The Pitfalls of Our Modern Status System

The status system has become a part of our modern society and it is more prevalent than ever. It influences everything from how we approach networking to social events, but as time goes on the flaws in this system are becoming increasingly apparent.,

We’re back with another installment of our male status series. This series attempts to help men understand how status influences our behavior and even physiology, so we may minimize the negative impacts, maximize the favorable ones, and overall figure out how to effectively manage its impact on our life.

The nature, pathways, and signs of status have undergone many cultural modifications since the birth of civilisation. While the essence of these different status systems has stayed constant — riches and the authority that comes with it — the paths to power and prosperity, as well as their manifestations, have changed throughout time.

The Millennial generation has placed their own spin on status in the twenty-first century. And, as we noted before, it has a lot going for it. Despite the hand-wringing and criticism that Generation Y often receives, there is plenty to be optimistic about. Millennials have abandoned the notion that drinking, smoking, and casual sex make someone cool, and now place a premium on relationships and experiences above material possessions. They, like previous generations, aspire to be wealthy, but they see money as a wonderful enabler of freedom and flexibility — the key to live a more “unconventional” existence.

Every status system, however, has both positive and negative aspects, and this current one is no exception. So, today, we’ll discuss some of the possible consequences of status-seeking in today’s world, bearing in mind that these difficulties aren’t exclusive to Millennials. The rising generation’s notions about status inevitably flow over and impact their parents’, so what we’re talking about today is relevant to everyone.

The Modern Pluralistic Status System’s Potential Good

With an article like this, it’s tempting to go full-on jeremiad mode and focus only on the flaws in our current status system. However, this does not provide a balanced picture since it has the potential for a positive dynamic.

In reality, according to Steven Quartz, author of Cool, the advent of the pluralistic status system in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a near-unmitigated benefit to mankind, primarily because it has solved the “Status Dilemma.” In the past, the status system was purely hierarchical and comprised of a single wealth-based ladder; if you wanted to go up, you had to make someone else move down. For a limited resource, everyone had to compete directly with each other.

The diversification of society in the second half of the twentieth century resulted in the emergence of a diverse range of lifestyles, fragmenting the conventional status structure and allowing for an infinite number of alternate paths to status. Instead of fighting with everyone else for status, you may instead search for it inside your own social niche, which has its own set of standards and conventions. Rather of attempting to be America’s coolest, wealthiest cat, you might strive to be the coolest Christian at your church, the most skilled skater at the park, or the hipsterest hipster in Brooklyn. You may achieve status by doing the most muscle-ups at your CrossFit gym, showing your outdoorsy pals a nice new camping area, posting a delicious Paleo pizza recipe on a forum for the primal-minded, or becoming the only one of your social activist friends jailed at a demonstration. As a result of the growth of the pluralistic status system, status-seeking has shifted from a zero-sum game to one in which everyone has a chance to be a “winner” within their own group or tribe.

 

The growth of alternate pathways to status, according to Quartz, might possibly explain why there hasn’t been more fury and unrest in response to rising socioeconomic disparity. Indeed, as the wealth gap has expanded, the divide between the happiest and unhappiest Americans has narrowed. Some groups have grown less happy (for example, whites and women), whereas others have been happier (blacks, men). As a result, the number of Americans on each extreme of the happiness spectrum — those who say they are “very happy” and those who say they are “not too happy” — has fallen. As a result, today’s happiness has fewer extremes, with more individuals settling in the “quite happy” center.

The spread of this mediocre contentment can be attributed in part to the fact that people no longer see their identity and value as being determined by their position in society’s traditional, wealth-based hierarchy, but rather by their membership in a specific lifestyle group and access to the consumer goods valued by that subculture.

According to Quartz, the pluralistic status structure, as well as the variety of consumer choice it generated, has resulted in both higher general happiness and increasing complacency over the wealth divide (though he himself does not see the latter aspect as a good thing).

The Modern Pluralistic Status System’s Potential Pitfalls

In fact, as we’ll show in the last piece in this series, pursuing status inside one’s own tribe, rather than from society as a whole, is the primary key to controlling one’s status drive in a healthy manner.

However, in a pluralistic status system, the promise of choice may be a burden in various ways:

Different Statuses are at odds with each other.

We all maneuver between several potentially status-conferring groups in our contemporary society — family, job, school, religion, and so on — as well as lifestyle groups that emerge from our diverse interests and hobbies. Each sphere has its own path to success, based on different criteria and the traits and behaviors that each group cherishes.

In a diverse society, the challenge becomes: how do you balance, evaluate, and integrate the many degrees of status you have in each niche to generate an overall sense of your own worth? Maybe you’re an Eagle Scout who is well-liked by your Boy Scout group, but in school you’re ridiculed and picked on. Maybe you’re the fittest guy at your CrossFit box, but you’re the office peon at work. How much weight should you give each group’s appraisal of your worth, if any?

With this issue comes the risk of allowing your position in one area of your life to take priority in defining your entire status. When I was in law school, I was often sucked into this trap. I was saddened if I scored badly on a test or was not awarded an internship that I truly wanted. I’d mistakenly interpret my law school status failure as failure for the rest of my life, forgetting that I was also a spouse, a son, a friend, and a devout member of my church. I’d let a status failure in law school to destroy the reality that I had regard, respect, and status with folks in various aspects of my life.

 

To summarize, learning to balance and harmonize our many status niches might be challenging.

Another issue with a pluralistic status system is that there are no agreed-upon criteria, which is a problem with pluralism in general. This isn’t a problem if like-minded people remain together; everyone in the group or community knows and understands what raises and lowers one’s status. Wearing blinders in our linked and big society, however, is difficult, if not impossible. As a result, status worlds will clash, causing at best some confusion and, at worst, lengthy war.

Take, for example, the standing of a guy. As we’ve already stated, being regarded a man wasn’t a question of birth and biology throughout history and throughout civilizations. A male’s position as a “man” was achieved by acquiring particular characteristics and completing certain tests and initiations. Western nations had, for the most part, agreed-upon standards for what constituted a man, a man, until about the middle of the twentieth century. However, such standards of masculinity have been called into question as a consequence of the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. When you ask someone, “What does it mean to be a man?” they will respond in a variety of ways. Some people define masculinity as practicing the tactical values of manhood as preached by Jack Donovan, while others define it as possessing a melon baller and charging your wife’s phone before night.

It’s no surprise that we have a society in which a 35-year-old grown-up can look himself in the mirror and ask, “Am I man?” With so many different and often competing ideas of what it takes to achieve the status of “man,” it’s no surprise that we have a society in which a 35-year-old grown-up can look himself in the mirror and ask, “Am I man?” What about the males you contact with – by what criteria should they be treated with the respect accorded to fellow men?

These opposing conceptions of masculinity in our online anger culture not only cause misunderstanding, but also actual verbal warfare. A “live and let live” mentality is meant to permeate a diverse society in theory. If one group wishes to adhere to a conventional masculine ideal while another prefers a softer, androgynous manhood, that’s OK. You do what you want, and I’ll do what I want. However, what makes logical in theory may not always work in practice. Instead, one group will want to impose their masculine ideal on everyone. This ideological battle between rival status notions has spawned a cottage industry of books, magazine articles, and blog postings about what defines a “genuine” guy. This isn’t only a male-female relationship, either. The so-called “Mommy Wars” are really a war over women’s status ideas.

Social Media’s Role in Status Hijacking

Man using smartphone and laptop illustration.

As a result, pluralistic status may lead to misunderstanding and conflict both within individuals and across society. However, when you mix the promise of pluralistic status with our culture’s rising use of digital communication technologies, it might become a trap.

 

People must be members of actual, face-to-face communities with shared values for a pluralistic status system (or even a conventional, hierarchical status system) to work well. The only individuals you should compare yourself to are members of your own tribe – people you respect and have a connection with. You understand your place in the group, what it takes to succeed, and what defines failure or falling behind. It’s a system that can be used, understood, and navigated. Unfortunately, there are a number of things in our digital world that work against this dynamic: 

The internet in general, and social media in particular, has enlarged the psychological size of our status groups by a factor of ten. The rising “status anxiety” of the 19th and 20th centuries was due in part to the expanding number of individuals who were able to compete for it, as we discussed in our essay on the cultural history of status. Instead of rank and distinction being the exclusive domain of aristocratic noblemen, democracy leveled the playing field for everyone. In America, even an impoverished street urchin may one day become a captain of industry, or a backwoods farmer could aspire to be President of the United States. The number of persons attempting to climb the same ladder grew by a factor of ten.

Even yet, geographic and communication limitations kept this increasing status concern in check until the late twentieth century. While the number of individuals with whom mid-century suburbanites might compare themselves was substantially more than, example, a 19th-century farmer, status contests were generally limited to those in one’s immediate vicinity. The objective was to keep up with the Joneses next door, not the Smiths who lived in a different town.

In today’s world, technology has rendered traditional geographical status borders obsolete. The number of our prospective status groups has grown dramatically thanks to Facebook and Instagram. We’re comparing ourselves to hundreds of acquaintances and even celebrities, not just our friends, family, and coworkers. You’d never know what some random person in New York City was doing with his life before social media since he couldn’t broadcast it to the world. You can now follow all of the exciting, trendy experiences that some Gothamite is having while sitting on the toilet in your Terre Haute, IN apartment due to Instagram.

While celebrity culture has existed for thousands of years, there remained a psychological barrier between the fan and the famous before social media. Sure, gossip magazines existed in the nineteenth century, but they mostly featured celebrities in public settings, such as at a gala or a movie premiere. The stars of movies and sports looked to have a unique personality, and there seemed to be a divide between them and average people. People didn’t directly compare their lives to those of the affluent and famous because of this mystery and otherness, as well as a paucity of information and images about how celebrities spent their leisure or “off” time.

 

Today, the enigmatic veil that surrounded celebrities has all but evaporated. You may follow all of your favorite actors and athletes on various social media platforms. You can find out what they ate for morning, hear about their exercise, and look at them on the sofa in soiled sweats. You can witness their playboy lifestyle in full color instead of simply wondering what it’s like to travel around on a private aircraft surrounded by hundreds of lovely ladies.

The harmful aspect of how social media networks operate is that the posts of these random acquaintances, lifestyle gurus, and celebrities are mixed in with those of your brother, grandmother, and closest friend. All of these diverse individuals are mentally placed into your status pool as a result of this. Celebrities seem to be just like us on social media, deceiving our brain’s “sociometer” into believing we should compare ourselves to them.

And boy, is that a difficult standard to meet. Friends and celebrities alike, of course, only share the most FOMO-inducing events from their life. We always fall short when we compare their highlight films to our own lives, which contain the dull, dirty bits as well. As a consequence, there’s a lot of restlessness, insecurity, and status anxiety. If balancing the status quotients you acquire in diverse lifestyle groups is one of the issues of status in the pluralistic era, the other significant concern is how to determine which “lifestyle niches” you should be pursuing in the first place.

Sure, you’re doing well in comparison to others in your community who are on a similar road, but it’s possible that you’re not in the appropriate group or on the wrong path in the first place. “Am I living my life correctly?” a nagging question arises. Has anybody come up with a better method to do it? Would I be happy if I lived with them? Are there others who are wealthier, have more fun, and have more rewarding careers? Famous person X began out on the streets and now flies around on a private plane. Why can’t I achieve the same level of success as him? Why am I not living like that lifestyle guru and relying on passive income?!” When you’re looking through meticulously produced photographs of other people doing an unending assortment of beautiful things, it’s difficult to feel pleased with yourself and what you have.

You feel compelled to show your status to everyone since they are assaulting you with their social media status signals. You want to demonstrate your social network that you, too, are doing great stuff. As a result, you may find yourself worrying about capturing a fantastic photo that would capture the action from the most status-enhancing viewpoint while enjoying an experience. You can even decide to do something only to get some nice material for your feed. The consequence is an experience-gathering arms race, in which each social media user tries to demonstrate that they live the finest, most envy-inducing existence possible.

 

The prestige conferred by social media is fragmented rather than comprehensive. Communities are the form of social structure we’ve evolved for, as we described in our piece analyzing the distinctions between communities and networks. Because you and your peers receive a more full view of each other because they’re tiny and face-to-face, regulating your status is simpler and healthy. Sure, you make more money than Jim, but you love how good of a father he is and how he always makes time to assist someone in need. The status you offer each other is determined by the full person and all of the ways he or she contributes value to your life and community.

On a social networking site, on the other hand, you just disclose that part of yourself that is conducive and acceptable for the medium. So, generally huge, cheerful events and information on the things and activities we consume. Pictures of trips, lunches, and What I Wore Today clutter up our feeds. Life’s quieter moments — the stuff that doesn’t “display” well – go mostly unreported and unshared, resulting in your status being defined by a little slice of your whole self.

People devote their time and energy in actions that gain them prestige in every community, in every era, which is why in the digital age:

Status has been divorced from good deeds and principles. It’s probable that character and status are linked. Wealth was supposed to impart prestige in the early twentieth century not only because it was thought to be based on virtues like industry, resolve, and thrift, but also because it was thought to be based on qualities like industry, resolution, and thrift. Even if your excellent character didn’t lead to money, being regarded as a man of integrity earned you respect and admiration from others.

However, close, face-to-face contacts are required for status to be linked to character and virtue. It’s difficult to determine a person’s character online. For starters, someone might seem to be a paragon of virtue online while really being a jerk. Second, character is unobtrusive. It’s difficult to capture and demonstrate in a physical manner. Third, even if you discover a means to demonstrate your virtue and character online, it’s often not socially acceptable to brag about how amazing and good you are. Our alms and prayers must be kept hidden, and so forth.

The link between status and character has been eroded because it is difficult to express virtue through social media, and because social media is a driving factor behind contemporary status. Building character has lost its status-enhancing cachet in favor of consumeristic hobbies that will show up better online. Millennials in particular. When Pew Research asked individuals of each generation what made them special, they responded as follows:

Graph of population.

Millennials describe themselves in terms of music, technology, and clothing — all consumerist status markers — whereas the Silent Generation took pride in its honesty, the Boomers in their principles, and Gen X in its work ethic. (While tolerance made the Millennials’ list and may be considered a virtue, it is usually passive rather than proactive, since it needs passive acceptance.) In the same manner, tolerance in current practice has a tendency to devolve into intolerance. (For more on victimhood culture and microaggressions, listen to our podcast.)

 

The New Age of Status Anxiety and Great Expectations

The emergence of digital technology and social media has transformed status in the contemporary period into a hybrid of the late-twentieth-century pluralistic system and centuries-old hierarchical hierarchy. You may achieve prestige by belonging to a certain community or lifestyle group, but due to social media, you’re also competing against the rest of the globe. You’re comparing your lifestyle group not just to other groups with comparable lifestyles, but also to groups with extremely different lifestyles. And at the end of the day, you compare yourself to every other person on the planet. So, although there are many ladders to climb today, they’re all stacked against one large ladder.

This implies that, although there are reasons to be positive about the coming generation’s desire for status, and many Millennials believe they are status agnostic, what we have here is a prescription for higher status anxiety than ever before.

The pressures that come with being able to compare oneself to billions of others online are compounded by the expectations that Generation Y was reared with. Many well-intentioned Baby Boomer parents instilled in their children the belief that they were unique and capable of pursuing an almost limitless number of career options. As a result, many twenty- and thirty-somethings have high self-esteem and believe they are destined for greatness.

The percentage of college students who feel they are above average in academic ability, desire to accomplish, mathematical ability, and self-confidence has climbed by 30% in the previous four decades, while total narcissism has increased by 30%. A third of teens in the United States think they will one day be famous.

This effervescent self-esteem has been accompanied by an unwavering optimism for the future, a hope that hasn’t been dimmed even by the fragile economy of the previous decade. According to a 2012 poll of Millennials in Europe, 67% stated they never use the term “failure” to describe how they feel, and 70% indicated they are certain they would attain their ideal job one day. While a third of working young people think they don’t earn enough to live comfortably, 88 percent believe their wages will eventually reach that level. And members of Generation Y are hoping for that day to come sooner rather than later: 50% of American Millennials want to retire or live independently as soon as feasible.

Much of Millennials’ upbeat outlook may be traced back to the digital environment in which they grew up. The internet offers a platform on which instant success seems to be a distinct possibility. Everywhere you look, there appear to be tales of people who have launched multi-million dollar applications, established a successful YouTube channel, or discovered a method to generate a passive income while traveling the globe. Success seems to be more accessible and tantalizingly within grasp than it has ever been, but failure is all the more shattering if you don’t achieve it. All of the burden seems to be on your shoulders; if you had the same tools as these other successful individuals and yet failed, what went wrong?

 

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to argue that success has grown any more accessible or straightforward. Thousands of people have attempted and failed to achieve the position of overnight stars that we hear about all the time. People don’t talk about their flaws online, thus we never hear about their failures. We get the impression that earning prestige and success is available to anybody who is ready to strive since we only see the winners. Even those who do achieve typically put in significantly more effort than the general public realizes. The survivorship bias is amplified by social media.

As a result, Millennials’ lofty and positive aspirations are colliding with a more gloomy reality. Indeed, whereas individuals used to become happier as they grew older, it was recently discovered that the happiness of adults over the age of 30 has been dropping for many decades, and the tendency has intensified since 2000. In fact, for the first time in 2010, youngsters were happier than those over 30. One of the reasons for this reversal in adult happiness is that young people’s soaring optimism — nourished by the dazzling, meticulously managed pictures that constantly radiated from their screens as they grew up — hits a wall once they leave their twenties. Slowly, they realize that the ideal life they envisioned for themselves isn’t going to materialize. It’s a humiliating status loss that few see for what it is.

Conclusion

As I said at the start of this article, there is no way to avoid status no matter how hard we try. We’re programmed to compare ourselves to others all of the time. While the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ emerging pluralistic status system relieved certain parts of our contemporary status anxiety, the communication technologies that accompanied it exacerbated our concern in other ways. While more individuals may be pleased with their lives, the American populace as a whole is not growing any happier. Someone else’s happiness has diminished for every individual whose happiness has grown. Status still looks to be a zero-sum game, at least in terms of happiness.

And the stakes in this new status game are considerable, especially for males. Men are more attentive to status than women, as we covered in the first piece in this series, and are more sensitive to both status successes and failures. We live in a society where the profound psychological and physiological impacts of status gains and losses continue to function as if we were living thousands of years ago, but we no longer have a framework in which to comprehend these sentiments, and no idea how to control and regulate them. The status drive of the contemporary guy is tugged in a million different ways. The majority of males experience restlessness and anxiety as a consequence of this. Some guys, on the other hand, become completely unmoored at the extremes; the status game becomes overpowering and unwinnable. An itch that doesn’t seem to go away grows into wrath, fueled by the belief that the only way to achieve the status they want is to do something large, daring, and violent.

 

As a result, it is in our best interests to find out how to negotiate status in this brave new world, both individually and collectively. Because they intuitively understood the significance of status in the individual and in the greater civilization, ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophers and intellectuals shed a lot of ink on the issue. But we’ve been lulled into believing that it doesn’t matter any more in our democratic, equitable society, so we don’t talk about it, much alone think about it. Except for a few psychologists, sociologists, and philosopher Alain de Botton, there hasn’t been much published on how to manage one’s status desire in a healthy manner.

In my upcoming piece, I’ll attempt to accomplish exactly that, outlining my own recommendations for how we might better control our status drive so that we can reap the rewards while minimizing the drawbacks. The end of the series is coming up next.

Complete the Series

Introduction to Men and Status How Testosterone Fuels the Desire for Status in Your Brain The Evolution of Status on a Biological Level The Evolution of Status on a Cultural Level Rebel Cool’s Ascension and Fall Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool – A Cause Without Rebels Our Modern Status System’s Pitfalls Why Should You Be Concerned About Your Status? A Handbook for Managing Status in the Twenty-First Century