Status Anxiety

1. The advantages of two thousand years of Western civilization are familiar enough: an extraordinary increase in wealth, in food supply, in scientific knowledge, in consumer goods, in physical security, in life expectancy and economic opportunity. What is perhaps less apparent and more perplexing is the way that such impressive material advances may have gone hand in hand with a rise in levels of status anxiety among ordinary Western citizens, by which is meant a rise in levels of concern about importance, achievement and income.

A sharp decline in actual deprivation may – paradoxically – have been accompanied by a continuing and even increased sense of deprivation and a fear of it. Populations blessed with riches and possibilities far outstripping those imaginable by their ancestors tilling the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe have shown a remarkable capacity to feel that both who they are and what they have are not enough.

2. These feelings of deprivation may not look so peculiar, however, once we consider the psychology behind the way we decide what is enough. Our sense of an appropriate limit to anything – for example, to wealth and esteem – is never decided independently. It is decided by comparing our condition with that of a reference group, with that of people we consider to be our equals. We cannot appreciate what we have in isolation, nor judged against the lives of our medieval forbearers. We cannot be impressed by how prosperous we are in historical terms. We will only take ourselves to be fortunate when we have as much as, or more than, the people we grow up with, work alongside, have as friends and identify with in the public realm.

If we are made to live in a draughty, insalubrious cottage and bend to the harsh rule of an aristocrat in command of a large and well-heated castle, and yet we observe that all our equals live as we do, then our condition will seem normal; regrettable, certainly, but not fertile ground for a sense of envy. If we have a pleasant home and comfortable job, however, but learn through ill-advised attendance at a school reunion that some of our old friends (there is no stronger reference group) are now living in houses larger than our own, bought on the proceeds of more enticing occupations, we are likely to return home nursing a violent sense of misfortune.

It is the feeling that we might be something other than what we are – a feeling transmitted by the superior achievements of those we take to be our equals – that generates anxiety and resentment. If we are small and live among people who are all of own height, we will not be unduly troubled by questions of size (Figure 3).

Figure 3

But if others in our group grow so much as a little taller, we are liable to feel sudden unease and fall into dissatisfaction and envy – even though we have not ourselves diminished in size by even a millimetre (Figure 4).

Figure 4

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