Status-anxiety is a malady that has afflicted many over the millennia but is particularly rampant today. More than in previous generations, in the 21st century, we’re beset with this debilitating disease: when we’re perpetually bombarded with photos from our friends’ exciting trips to faraway lands, when we’re ceaselessly assaulted by old college buddies’ more prestigious job titles on Linkedin, what can follow but stinging envy- and a disheartening sense that we’re somehow less than? So we nod politely and give insincere congratulations when a friend shares she’s been admitted to grad school all the while struggling to conceal the fact that her success has us seriously doubting our worth as human beings. The worry that we occupy too modest a rung in the social hierarchy defines much of our existence in our twenties. “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories,” endlessly erudite British philosopher Alain De Botton proclaims, “The first- the story of our quest for sexual love- is well known and well charted…The second- the story of our quest for love from the world- is a more secret and shameful tale…And yet this second story is no less intense than the first, it is no less complicated, important or universal, and its setbacks are no less painful.”
How to defend against the pathological obsession with how we’re doing in relation to others is what De Botton— the same nimble mind who suggested the reality of an exotic locale almost never lives up to our expectations— explores in Status Anxiety, his thought-provoking examination of the causes and solutions to this distinctly modern disease. In his chapter on politics, De Botton argues status is not apportioned identically across cultures but is relative to time and place:
“Every society holds certain groups of people in high esteem while condemning or ignoring others, whether on the basis of their skills, accent, temperament, gender, physical attributes, ancestry, religion, or skin color. Yet such arbitrary and subjective criteria for success and failure are far from permanent or universal. Qualities and abilities that equate with high status in one place or era have a marked tendency to grow irrelevant or even become undesirable in others.”
Using fascinating examples from history to substantiate his claims, De Botton contends what a culture values is not eternal or immutable but rather in a constant state of change: in medieval times, for instance, no one was more revered than a knight who was valiant in battle and chivalrous with the ladies. However, by the mid 19th century, the sophisticated gentleman had thrust the gallant knight from his dominant rank. No more did men strive to dauntlessly defend castles or make aggressive demonstrations of their virile masculinity- instead, they sought to be polite, refined men of cultivation and taste. Was one way of being inherently better than the other? No, but had you been a sensitive soul who preferred poetry to battle in medieval England, most of your society would have regarded you as a disgrace.
That a doctor is regarded as a man of stature while a store clerk is shamed says little about the worth of the men themselves and everything about their state. As De Botton so eloquently explains, societies value occupations essential to their survival: in medieval times, when kingdoms were under constant threat, a warrior like a knight would be held in high esteem because his skills would protect the people. But as the world became more stable, fighters- much like today’s U.S. automobile workers- were no longer necessary or useful:
“Certain people may win status through their ability to defend others, whether by patronage or through control of food, water, or other staples. Where safety is in short supply, as in ancient Sparta or twelfth-century Europe, courageous fighters and knights on horseback will be celebrated. If a community craves nutrients that are available only in the form of elusive animal flesh, as in the Amazon, it is the killers of jaguars who will earn respect and its symbol, the armadillo girdle. In areas where the livelihood of the majority depends on trade and high technology, as in modern Europe or North America, entrepreneurs and scientists will be objects of admiration. The converse also holds true: a segment of the population that cannot provide a useful service to others will end up without status, in the manner of muscular men in countries with secure borders, or of jaguar hunters in settled agricultural societies.”
Culled from fields as diverse as philosophy, politics, history and art, Status Anxiety is both provocative and paradigm-shifting. In the same way he distilled the wisdom of great French novelist Marcel Proust into an accessible self-help guide for the contemporary reader, De Button dives into the dusty archives of human history to help us better understand the status-anxiety that ails us in the modern era. What he finds is who reigns at the top of the social pyramid varies depending on culture: what qualifies someone as an object of admiration or an object of scorn is not the same in a 12th century English village as in an isolated tribe in the Amazon. This fact should console those of us who’ve ever felt like “failures” as such derogatory terms don’t reveal objective truth- they’re merely constructions of our culture. What makes you a “loser” in one age could very well make you a “winner” in another.