suffice to say the tremendous success of soap operas like Avenida Brasil, from 2012. We are talking about the major part of the population, that previously only saw one way to succeed: mimicking what the top of the pyramid consumed. Today they want to be portrayed closer to their reality, and, for the first time, the main characters of brazilian TV soap opera were people from the periphery. Not coincidently, it was registered as the highest audience in soap opera history. Going up some steps in the payroll doesn’t mean anymore changing all your cultural and/or geographical repertory.

Yet, people do not want to be restricted to their own surroundings: everyone wants to conquer the world, their way; and of course, tell everybody about it. Given this new economic and educational context, basic problems solved, people want to broaden their horizons and references: 25.8 million brazilians are planning an international trip in 2016, and “middle class” represents 52,3% of that sum.

Physical and virtual proximity between brazilians is the big revolution brought by this new social prism.

Once people discover their own voices, or find a channel for expressing themselves – and feel effectively represented by it – there is no coming back.

Personal histories get tangled, combinations become freer, and why not much more creative and authentic. Periferic pop, for example. It is one of the cultural news of the country, and it manifests way beyond music. Runway fashion meets street fashion; urban elements become cult movies narratives, as seen in João Vainer’s documentary about pixação; massive presence of funk wins space in the mainstream advertising campaigns.

Because of that all, more than a concept, Unclassed behaviour is a free mix of references. The cultural remix, based on affinity, meets classes A, B and C that go out to rock sertanejo universitário at the same places; hip hop gains adepts from all classes, or even the guy right next to you at work has a completely different origin than you. More than physical approximation or taste, we are talking about a process of people becoming protagonists of their own aspirations and cultural appropriations.

Evidently class differences still exist. And they will continue existing for some time (and they are not negligible), but it is a fact that, isolated, they are not enough to explain the behaviours that paint the future, neither help understand the country or the world. We live in a more connected Brazil, more interested in what is happening around, more mature and capable of bringing together its differences without burying identities. The difference is what lies within the heart of Unclassed behaviour, and this is one of the most important and inspiring transformations that this country ever saw.

All things considered, more than a concept or a destiny, unclassed behaviour leaves us a problem and a challenge: are you prepared to see beyond demographic segments, market criteria, salary range, and start thinking too, about people?

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