social status (noun) the degree of honor or prestige attached to a given profession. In contemporary industrialized societies social status is primarily conferred based upon income level.
status anxiety (noun) a term coined by contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton in his 2004 book of the same title. Denotes a persistent, underlying fear of an unavoidable decline in one’s social status, primarily due to job loss.
In my previous post in this blog I told the story of Edward, a former teacher who ended up working for minimum wage at a used book store. Something about this transition seemed devastating to me, beyond the financial loss, and I think I finally realized what it is: he lost not only income, but also status.
Imagine a university-educated office worker who is suddenly downsized and forced to work at a fast food restaurant. I suspect most university-educated people would find such a situation traumatic. But why? A lot of it has to do with how people view fast food workers in general. There is a condescending attitude, a snobbery that almost amounts to a moral judgement. If the fast food worker in question is a teenager, everyone holds their judgement, thinking that such a job is not degrading to one so young. But if the fast food worker is older, say his twenties or thirties (or beyond), he is probably viewed differently, as a kind of failure, as a sad story of lost potential.
This snobbery is partly linked to income, but only partly. A Buddhist monk, for instance, makes no income, yet is held in high esteem by virtually everyone (or, even if the monk is not held in high esteem, he is certainly not held in low esteem).
Similarly, a person who inherits a fortune but has no skills or achievements of his own will often be the object of scorn and ridicule. People may covet his fortune, but they certainly do not admire the person himself. If anything, they look at such a person with scorn. Everything has been given to them through no merit of their own, and they have achieved nothing of value, even with all their advantages.
For the most part, though, career prestige is directly correlated with income.
The idea of a minimum wage job as a permanent, rather than temporary, vocation is frightening to many people not only because of the low income (which creates obvious problems for the individual and his or her family) but because of the low status the person will be burdened with. It is especially distressing for university or college-educated people to face the prospect of permanent unskilled, low-wage employment. After all, with few if any exceptions, they were promised not only a certain income, but a certain amount of status as a result of their schooling. It is true that some university educated people are snobs who consider minimum wage work “beneath” them, but it is also true that many of them have a legitimate expectation that the thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, and thousands of pages of work that went into their education will bring some tangible dividend. There is perhaps a sense of betrayal that the social contract between the educated individual and meritocratic society is not being honored.
How does one avoid status anxiety, or fight it once it appears? Alain de Botton’s book gets into remarkable detail on this subject, and I am partially inclined to simply recommend his book and say nothing further. But I do have a few ideas of my own, which I will share in an upcoming post.