The Status Seekers - Packard Vance Oakley

An exploration of class behavior in America and the hidden barriers that affect you, your community, your future.

"IS AMERICA A CLASSLESS SOCIETY? NO! says best-selling author Vance Packard in this scorching investigation of the status and class structure of our society. The car you drive, the church you attend, where you went to school, the house you live in -- even your choice of words -- are brandings of your place in society. This is your status -- and you may be stuck with it, like it or not. The author minces no words in letting the reader know exactly who he is, how he measures up, where he is likely to go -- and where, because of society's harsh rules, he is NOT likely to go."

~ from back cover (1963 Cardinal Books paperback edition)

 

 

 

First published in 1959, The Status Seekers is a nonfiction work that looks at the various distinctions and divisions that crop up among social classes. As a starting point for his investigation, Packard poses the question, "Are we, as a society, classless?". Though this book will understandably read dated in some parts, there's still quite a bit here that will ring relevant in today's world!

 

Packard notes how people, in general, seem to constantly be measuring up their current position in society: assessing, judging, critiquing, approving, dismissing. People find themselves tempted to buy status symbols, hoping it will gain them the good favor of their peers, neighbors, co-workers, etc. We strive to have an abundance of leisure time because having a wealth of downtime, in a way, is a symbol of high status. Even when it comes to employment, people sometimes even take lower paying positions if it happens to be with a company that has more social respectability (ie. taking a sales job over factory work even if the factory pays better). Even children show signs of picking up on class distinctions.

 

But Packard asks, what do you do if those people you wish to impress don't approve of your "lower class" acquaintances? How far do you take your need to get in with the "in crowd"? Where is the limit, the cut-off where you put your foot down and refuse to change...do you have one, even? It gives the reader something to consider, for sure. 

 

Packard also looks at class distinctions when it comes to various ethnic groups. To gather data for this book, he based himself in New York City, studying people from various minority communities, coming to the conclusion that class division seems to get more complex when social barriers run up against ethnic barriers. While observing the different communities in NYC, he was stunned to find that while there are barriers between minorities and Caucasian communities, there also seems to be ethic ranking between minorities groups -- he describes witnessing, on numerous occassions, people from Irish, Italian, and African American communities all turning / looking down on people from the Puerto Rican neighborhoods. 

 

Within this text, Packard divides his research up into five units. Here's a general breakdown:

 

Pt. 1: Looks at how status, generally speaking, tends to be achieved and looks at the likely reasons people feel so driven to achieve high social status.

 

Pt. 2: Looks at the markers of status -- home, neighborhood, job, school, etc. Chapter 5 in this section is especially interesting, as it looks at "snob appeal" -- being part of an elite social club (paid membership or invite only) -- how far does that get you?; striving for that idyllic, Pleasantville kind of "home sweet home", the constant one-upping. He looks at the historical development of status symbols: once cars became more affordable, people seemed to make the home the major symbol of their good fortune in life. He also mentions the old trend of real estate agents writing up home listing partly in French to try to entice high bidders because French was considered "the language of snobs" LOL.

 

 

Part 2 also looks at the determining factors behind how much prestige a particular job might garner a person. One has to take into account how high up in the company the position gets you, the amount of authority and / or responsibility you have in that position, the type of clothes you wear for work, how much intelligence / experience is required to obtain that position, the dignity that comes with the title, financial rewards, even the very address of your office! 

 

Even if your line of work is farming, Packard points out that you can be judged on the amount of acreage you have, what kinds of crops you work with, etc. People can lump a farmer into "limited success bracket" range unless he's working with huge acreage. 

 

Packard even gets into the hierarchy that has historically existed within the field of prostitution! 

 

Lastly, he looks at barriers and adjustment periods that tend to develop for people coming from different social classes or races, especially the effect on interracial relationships. 

 

Pt. 3: Considers the "Strains of Status": what long-term price does one ultimately pay for aspiring to levels of presumed social success and respectability? Packard gets into the various mental illnesses that one might potentially develop from the strain of trying to measure up -- anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, ulcers, hypertension, allergies, other physical or psychosomatic problems. 

 

Pt. 4: "Trends" of Status Seeking --- Packard's guess on where it looks like (or what it looked like in the 1950s-1960s, that is) this compulsion to steadily socially elevate oneself might be headed, the patterns / evidence in history that give us clues. This was one area where even readers of today can look at his thoughts and see, even now, he was not too far off on some of his estimations!

 

Pt. 5: looks at implications for the future... what does this drive for status mean for the future prosperity of the human race as a whole? 

 

 

Though Packard does try to focus on facts and research for this book (as he should, of course), I also quite enjoyed when he would interject some of his own commentary on topics here and there. He offers asides here and there such as "class boundaries are contrary to the American Dream"; noting that discussion of class distinction, he found, generally make people uncomfortable but he did notice wives, as a whole, seemed to be more conscious of status than their husbands; at one point he even remarks, "Californians are the least status-conscious people in the nation." SAY WHAT?! Being a native Southern Californian myself, I laughed out loud reading this as that is anything but the truth these days! :-P Even if I didn't always agree with the guy, lines like these certain kept me turning pages to see what else he threw out there! 

 

For an economics based book, I found Status Seekers (surprisingly) highly entertaining! Packard gets into a lot of engrossing, thought-provoking subject matter, not to mention that this one is likely to be kind of a fun read (even if just to browse through) for history buffs. It's neat to have works like this where readers of today can get a sort of first-hand look back at what economics and society looked like a few generations back and compare it to how far (and maybe how not that far at all sometimes, lol) we've come today!