Monday, June 15, 2009

We're Forced To Choose Between Status or Experiences

Sherman Oaks, California

Status in the United States seems negatively correlated with experiences.

By "experiences," I mean exactly that -- a life brimfull of different sensations, people, activities, environments, knowledge, etc. Imagine a man who, in roughly five-year increments, studies geology at a Midwestern land grant college but never graduates, works as a guard in a national park in Ecuador, illegally waits tables in Eastern Europe, earns a nursing diploma in the Philippines and works in that line for a while, teaches English to doctors in Jordan, scribbles a few years as a medical textbook editor based in East Africa, and settles in Bangkok to spend late middle age selling bacterial filters for hospital air conditioning systems.

Mr. Hypothetical makes it a point to read, learn and experience as much as possible about the languages, history, art, culture and religions of his adopted regions, while simultaneously obtaining competence at his job of the moment. He lives in safe and plain rental apartments, and, on his many holidays, he flies economy and sleeps at inexpensive guest houses. I would add that he is unfailingly courteous, is a "nice guy" with women, drives an unremarkable used car on the rare occasions he needs to own one, and has some -- but not a lot -- of savings. He's surprisingly skilled on the zither.

Impressive, yes?

No, says American culture, he's a loser.

Mr. Hypothetical doesn't exhibit any of the syntax of status. He doesn't have a degree from a highly selective university, he doesn't own real estate in a trendy neighborhood of a glamour city, he works principally in subordinate or entry-level positions for employers lacking prestige, he isn't rich, and he's not famous. This guy's chances on match.com are slim (as noted in this 2006 New York Times article about perfectly decent guys who find themselves unmarriageable because they work in humdrum jobs and lack a college degree).

If our male nurse scratches the Bangkok idea and decides to return to the U.S. job market, he's going to have a terrible time. His Filipino degree may not be recognized, he may have to invest in a new set of credentials regardless of his actual ability, and many American employers would consider his foreign experience to be strange, fraudulent or simply not worth the perceived risk. Worse, since he hasn't followed a traditional career path, he would not be considered for mid-level jobs, because many employers reject all applicants who are not already employed in similar positions. He would essentially be starting from scratch, lacking any status.

Our hero's knowledge of languages and histories and art -- and his patent ability to work with people across a myriad of cultures -- would not translate into status, either. For all the talk about globalism, status in the United States is defined by a tiny set of criteria, almost all of which are domestic.

So the person seeking status has to forgo experiences. The status seeker has to focus on high-prestige education and well-paying jobs, which usually crowd out reading for pleasure or the aimless intellectual wandering that can bear the tastiest fruit. Meaningful travel won't happen, not with the American penchant for taking only two weeks of annual vacation, if that. The facetime culture of many workplaces values long hours for their own sake and would not countenance an employee who leaves the office every Monday afternoon to take a class.

There are exceptions. Foreign correspondents and some international business people can enjoy lives of varied experiences. Also, my hypothetical is exaggerated to make a point. But I think the general rule holds that high status in our culture is largely dependent upon a lifestyle that requires a narrow, almost impoverished, set of life experiences.

2 Comments:

Blogger moi said...

It seems to me you are (somewhat unfairly) bashing the US for taking what is essentially a middle-class notion of respectability. I have only lived in India and the US, and I assure you that what you have described is at least as true of India as it is of the United States - probably more so. In India, the narrow definition of status extends back before one's own life. If you take up the profession of your father, that's the lowest-risk path to your success (assuming, of course, that said father is a upper- or middle-class professional). Innumerable well-to-do eligible (just replace match.com with shaadi.com) Indian men are doctors or industrialists or physicists or lawyers because their fathers are (they generally even take up the same specialization). This applies to everyone from Anil and Mukesh Ambani to my own cousins.

5:17 AM  
Blogger moi said...

Sorry to come back to the same old post again, but this piece of gossip reminded me of it. I was surprised to learn recently that the winner of the 2008 Booker Prize lived in a part of Mumbai that's too non-descript a chunk of suburban clutter to be considered trendy by any definition. Apparently it's because nobody wants to rent out apartments to a man with "no job". (And no, the Booker Prize is not enough money to buy an apartment in Mumbai).

10:50 PM  

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