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Subject: US: 1945-1973 (1945-1973), U.S.

Social History The Status Seekers

Vance Packard

DOI: 10.1093/acref/9780199794188.013.0154

Abstract and Keywords

Despite popular beliefs to the contrary, the United States has always had clearly defined social classes. Social mobilityespecially upward mobility was more easily attainable in the United States than elsewhere, but was still limited by economic and social opportunities. The rapid expansion of the American economy after World War II dramatically altered the social structure of the United States, making it possible for people in the working classes and lower middle classes to enjoy a standard of living that had previously been attainable only by the wealthier classes. Vance Packard (19141996), a journalist and social critic, explored the new standards of social status in his 1959 book The Status Seekers and warned that rising expectations caused by widespread prosperity could destabilize social order in America.Vance Packard, The Status Seekers: An Exploration of Class Behavior in America and the Hidden Barriers That Affect You, Your Community, and Your Future. (New York: D. McKay Co., 1959), 310, 326330. Document What happens to class distinctions among people when most of them are enjoying a long period of material abundance? Suppose for example, that most of the people are able to travel about in their own gleaming, sculptured coaches longer than the average living room and powered by the equivalent of several hundred horses. Suppose that they are able to wear a variety of gay-colored apparel made of miraculous fibers. Suppose they can dine on mass-merchandised vichyssoise and watch the wonders of the world through electronic eyes in their own air-conditioned living rooms. In such a climate, do the barriers and humiliating distinctions of social class evaporate? Do anxieties about statusand strivings for evidences of superior statusease up notably? And do opportunities for leadership roles become more available to all who have natural talent?
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The recent experience of the people of the United States is instructive. In the early 1940s an era of abundance began which by 1959 had reached proportions fantastic by any past standards. Nearly a half-trillion dollars worth of goods and servicesincluding television, miracle fibers, and vichyssoisewere being produced. Before this era of fabled plenty began, it was widely assumed that prosperity would eliminate, or greatly reduce, class differences. If everybody could enjoy the good things of lifeas defined by mass merchandisersthe meanness of class distinctions would disappear. Such a view seemed reasonable to most of us in those pinched pre-plenty days of the thirties because, then, differences in status were all too plainly visible. You could tell who was whoexcept for a few genteel poorby the way people dressed, ate, traveled, andif they were luckyby the way they worked. The phrase poor people then had an intensely vivid meaning. A banker would never be mistaken for one of his clerks even at one hundred feet. What, actually, has happened to social class in the United States during the recent era of abundance? A number of influential voices have been advising us that whatever social classes we ever had are now indeed withering away. We are being told that the people of our country have achieved unparalleled equality. Listen to some of the voices. Some months ago, a national periodical proclaimed the fact that the United States had recently achieved the most truly classless society in history. A few weeks later, a publisher hailed the disappearance of the class system in America as the biggest news of our era. Still later, the director of a marketresearch organization announced his discovery that America was becoming one vast middle class. Meanwhile, a corporation in paid advertisements was assuring us that there are more opportunities in this country than ever before. Whatever else we are, we certainly are the worlds most selfproclaimed equalitarian people. The rank-and-file citizens of the nation have generally accepted this view of progress toward equality because it fits with what we would like to believe about ourselves. It coincides with the American Creed and the American Dream, and is deeply imbedded in our folklore.

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Such a notion unfortunately rests upon a notable lack of perception of the true situation that is developing. Class lines in several areas of our national life appear to be hardening. And status straining has intensified. Webster defines status as the position; rank; standing of a person. (The word can be pronounced either stay-tus or stat-us.) Although presentday Americans in this era of material abundance are not supposed to put differential labels of social status on fellow citizens, many millions of them do it every day. And their search for appropriate evidences of status for themselves appears to be mounting each year. There is some evidence that wives, generally speaking, tend to be more status conscious than their husbands. The majority of Americans rate acquaintances and are themselves being rated in return. They believe that some people rate somewhere above them, that some others rate somewhere below them, and that still others seem to rate close enough to their own level to permit them to explore the possibility of getting to know them socially without fear of being snubbed or appearing to downgrade themselves. When any of us moves into a new neighborhoodand 33,000,000 Americans now do this every yearwe are quickly and critically appraised by our new neighbors and business acquaintances before being accepted or rejected for their group. We, in turn, are appraising them and in many cases attempt not to commit what some regard as the horrid error of getting in with the wrong crowd. Furthermore, most of us surround ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, with status symbols we hope will influence the raters appraising us, and which we hope will help establish some social distance between ourselves and those we consider below us. The vigorous merchandising of goods as status symbols by advertisers is playing a major role in intensifying status consciousness. Emotionally insecure people are most vulnerable. Others of us, less expert in the nuances of status symbols or more indifferent to them, persist in modes of behavior and in displays of taste that themselves serve as barriers in separating us from the group to which we may secretly aspire. They can keep us in our place. If we aspire to rise in the world but fail to take on the coloration of the group we aspire toby failing to discard our old status symbols, friends, club memberships, values, behavior patterns, and acquiring new ones esteemed by the higher group our chances of success are diminished. Sociologists have found that our
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home addresses, our friends, our clubs, our values, and even our church affiliations can prove to be barriers if we fail to change them with every attempted move up the ladder. This is a most disheartening situation to find in the nation that poses as the model for the democratic world. Many people are badly distressed, and scared, by the anxieties, inferiority feelings, and straining generated by this unending process of rating and status striving. The status seekers, as I use the term, are people who are continually straining to surround themselves with visible evidence of the superior rank they are claiming. The preoccupation of millions of Americans with status is intensifying social stratification in the United States. Even our children soon become aware of the class labels that are on their families and are aware of the boundaries that circumscribe their own daily movement. If even children know the facts of class, you may inquire, why is it that so many opinion molders have been announcing their conclusion that classes are disappearing? The discrepancy arises partly as a result of a generalized desire on the part of United States adultsparticularly businessmento support the American Dream. Also it arises from the widespread assumption that the recent general rise in available spending money in this country is making everybody equal. Class, in fact, has several faces and income is just one of them. With the general diffusion of wealth, there has been a crumbling of visible class lines now that such one-time upper-class symbols as limousines, power boats, and mink coats are available to a variety of people. Coincidentally, there has been a scrambling to find new ways to draw lines that will separate the elect from the non-elect. A working-class man, however, does not move up into another social class just by being able to buy a limousine, either by cash or installment, and he knows it. In terms of his productive role in our societyin contrast to his consuming roleclass lines in America are becoming more rigid, rather than withering away. In truth, America, under its gloss of prosperity, is undergoing a significant hardening of the arteries of its social system at some critical points. As I perceive it, two quite sharply divided major groupings of social classes are emerging, with the old middle class being split into two distinct classes in the process. At the places where most Americans work, as I will try to show, we are seeing a new emphasis on class lines and a closing-in of the
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opportunities available to make more than a minor advance. In modern big business, it is becoming more and more difficult to start at the bottom and reach the top. Any leaping aspiration a non-college person has after beginning his career in big business in a modest capacity is becoming less and less realistic. Furthermore, stratification (formalized inequality of rank) is becoming builtin as our increasingly bureaucratized society moves at almost every hand toward bigness: Big Business, Big Government, Big Labor, Big Education. Bigness is one of the really major factors altering our class system. In the hierarchy of the big corporation, stratification is being carried to exquisite extremes. Employees are usually expected to comport themselves in conformity with their rank, and generally do so. Industrialists are noting that the military experience millions of our younger generation have had has made them more accepting of rank. Employees in big offices, as well as big plants, are finding their work roles fragmentized and impersonalized. There has been, perhaps unwittingly, a sealing-off of contact between big and little people on the job. And there has been a startling rise in the number of people who are bored with their work and feel no pride of initiative or creativity. They must find their satisfactions outside their work. Many do it by using their paychecks to consume flamboyantly, much as the restless Roman masses found diversion in circuses thoughtfully provided by the emperors. In brief, the American Dream is losing some of its luster for a good many citizens who would like to believe in it. If, and when, the patina of prosperity over our land is ever rubbed off by a prolonged recession, to use the polite word, the new stratifications will become uncomfortably apparent and embarrassing, unless action is taken to broaden the channels for upward mobility. It is my impression that status lines are more carefully observed in the East and South than in most of the other parts of the country. Californians, with their yeasty social climate, seem the least status-conscious people Ive encountered in the nation This might be explained by the fact thatwith their violently expanding economy and their multitude of relatively small new enterprisesthey are close to the free-and-easy frontier spirit. If a society promotes the idea that success is associated with upward mobility, those who cant seem to get anywhere are likely to be afflicted with
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the feeling that they are personal failures, even though the actual situation may be pretty much beyond their control or capacity to change. Educators and ministers would seem to have a responsibility here to try to ease the damage; and some are doing it. Educational psychologist Lee J. Cronbach has asked his fellow educators this blunt question: How much should the school urge children to be ambitious and mobile, in a society where most of them will find jobs calling for little skill? And one of Americas leading ministers, the Reverend Dr. Robert J. McCracken of New Yorks Riverside Church, has in sermons admonished his listeners to be realistic about ambition. It is an admirable quality, he said, but added that we are not all equal in native capacity. Most of us, he said, are modestly endowed and we shall not achieve effectiveness or happiness until we recognize it. The person standing still in a culture that glorifies upward progress often suffers hurts. The greater menace to society, however, is the person moving downward. Any society that has a good deal of upward circulation is bound to have some downward circulation, too. We cant all stay at the high level our elders or we ourselves achieve. The person being declassed is, as previously indicated, almost invariably in an ugly mood. He is seething with humiliation and apprehension. If society has not developed a mechanism for quickly and gently helping him find a new, more humble niche, then he becomes a bigot, a searcher for scapegoats, and an eager recruit for almost any demagogue who promises to set up a completely new social order. In such a stratified society you have levels of culture, and you have a longtrained elite dictating what is good and proper for each class. In modern America, where especially at the consuming level the masses have to a large extent become the dictators of taste, we have to endure the horrors of our roadside architecture and billboards; our endless TV gun-slinging; our raw, unkempt, blatantly commercialized cities; our mass merchandising of pornographic magazines; our faceless suburban slums-to-be; our evermaudlin soap operas. Voices have been crying out for the restoration of some kind of elite that can set standards and make them stick. Ortega y Gasset was one of the first to deplore the revolt of the masses. Harvards historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., has bemoaned what he calls the conspiracy of blandness coming over American life. In England, sociologist T. H. Pear has viewed somewhat uneasily the breaking down of class distinctions there. What is it doing, he asks, to the polish of social life, and the long-famed gentle manners of English folk? And he adds the wistful observation that he thinks of rankas exemplified by royaltyas making England interesting and picturesque.
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We confront in America a historical situation that cries out for a society of achieved status. We are badly maladjusted to our environment and are becoming more maladjusted every month. We need to draw upon all the talent and intelligence we can muster. We need to encourage by every means possible the discovery and advancement of people of unusual potential in our three supporting classes. In a rigidly stratified society, such people are not even considered. The challenge to us is to recognize the realities of our current class situation. The main reality is our tendency toward greater rigidity in our stratification while pretending that precisely the opposite is occurring. We are consigning tens of millions of our people to fixed roles in life where aspiration is futile, and yet we keep telling them that those who have the stuff will rise to the top. We dont even allow them the satisfaction of feeling secure, dignified, and creative in their low status. And, socially, we look down upon them. Because of this frustration and isolation imposed upon many members of the supporting classes, we have a frightful shattering of integrity. This shows up in the extraordinarily high psychoses rates we encounter as we approach the bottom of our social scale. And it shows up in the fantastically high delinquency and crime rates among the younger poor of America. Status distinctions would appear to be inevitable in a society as complicated as our own. The problem is not to try to wipe them outwhich would be impossiblebut to achieve a reasonably happy society within their framework. If we accept that context, much can be done to promote contentment, mutual respect, and life satisfaction. There appear to be two principal approaches. One is to promote more understanding between people of the various class groupings in our society. The other is to make class distinctions less burdensome by making certain that people of real talent are discovered and encouraged to fulfill their potential regardless of their station in life. Review 1) According to Vance Packard, what is the cause of social stratification in the United States? How was social status changing in the 1950s and 1960s? 2) What is a status seeker? What impact do status seekers have on social stratification?
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3) Who is more disruptive to society, people seeking to attain status above their current level, or people who have lost (or fear they will lose) the status they believe they have earned?

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