“Status anxiety,” as Alain de Botton calls it, is one of the defining characteristics of our society. By perceiving of ourselves as a land of equal opportunity, but one without equal outcomes, people are made to feel worthless ‘losers’ if they don’t achieve the sort of success they are looking for. This has all sorts of terrible implications on both our mental and physical health, but it also demonstrates a difficult truth about wealth (take note, conservative economists): we don’t actually care about aggregate increases in wealth, but relative increases. It’s not about making more, it’s about making more than your neighbor. The solution to this sort of thinking? Alain de Botton finds it in things much bigger than humanity–space, time, nature. In the face of an overwhelming forest, our little differences seem trivial. The amusing, informative and thought-provoking Big Ideas lecture:
On a somewhat related note, David Brooks of the New York Times has a column today that demonstrates how income inequality shapes the way we raise children. Wealthy children are propelled to status positions, because their parents have more time and resources to devote to their development:
Richer kids are roughly twice as likely to play after-school sports. They are more than twice as likely to be the captains of their sports teams. They are much more likely to do nonsporting activities, like theater, yearbook and scouting. They are much more likely to attend religious services.
The effect on poor kids? Disillusionment.
It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.
By holding onto notions of innate ability and ‘bootstrap pulling’ individual achievement, we are giving too much credit to some and being too hard to others for the status they achieve. As de Botton demonstrates, we ought to rethink this status obsession.