| December 11, 2015

A Man's Life

Men & Status: The Pitfalls of Our Modern Status System

men and status

Welcome back to our series on male status. This series aims to help men understand the way status affects our behavior, and even physiology, so we can mitigate its ill effects, harness its positive ones, and generally get a handle on how best to manage its place in our lives.

Since the dawn of civilization, the nature, routes, and signals of status have gone through many cultural transformations. While the very core of these various status systems has remained consistent — wealth and the power that comes with greater resources — the pathways to power and wealth, as well as its expressions, have varied over time.

In the 21st century, the Millennial generation has put its own twist on status. And as we discussed last time, it actually has a lot going for it. Despite the hand-wringing and criticism young people today often come in for, there’s much about Generation Y to be hopeful about. Millennials have moved away from thinking that drinking, smoking, and casual sex make someone cool, and they value relationships and experiences over consumer goods. They want to be rich just like the generations before them, but they look at wealth as the great enhancer of freedom and flexibility — the ticket to living a more “unconventional” life.

Every status system, however, has both its healthier and more damaging dynamics, and this modern iteration is no different. So today we’ll talk about some of the potential drawbacks of status-seeking in the present age, keeping in mind that these pitfalls don’t only apply to Millennials. The rising generation’s ideas of status always bleed over and influence their parents’ conception of it, so that what we discuss today really applies to all.

The Potential Good in the Modern Pluralistic Status System

It would be easy to go into full-on jeremiad mode with a piece like this and only discuss the problems with our modern status system. But that would not offer a balanced picture, as it does carry the potential for a positive dynamic.

Steven Quartz, the author of Cool, in fact argues that the rise of the pluralistic status system in the 20th and 21st centuries has been an almost unmitigated boon to humanity — largely because it has solved the “Status Dilemma.” In the past, the status structure was strictly hierarchical and consisted of a single ladder that centered on wealth; if you wanted to move up, someone else had to move down. Everyone had to compete directly with everyone else for a limited resource.

The diversification of society in the second half of the 20th century led to the development of a wide array of different lifestyles, fragmenting the traditional status structure and opening up an endless number of alternative routes to status. Instead of each individual competing directly with everyone else to gain status, now you can look for it within your particular social niche with its unique standards and norms. So instead of trying to be the coolest, richest cat in America, you can try to be the coolest Christian at your church, the most skillful skater at the park, or the hipsterest hipster in Brooklyn. You can gain status by doing the most muscle-ups at your CrossFit gym, showing your outdoorsy friends a cool new camping spot, sharing a killer recipe for Paleo pizza on a forum for the primally-inclined, or being the only one of your social activist friends to be arrested at a protest. In this way, the rise of the pluralistic status system has turned status-seeking from a zero sum game into one in which everyone potentially has the chance to be a “winner” within their own community or tribe.

Quartz speculates that the rise of alternative routes to status may even explain why there hasn’t been more outrage and rioting over growing socioeconomic inequality. Indeed, while the gap between the rich and the poor has widened, the gap between the happiest and least happy Americans has shrunk. Some groups have gotten a little less happy (whites, women), while other groups have become a little happier (blacks, men). Consequently, the number of Americans on either end of the happiness spectrum — those describing themselves as “very happy” and those describing themselves as “not too happy” — has decreased. There are thus less extremes in happiness today, with more people converging in the “pretty happy” middle.

The spread of this middling contentment may be partially chalked up to the fact that people no longer primarily see their identity and value as being based on their place in society’s traditional, wealth-based hierarchy, but rather derive their satisfaction from membership in their particular lifestyle group, along with access to the consumer goods valued by that subculture.

Quartz posits that the pluralistic status system, and the diversification in consumer choice it spawned, has thus led both to more overall contentment, as well as greater complacency concerning the wealth gap (though he himself does not see the latter aspect as a good thing).

The Potential Pitfalls of the Modern Pluralistic Status System

The pluralistic status system does indeed offer the potential for greater happiness than a strict hierarchal structure; in fact as we’ll argue in the last article in this series, seeking status within one’s own tribe, rather than from society at large, is the fundamental key in managing one’s status drive in a healthy way.

But the promise of choice in a pluralistic status system can also be a curse in several ways:

Conflict Between Different Statuses

In our modern society, we all navigate between different potentially status-conferring groups — family, work, school, church, etc., as well as the lifestyle groups that grow out of our various interests and hobbies. Each sphere offers its own avenue to status, based on varying standards and the qualities and behaviors that a particular group values.

The question in a pluralistic society then becomes, how do you balance, weigh, and integrate the varying degrees of status you have in each respective niche in order to create an overall idea of your own worth? Maybe you’re an Eagle Scout and well-liked by your Boy Scout troop, but you’re bullied and picked on at school. Or perhaps you’re the fittest dude at your CrossFit box, but at work you’re the office peon. How much weight, if any, should you give to each group’s assessment of your value?

Along with this question, comes the danger that you’ll let your status in one niche of your life take precedence in determining your overall status. I often fell victim to this pitfall when I was in law school. Whenever I did poorly on an exam or didn’t get offered an internship that I really wanted, I was devastated. I would take my status failure in my law school career as failure for my entire life, forgetting that I wasn’t just a student, but also a husband, a son, a friend, and a devoted member of my church. Though I had esteem, respect, and status with individuals in those spheres in my life, I’d allow a status defeat in law school to obliterate that fact.

So in short, learning how to balance and harmonize our varying status niches can be difficult.

Another problem with a pluralistic status system is one inherent to pluralism in general: there are no agreed-upon standards. If like-minded folks stick together, this isn’t an issue — everyone in the group or community knows and understands what increases and decreases one’s status. But in our interconnected and large society, wearing those kinds of blinders is difficult, if not impossible. Consequently, status worlds will collide, which at best creates a bit of confusion, and at worst creates protracted conflict.

Take for instance the status of being a man. As we’ve discussed before, throughout time and across cultures, being considered a man wasn’t a matter of birth and biology. “Man” was a status a male earned by developing certain attributes and passing certain tests and initiations. Up until about the middle of the 20th century, Western societies had, for the most part, an agreed-upon criteria as to what made a man, a man. But as a result of the social upheavals of the 1960s and ’70s, those benchmarks of manhood have been called into question. Now when you ask someone, “What does it mean to be a man?” you’ll get all sorts of answers. For some, being a man means living the tactical virtues of manhood as espoused by Jack Donovan, while others will say being a man means being having a melon baller and charging your wife’s phone before you go to bed.

With so many differing and often competing ideas of what it takes to gain the status of “man,” it’s no wonder we have a society in which a 35-year-old grown-up can look at himself in the mirror and ask, “Am I man?” And what about the men you interact with — by what standards should you afford them the respect due one’s fellow men?

In our online rage culture, these contrasting concepts of masculinity don’t just lead to confusion, but to outright verbal warfare. Ideally in a pluralistic society, a “live and let live” attitude is supposed to pervade. If one group wants to abide by a traditional ideal of masculinity and another wants to adopt a softer, androgynous form of manhood, well, okay then. You do you and I’ll do me. But what makes sense in theory, doesn’t work as well in reality. Instead, one group will try to assert their ideal of manhood on everyone. This conflict between competing status concepts has birthed a cottage industry of books, magazine articles, and blog posts dedicated to ideologically duking it out about what constitutes a “real” man. And this dynamic isn’t unique to male status, either. The so-called “Mommy Wars” is at its core a battle over status ideals for women.

The Hijacking of Status By Social Media

man with devices smartphone table computer illustration

So pluralistic status can cause confusion and conflict within the individual as well as in society as a whole. But another way in which the potential of pluralistic status can turn into a pitfall is when you combine it with our culture’s increasing use of digital communication tools.

For a pluralistic status system (or even a traditional, hierarchical status system) to function ideally, people have to belong to real, face-to-face communities with shared values. It should be that the only people you compare yourself with are the people in your own tribe — the people you respect and have an affinity towards. You know where you fit in the group, what’s required if you want to excel, and what constitutes failure or falling behind. It’s a workable, graspable, navigable system. Unfortunately, there are many factors that work against this dynamic in our digital age: 

The internet generally, and social media specifically, has exponentially increased the psychological size of our status groups. As we argued in our article about the cultural evolution of status, the growing “status anxiety” of the 19th and 20th centuries was due in part to the growing number of people who became able to compete for it. Instead of status and renown being solely the concern of aristocratic noblemen, democracy opened the status playing field to one and all. In America, even the backwoods farmer could aspire to be President of the United States, or a poor street urchin could one day become a captain of industry. The number of people all struggling up the same ladder increased many times over.

Still, up through the late 20th century, this burgeoning status anxiety was kept in check by geographic and communication barriers. While the number of people that mid-century suburbanites could compare themselves to was significantly higher than that of, say, a 19th century farmer, status competitions were largely confined to the folks within one’s geographic proximity. The goal was to keep up with the Joneses’ next door, not with the Smiths in another town.

Fast-forward to today and technology has obliterated these geographic status boundaries. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, the size of our potential status groups has increased exponentially. We’re not only comparing ourselves to our friends, families, and co-workers, but also to hundreds of acquaintances and even celebrities. Back before social media, you’d never know what some random dude in New York City was doing with his life because there was no way for him to broadcast it to the masses. Now thanks to Instagram, you can follow all the cool, hip adventures some Gothamite is taking part in while you’re sitting on the toilet in your apartment in Terre Haute, IN.

And while celebrity culture has existed for thousands of years, before social media there was a psychological distance between the fan and the star. Sure, there were gossip rags even back in the 19th century, but they captured celebs in public moments — attending a gala or movie premiere. The stars of film and sports seemed distinctly different, and there was a gulf between them and ordinary folks. Because of this mystique and otherness, and the lack of information and imagery about how celebrities were spending their leisure or “off” time, people didn’t as directly compare their lives with those of the rich and famous.

Today, the mysterious curtain around celebrity has all but vanished. You can follow all your favorite movie and sports stars via different social networks. You can find out what they eat for breakfast, hear what they did for their workout, and gaze at them sitting in grubby sweatpants on the couch. Instead of just imagining what it’s like to fly around on a private jet, surrounded by tons of gorgeous women, you can see their playboy lifestyle in full living color.

And the pernicious thing about how social media networks function is that the postings of these random acquaintances, lifestyle gurus, and famous people are mixed together with postings from your brother, grandma, and best friend. This psychologically places all these different people into your status pool. Social media gives the appearance that celebrities are just like us, fooling our brain’s “sociometer” into thinking we should compare ourselves to them.

And boy, it’s a tough standard to live up to. Because of course, friends and celebrities alike only share the most FOMO-inducing moments of their lives. When we compare their highlight reels to our own lives, which also include the boring, messy parts, we invariably fall short. The result is restlessness, insecurity, and a heaping helping of status anxiety. If one of the problems of status in the pluralistic age is trying to balance the status quotients you achieve in various lifestyle groups, the other big question is how to know which “lifestyle niches” you should be pursuing in the first place.

Sure, you’re doing well compared to others in your own community and who are on a similar path, but maybe you’re not even in the right community or headed down the right path in the first place. Niggling questions emerge: “Am I living life right? Have people figured out a better way to do it? Would I be happier living where they are? Are others out there richer, having more fun, enjoying more fulfilling careers? Famous person X started off broke and is now flying around in a private jet. Why can’t I be successful like him? Why am I not living off passive income like that lifestyle guru?!” It’s hard to be content with yourself and what you’ve got, when day after day you’re scrolling through carefully orchestrated pictures of other people doing an endless array of amazing things.

Since everyone’s bombarding you with their social media status signals, you feel the need to display your status to them. You want to show everyone in your social network that you’re doing cool things too. So while having an experience, you may find yourself thinking about getting a good shot that will capture the event from the most status-enhancing angle. You may even decide to do things in the first place simply to gain good fodder for your feed. The result is an experience-collecting arms-race, where every social media user is trying to show they have the very best, most envy-inducing life.

Social media confers status in a fragmented rather than holistic way. As we discussed in our article comparing the differences between communities and networks, communities are the type of social organization we’re evolved for. They’re small and face-to-face, and this intimacy makes managing your status easier and healthier, because you and your peers get to see a more complete picture of each other. Sure, you might be making more money than your buddy Jim, but you admire how great of a dad he is and that he always finds time to help someone in need. The status you give each other is based on the whole person, and all the different ways he or she adds value to your life and community.

On a social network, however, you only share one part of yourself — that which is conducive and considered appropriate for the medium. So, mostly big, happy events and stuff about products and experiences that we consume. Our feeds are clogged with pictures of vacations, meals, and What I Wore Today. The quieter moments of life — the stuff that doesn’t “show” well — go largely undocumented and unshared, so that your status ends up being determined by a small sliver of your whole self.

In every society, in every age, behaviors that garner status end up being the ones people invest their time and energy in, which is why in the digital age:

Status has become disconnected from virtuous action and values. It’s possible for status to be connected to character. Up through the 20th century, wealth didn’t confer status in and of itself, but also because it was thought to be predicated on qualities like industry, resolution, and thrift. And even if your good character didn’t lead to riches, you could still gain respect and esteem from others for being known as a man of integrity.

But for status to be connected to character and virtue, it requires intimate, face-to-face interactions. It’s hard to judge the character of a person online. First, people can present themselves as a paragon of virtue online, but actually be a lout. Second, character is inconspicuous. It’s hard to capture and show in a tangible way. Third, even if you find a way to display your character and virtue online, it’s generally not socially acceptable to toot your own horn about how virtuous and wonderful you are. Our alms and prayers need to be in secret, and all that.

Because it’s hard to signal virtue via social media, and because social media is a driving force behind modern status, the connection between status and character has been weakened. Stripped of its status-enhancing cache, building character has become a lower priority than consumeristic pursuits that will show better online. Especially for Millennials. When Pew Research asked members of each generation what made their generation unique, here’s how they answered:

gen

So while the Silent Generation took pride in its honesty, the Boomers in their values, and Gen X in its work ethic, Millennials define themselves in terms of music, technology, and clothes — all consumeristic status markers. (While tolerance made Millennials’ list, and can be something like a virtue, it’s typically an inert, rather than proactive one, as it most often simply requires passive acceptance. So too, tolerance in modern practice has a way of turning into the vice of intolerance. See our podcast on victimhood culture and microaggressions.)

Great Expectations and the New Age of Status Anxiety

The rise of digital technology and social media has turned status in the modern age into a combination of the pluralistic system that emerged in the late 20th century, and the traditional hierarchy of centuries past. You can get status from your particular community/lifestyle group, but thanks to social media you’re also competing against everyone else in the world. You’re not only comparing your lifestyle group to other similar lifestyle groups, but also your group to very different ones. And you ultimately compare yourself as an individual against every other individual out there. So while there are multiple ladders to climb today, they’re all leaning against one big ladder.

What this means is that though there are reasons to be optimistic about status seeking in the rising generation, and many Millennials think they are in fact indifferent to status altogether, what we have here is a recipe for a greater sense of status anxiety than ever before.

Compounding the status pressure born from being able to compare yourself to billions of people online, are the expectations Generation Y were raised with. Many well-meaning Baby Boomer parents taught their children to believe they were special and capable of successfully pursuing a nearly unlimited variety of paths in life. Consequently, many twenty- and thirty-somethings have a high opinion of themselves and feel they’re destined for great things.

Over the last four decades the number of college students who believe they are above average in academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability, and self-confidence has risen, and overall narcissism has increased by 30% at the same time. A third of American teenagers believe they will become famous one day.

Along with this ebullient self-esteem has come an unshakeable optimism in the future, a hope that hasn’t been diminished even by the shaky economy of the past decade. According to a survey of Millennials in Europe in 2012, 67% said they never use the word “failure” to describe how they feel, and 70% were positive they will one day get their dream career. While a third of employed young people say they don’t make enough to maintain the lifestyle they’d like, 88% are confident their earnings will one day reach that threshold. And members of Generation Y hope that day is sooner rather than later: half of American Millennials want to make enough money to retire or live off their own means as quickly as possible.

Much of this buoyant optimism amongst Millennials can be traced to the digital landscape in which they’ve grown up. The internet provides a platform that makes overnight success seem like a very real possibility. Everywhere you turn it seems there are stories of those who created multi-million dollar apps, built a thriving YouTube channel, or found a way to make a passive income while traveling the world. It seems like success has never been so accessible and tantalizingly within reach, but the flip side is that if you fail to attain it, the failure is that much more crushing. All the blame seems to fall on you; if you have the same tools as these other successful people, and you failed, what’s wrong with you?

And yet it’s hard to say that success really has become that much more accessible and easily achieved. For all the overnight stars one hears so much about, there are thousands more who tried and failed to attain that status. But we never hear about the failures because people don’t post about their shortcomings online. Because we see just the winners, we get the idea that gaining status and success is open to anyone who’s willing to try. Even those who do succeed often put in far more work than is understood by the general public. Social media puts the survivorship bias on steroids.

Millennials’ high and hopeful expectations are thus on a collision course with a more depressing reality. Indeed, it was recently found that while in times past, people typically got happier as they aged, the happiness of adults over the age of 30 has been declining for the last several decades, and the trend has accelerated since 2000. In fact, in 2010, teenagers became happier than those over 30 for the first time. One of the factors behind this reversal in adult happiness is likely that young people’s soaring optimism — an optimism fed on the glowing, carefully curated imagery that continually emanated from their screens growing up — eventually runs into a wall once they leave their 20s. The realization slowly sets in that the dream life they imagined for themselves isn’t going to happen. It’s a crushing status defeat that few recognize for what it is.

Conclusion

As I noted at the beginning of this series, try as we might, there’s no way of escaping status. We’re hardwired to constantly compare ourselves to others. While the burgeoning pluralistic status system of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has alleviated some aspects of our modern status anxiety, the communication technology that developed alongside it has intensified our angst in other ways. While more people may be experiencing a middling contentment, overall the American population is not getting happier. For each person whose happiness has increased, someone else’s has decreased. Status — at least in regards to happiness — still appears to be a zero sum game.

And the stakes are high in this new status game, particularly for men. As we discussed in the first articles in this series, men are more attuned to status than women, and more sensitive both to status achievements and defeats. We live in a world where the intense psychological and physiological effects of status gains and losses still operate as if we were living thousands of years ago, but we now have no context to understand these feelings, and no sense of how to direct and manage them. The modern male’s status drive is pulled in a million different directions. For most men the result is a feeling of restlessness and anxiety. At the extremes, however, some men become entirely unmoored; the status game seems overwhelming and unwinnable. An itch that seemingly cannot be scratched turns into a rage, a conviction that the only way to gain the status they crave is to do something big, bold, and violent.

It is thus in our interest, both individually and as a society, to figure out how to navigate status in this brave new world of ours. Ancient, medieval, and Renaissance philosophers and thinkers spilt a lot of ink on this subject because they had an intuitive understanding of the importance status plays in the individual and in the larger culture. But in our democratic, egalitarian society we’ve been lulled into a belief that it doesn’t matter any more, so we don’t discuss it, let alone think about it. Except for a few psychologists, sociologists, and the philosopher Alain de Botton, not much has been written about the brass tacks of managing one’s status drive in a healthy way.

Well, in my next article I’m going to take a stab at doing just that and lay out my own suggestions for how we can better manage our status drive so that we can get the benefits from it while downplaying the negatives. The series’ conclusion, coming up next.

Read the Entire Series

Men & Status: An Introduction
Your Brain on Status

How Testosterone Fuels the Drive For Status
The Biological Evolution of Status
The Cultural Evolution of Status
The Rise and Fall of Rebel Cool
A Cause Without Rebels — Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool
The Pitfalls of Our Modern Status System
Why You Should Care About Your Status
A Guidebook for Managing Status in the Modern Day

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Last updated: November 15, 2017

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