Vance Packard
The Status Seekers

(first published, April 1959)

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


CHAPTER 1: a classless society?

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 status -- and strivings for evidences of superior status -- ease up notably? And do opportunities for leadership roles become more available to al1 who have natural talent?

The recent experience of the people of the United States is instructive. In the early 1940's 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 services -- including television, miracle fibers, and vichyssoise -- were 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 life -- as defined by mass merchandisers -- the 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 who -- except for a few genteel poor -- by the way people dressed, ate, traveled, and -- if they were lucky -- by 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 market-research 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 world's most self- proclaimed 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.

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.

This prevailing lack of perception of the developing situation might in itself justify a book that attempted to set things straight. I did not, however, undertake this exploration of the present-day American class system -- and its status seekers -- merely for the delight of poking into an aspect of life we like to pretend does not exist. My purpose was not to hoot at our self-deception -- which is too easy to document to be challenging -- but rather to try to offer a fresh perspective on our society and on certain disquieting changes which, it seems to me, are taking place within it.

The approach of class analysis -- looking at Americans through their class behavior, their status striving, their barriers -- offers the possibility of seeing our unique and fastchanging society in a new light. Even our institutions, such as schools, clubs, churches, political parties, and, yes, matrimony, take on new meaning.

We shall see that the people of the United States have, and are refining, a national class structure with a fascinating variety of status systems within it. These status systems affect a number of intimate areas of our daily lives and have some surprising and preposterous ramifications. At points it will be noted how our class structure now differs from that of other countries. And finally we shall examine several growing areas of cleavage in the American class structure that seem to demand recognition. In particular, I think we should be disturbed by the stratifying tendencies appearing in the places where millions of us work, live, relax, vote, and worship.

Since class boundaries are contrary to the American Dream, Americans generally are uncomfortable when the subject of their existence arises. Sociologist August B. Hollingshead of Yale University found that psychiartists -- supposedly uninhibited, open- minded individuals -- "tend to react with embarrassment when the question of social class is raised." One responded to a direct question about the social classes in his town of New Haven, Connecticut, by saying, "I don't like to think too much about this."(1)

Until recent years, even sociologists had shrunk away from a candid exploration of social class in America. Social classes, they realized, were not supposed to exist. Furthermore, Karl Marx had made class a dirty word. As a result the social scientists, until a few years ago, knew more about the social classes of New Guinea than they did of those in the United States of America.

Webster defines status as the "position; rank; standing" of a person. (The word can be pronounced either "stay-tus" or "stat-us.") Although present-day 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 neighborhood -- and 33,000,000 Americans now do this every year -- we 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 to -- by 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 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. Those who need to worry least about how they are going to come out in the ratings are those who, in the words of Louis Kronenberger, are "Protestant, well-fixed, college-bred."(2)

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 adults -- particularly businessmen -- to 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 upperclass 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 society -- in contrast to his consuming role -- class 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 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 built-in 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. As an executive of a $250,000,000 corporation explained it to me, this bigness is made necessary in our technological age by the high cost of launching new products (research, development, advertising). He said, 'You have to be big today, or else be able to run awfully fast." He complained that even his $250,000,000 company was not big enough.

In the hierarchy of the big corporation, stratification is being carried to exquisite extremes. Employees are usually expected to comfort thernselves 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. (With all this growth of bigness and rank, the best opportunities for the enterprising non-college man today are found not with the large producing company but rather on Main Street, where it is still often possible to start small and grow, or with a small or pioneering producing firm.)

Employees in big offices, as well as big plants, are finding their work roles fragmentized and impersonalized. There has been, perhaps unwittmgly, 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.

Although we still tend to think of equality as being peculiarly American, and of class barriers as being peculiarly foreign, the evidence indicates that several European nations (such as Holland, England, and Denmark) have gone further than America in developing an open-class system, where the poor but talented young can rise on their merits. And they have done this while preserving some of the outer forms of class, such as titled families.

In brief, the American Dream is losing some of its luster for a good many citizens who would like to beheve 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 I've encountered in the nation. This might be explained by the fact that -- with their violently expanding economy and their multitude of relatively small new enterprises -- they are close to the free-and-easy frontier spirit. In the San Joaquin Valley, some of the most widely and highly esteemed families are of Armenian or Korean background. They have prospered, and their forebears were Early Settlers.

Perhaps I should say a few words about how I came by the material and concepts supporting the views I wil1 develop. First, I have drawn upon eight investigations I have made in the past three years into specific situations bearing on class. These were informal studies, but quite intensive. I have, in addition, discussed aspects of class with knowledgeable local people in eighteen United States states and five European countries; and I have conferred with several dozen sociologists and market-research specialists who have interested themselves in aspects of class behavior.

Most important, in terms of the impact of this book, I have brought together the findings of more than 150 United States sociologists and other students of the social scene who have been investigating phases of our social stratification, and I have tried to assess their findings.

Since the World War II era began, United States scholars particularly sociologists, have by the scores been appraising our class behavior. Some have focused their gaze on specific communities. Examples: Statesboro, Georgia; Decatur, Illinois; San Jose, California; Wasco, California; Indianapolis, Indiana; Morris, Illinois; Oakland, California; Danielson, Connecticut; Burlington, Vermont; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Park Forest, Illinois; New Haven, Connecticut; Lansing, Michigan; Franklin, Indiana; Kansas City, Missouri; Sandusky, Ohio. And then there are, of course, the earlier classic studies of Newburyport, Massachusetts, by the W. Lloyd Warner group and the study of Muncie, Indiana, by the Lynds.

Other sociologists have focused their fascinated attention upon specific groups. Ely Chinoy worked in an automobile plant; August B. Hollingshead lived among 735 adolescents for eighteen months, and later studied psychiatric patients from various social classes; William Foote Whyte lived for three and a half years among street- corner gangs of a New England city slum. Still other sociologists have studied differences in behavior by classes in jury deliberations, in patronage of taverns and cocktail lounges, in verbal accounts offered of an Arkansas tornado. Some of the sociologists have attempted nationwide studies, and have taken national samples of class attitudes.

Business groups, I should add, have shown a lively interest in sponsoring studies of class behavior. They have sought to know their customers better. Home developers have been studying the stratification patterns -- and status-striving motives -- of home buyers. Madison Avenue has been busily trying to understand our tastes and buying behavior by social class. To understand the Chicago market better, the Chicago Tribune's Research Division has spent approximately $100,000 on a comparative study of three homogeneous communities in the Chicago area representing three different class levels. The director, Pierre Martineau, long an enthusiast of the sociological approach to marketing, has concluded from his many years of studying our class behavior that "the vast majority of people live and die within the boundaries and tastes of their own class."

Finally, Social Research Inc., of Chicago has done a number of revealing studies of our class hehavior. In a recent one for Macfadden Publications, it analyzed the contrast in emotional make-up of women in the working classes and women in the white-collar classes. The study indicated that, though these women might live in the same neighborhood, there was an "invisible wall" between them in the way they think, live, and even make love. Social Research concluded that social distinctions today are "none the less sharp because they are subtle."

Taken together, all of these studies -- requiring several hundred thousand man-hours of research -- represent a lode of fascinating and valuable information about how Americans really behave. These investigators often disagree among themselves on the precise nature of the American class struchure,and I assume many will disagree with some details of the conception of it that I have arrived at. However, they are virtually unanimous in agreeing that mid-century America very definitely does have a system of social stratification.

My debt to all these investigators is very large. In terms of insights, I owe the greatest debt, perhaps, to E. Digby Baltzell, Bernard Barber, Richard Centers, Milton M. Gordon, Arnold W. Green, August B. Hollingshead, Herbert H. Hyman, Joseph A. Kahl, Russell Lynes, Raymond W. Mack, Bevode C. McCall, Kerre Martineau, C. Wright Mills, Liston Pope, and W. Lloyd Warner.

The chapters that follow will in large part take the form of a roving over the social landscape of America. This exploration may give some readers a better insight into their own behavior and that of their neighbors. Also, it may give them a better understanding of people in their locality who seem uncomfortably different from themselves. For those readers who must, in the performance of their duties (as educators, business managers, public officials, etc.), deal regularly with people of different class levels, this exploration may shed, also, some useful insights on coping with their problems realistically and sympathetically. Finally, I hope that for all readers the exploration will make more apparent some noteworthy points about the current drift of our society.


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