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 2: an upsetting era

"The transformation we're now seeing will make the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century look like a pink tea." -- LOUIS LEVINE, Chief Analyst in Employment Security, United States Department of Labor

I SUPPOSE I FIRST BECAME INTERESTED IN SOCIAL STRATIFICATION as a farm boy in northern Pennsylvania when my father pointed out to me that one of our cows, I believe her name was Gertrude, always came through the gate first at feeding time. We had about eighteen cows and all the others deferred to her. Later I observed that another, rather runty cow almost always came through the gate last. In fact, each cow seemed to know its appointed place in the lineup. When we bought a new cow who butted and bluffed her way to the top spot within an hour after entering the barnyard, our dethroned Gertrude developed neurotic symptoms and became our meanest kicker at milking time.

This, I've since learned, was not surprising. Psychologists investigating sub-human behavior have frequently encountered variations of butt orders or pecking orders (i.e., chickens).

A few years ago, while I was chattmg with the man who teaches the world-famous performing chimpanzees at the St. Louis Zoo, I inquired how he managed to keep eight rambunctious chimps under control during the arduous training and during the intricate performances. He said, "First, I stand back and watch a new group for a while to see who is going to be boss. Once that is settled I have little difficulty. The boss chimp, when I get him on my side, keeps the rest of them in line. They are more scared of him than they are of me."

To come down -- or up -- to the human level, every society of any complexity examined by social scientists has revealed a pattern of stratification. There has always been a group that ran things at the top and, at the bottom of the scale, a group assigned to do the dirty work. Aristotle was one of the earliest to observe this tendency. A vivid example of the way people tend to accept a rank or order is seen in the study William Foote Whyte made of the young men in the New England Italian slum who spent almost all their non-working hours, even if married, loitering at their favorite street corner. Whyte observed:(1) "Each member of the corner gang has his own position in the gang structure.... The leadership is changed not through an uprising of the bottom men, but by a shift in the relations between men at the top of the structure."

These men, under the leader of the gang, were voluntarily accepting a type of human pecking order. In some human societies, assignment of rank order is pretty much settled at birth. The populace of pre- Revolutionary France was divided by regulation into specific estates or degrees. India even today has its thousands of castes. Individual progress is pretty much confined to what is permissible within caste lines, though caste lines have recently been crumbling under the impact of urbanization and industrialization.

Despite the fact that some very ambitious efforts have been made to set up truly classless societies, such societies have never been achieved on any large sustained basis. The most publicized attempt, of course, is that of the Soviet Union. The goal of the class struggle as conceived by Karl Marx was the elimination of the bourgeois class and -- after a brief, benign dictatorship of the proletariat -- the emergence of a truly classless society. Four decades have passed since the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union, despite its professions of achieving a society of true equality, is becoming more precisely stratified each year. The need of the expanding industrial machine for a hierarchy of managers and specialists as well as workers of varying skills provided, and in fact perhaps demanded, a social structure to match.

Aiex Inkeles, who spent several years studying the new Soviet society for the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, concluded that Russia, under the Communists, had evolved a ten-class social system.(2) The classes ranged from the ruling elite (officials, scientists, top artists and writers) down through managers, bureaucrats, and three classes of workers and two classes of peasants to the slave laborers. To formalize its classes -- and emphasize lines of authority -- Russia has been requiring more and more millions of its civilian citizens to wear uniforms so designed as to indicate their exact status in the system. In 1958, a group of Russian managers and technicians billed by the Soviets as "ordinary" Russians visited America. Inquiry revealed that their average income was about five times that of the typical Soviet worker.

A more sincere and genuinely persistent recent effort to establish a classless society is that attempted by the farm collectives in Israel. They were begun nearly a half-century ago and number in the hundreds. Today, the original ideals -- complete democracy and complete equality in the sharing of material goods -- are still carried out. But social strata have emerged. Originally, "productive" workers (manual workers and farmers) were the ones glorified because their talents were greatly needed to settle the arid land and few of the immigrant Jews had any experience at that sort of work. They were mostly intellectuals and white-collar people. "Brain" or "clean" work was scorned as non- productive. In the early days, they elected managers more or less on a rotation basis. Over the years, however, it developed that highly regarded, capable men were elected as managers again and again. They tended to return less and less to "productive work," and the higher prestige began shifting from "productive" to "brain" work. Further, an aristocracy of old-timers emerged, and has become the main source for managerial talent.

The experience of early American efforts to create communistic societies was much the same, with an elite consisting of the most talented or capable ultimately emerging.

America as a whole, since the Revolutionary War, has struggled to preserve ideals of equality in the face of persistent tendencies for elites to develop and consolidate their power, prestige, and wealth. Long after the Revolution, a few families continued to dominate the affairs of many New England towns. Some observers have suggested America came closest to a genuine system of equality of opportunity (as contrasted to the more utopian equality of status) around 1870. The industrial era was just getting started and vast areas of frontier were being opened for settlement and development.

Liston Pope, Dean of the Yale Divinity School and a student of stratification, found that by 1940 the process of social stratification in the United States had been "proceeding rapidly for several decades." The Lynds discovered in their revisit to "Middletown," well known to be Muncie, Indiana, during the thirties, a decade after their first study there, that the class lines had hardened during the interval. Another of the pioneer groups to investigate the social life of an American community, led by W. Lloyd Warner in "Yankee City" (Newburyport, Massachusetts) during the thirties, found there not only an elaborate social structure but a general awareness of its details.

Still, lest we forget it, America by the beginning of the present era (around 1940) had opportunities for upward mobility and social contact that are much less present today. For example:

--Most Americans still lived in communities representing all walks of life.

--Many men of little education still had reasonable grounds for hoping they could rise to the heights.

--Most companies were still small enough so that most employees knew top officials of the companies at least on a nodding basis, and often on a first-name basis.

--There were many lodges and social clubs where men from many social and income levels could and did meet.

--People in most neighborhoods still knew one another well enough personally so that people could be judged for their personal worth rather than by the trappings of status they exhibited.

Beginning with World War II, and still continuing today, an upheaval in the American way of life occurred that has profoundly affected the class structure of America, and caused many to conclude (I say over- optimistically) that we are on the verge of a truly classless society.

Some observers in the field of social science have even asserted that our system of values has changed more in this period since 1940 than in the entire remainder of the history of the United States. Louis Levine, Chief Analyst in Employment Security for the United States Department of Labor, informed me that more money is being spent for industrial research now in a single year than was spent in the first 150 years of the nation's history. We are feeling the impact of the unleashing of not one but two mighty forces, electronics and atomics.

For just a moment, let us look at ten changes in our national economy that have affected the class structure (and status striving) in the United States. Taken together they represent a transformation in a nation's way of life.

1. Perhaps most obvious is the truly spectacular increase in individual wealth since 1940, and particularly during the past decade. Even allowing for inflation, our individual buying power has increased by more than half. Some groups have prospered much more than others (as I will show later), but most families have seen paychecks doubling or tripling. As they say along the New England coast, "The rising tide lifts all the boats." The number of families earning more than $4,000 a year after taxes more than doubled from 1950 to 1956. Americans consequently have been living higher off the hog than ever before in their lives. A mass merchandiser of packaged foods is now offering such items as crepes suzette and hearts of palm. And in 1957 more than 50,000 Americans installed swimming pools in their back yards. The greatest rises in income, on a percentage basis, have been among those who had below-average incomes. A higher standard of living for working-class people, however, doesn't necessarily change their class status. The rich, meanwhile, have not been suffering. In one recent year, the number of Americans with annual incomes of more than $100,000 increased by a fifth.

2. This brings us to the second big economic change affecting class: the graduated federal income tax. Some have described it as the great leveler. The federal-government income taxes began rising in the thirties to fight the Depression, and soared even more steeply in the forties to finance World War II. They still remain near the wartime levels. As a result, it has become virtually impossible for a man to become a multimillionaire by salary alone. He needs to have capital gains; only one quarter of which he loses in taxes, or be an oilman and get a "depletion allowance." Still, in 1958, I was able to find, without too much difficulty, several dozen Americans who have established fortunes of at least $10,000,000 in the twenty years since income taxes have become so high.(4)

Despite the laments about high taxes, the number of American families with a net worth of a half-million dollars has doubled since 1945. Most of the very rich manage, one way or another, to hold onto the bulk of their new incomes each year. Meanwhile, corporate lawyers have applied their ingenuity to find non-taxable benefits for key executives. These range from deferred payments in the form of high incomes for declining years and free medical checkups at mountain spas, to hidden hunting lodges, corporate yachts, payment of country- club dues (according to one survey, three quarters of all companies sampled did this), and lush expense accounts. One sales manager declined a $10,000 raise and took instead a $10,000 expense account which, it was specified, he didn't have to account for.

Travel for tax-deductible business reasons became popular. In the summer of 1957, several thousand United States lawyers and their wives attended the American Bar Association convention in New York and then boarded boats to complete their conferring in England with brothers-in- law across the sea. One item of business they accomplished in England was to appoint a committee on protocol to decide what their wives should wear to the Queen's garden party. Some time ago, a plane owned by a United States corporation and loaded with the company's top executives, as well as two pilots and a mechanic, turned up at a landing strip in the wildest reaches of northern Saskatchewan. The group dallied for several days fishing for graylings at nearby lakes. Some of the executives had read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about the delights of grayling fishing in this area. The official imperative business reason why all these executives, simultaneously, were in Canada was to inspect a mining camp the company happened to own several hundred miles away.

3. The lessening contrast im the material way of life of rich and poor. The ostentatious turn-of-the-century behavior of millionaires who staged $100,000 parties and smoked cigars wrapped im $100 bills is being soft-pedaled. One probable reason is that the Depression threw a scare into the really rich, and they have learned to be discreet, almost reticent, in exhibiting their wealth. They have learned that in modern America you can exert power only by denying you have it. Another reason for the lessening contrast is the mass selling of standardized goods and services once available only to the better-off. Most American women, regardless of class, for example, now wear nylons, have permanent waves, buy frozen steaks, and wear clothes that are copies (or copies of copies) of Paris designs.

The increasing difficulty in obtaining servants, because of the availability of higher-prestige jobs, has also diminished the contrast. In fact, the word "servant" is disappearing from the language. A disgruntled reader of the Wall Street Journal complained that in order to keep a cook he had to call her a housekeeper, and address her as "Mrs." Even cleaning women are hard to hold. A sociologist in Pennsylvania told me that his cleanmg woman not only drives a better car than he does, but has remarked on the fact. She says she just doesn't care for cars more than two or three years old. "She expects my wife to prepare her lunch," he added.

4. The massive shift in vocational skills needed by our economy. We have been seeing demand for skills changing with lightning rapidity. Some occupations are becommg largely or entirely outmoded, and hundreds of new occupations are emerging. The man at the United States Labor Department in charge of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles advised me he had to add 375 brand-new occupations in 1956. (Examples: video recording engineer, automation "programmer," radiation detector, and "port steward" for overseas airliners.) Other observers at the Department offered these examples of occupations then expanding or becoming overcrowded enough to cite to young people planning careers. For example:

Expanding				Crowded or declining

airplane mechanics			bakers
electronic craftsmen			shoemakers
draftsmen				type compositors
technical writers			railroad mechanics
physicists				telegraphers
medical teehnicians			actors
computing-machine operators		navigators
typists, stenographers, secretaries  	rural mail carriers
plumbers 				general clerks
college professors 			entertainers 

Looking at the changes in demand in terms of the larger trends, the following two seem most significant in their effect on class structure. One is the really spectacular rise in industries that furnish services (in contrast with those such as mining, manufacturing, and farming that produce goods). As our mechanized farms, mines, and factories have become able to produce ever- increasing amounts of goods with fewer people, the service-field industries (the selling and servicing of goods, and providing insurance, banking, amusement, education, medicine, travel) have been taking up much of the slack. The other long-range trend of note, and it is really a by product of the first, is the recent great gain of white-collared workers over blue-collared ones. The service fields are primarily staffed by white-collared people. In 1940, only a third of our employed people were in white-collared occupations. Today nearly half are.

Some observers have enthusiastically seen this growth of white- collars as evidence of a great upthrust of "working"-class people into the "middle" class. There has unquestionably been some social upgrading, but two cautions should be noted. First, a large percentage of the people recruited into whitecollared ranks are women who previously didn't work. Second, many of the new white-collar jobs are essentially manual or require little skill, and so represent no real advance in prestige. One happy consequence to the economy of these trends to white-collar, service jobs, however, is that more people now work on a salaried basis rather than an hourly-wage basis and so are less likely to be discharged quickly in case of an economic downturn. This represents a gain for stability.

5. The great increase in moving about of the population. Some people still live in the houses they lived im twenty years ago, but they are rarities. The average American picks up roots about every five years. I know of one corporate executive who moved his family sixteen times in the course of moving up through the ranks of two companies to his present job. Of the 1,280 families who moved into one Long Island development a decade ago, 805 have moved elsewhere. The result of this geographical mobility is that social status is established less and less by family background, which may be unknown to the judges, and more and more by such currently visible factors as job, consumption standards, behavior, school club membership, and so on. Furthermore, as we shall see in Chapter 21, all this moving about produces an upsurge in status striving.

6. The great growth in leisure time that has accompanied increased productivity. In the days of Thorstein Veblen, a display of oneself enjoying leisure was one of the better ways to prove one's superior class rating. Then the average man had to work fifty to sixty hours a week. Today the average man works about thirty-eight hours a week, and it is the harassed business executive who is likely to put in the fifty-sixty hours. As a result, leisure has lost most of its potency as a status symbol.

7. The trend toward large, bureaucratic organizations. Everywhere -- in both government and private industry -- the trend is to bigness. Every spring sees a new burst of corporate mergers. The number of civil servants in the federal government has multiplied ten times in five decades. In industry today, 2 percent of the companies employ a majority of all workers. As Peter M. Blau of the University of Chicago put it after making his study of bureaucratic trends: "A large and increasing proportion of the American people spend their working lives as small cogs in the complex mechanisms of bureaucratic organizations."(6) The hierarchies of these growing bureaucracies carry over into the prestige markup of social status. Furthermore, the men handling job placement for these large organizations feel more secure if they place men on the basis of objective criteria since they are usually dealing with strangers. Thus they are obsessed by the idea that anyone considered as potential executive timber should be a college man or woman.

8. The shrinkage in the number of small entrepreneurs and self- employed people. Such independent entrepreneurs originally constituted a true middle class in the United States. They found economic security by commanding their own destinies, however small. In Jefferson's day, nearly four fifths of all Americans were self-employed enterprisers. By 1940 only about one fifth remained.(6) And today the number has shrunk to approximately 13 per cent. The other 87 per cent -- or the overwhelming majority of our working populace -- are now employed by others. We have become an employee society.

This lack of entrepreneurial experience is most vivid in the ranks of our industrial executives. More than three fifths are the sons of men who, at one time, ran their own businesses. Yet, according to one survey,(7) only one executive in six today has ever had such experience.

9. The trend to breaking jobs down into narrow and if posslble, simple specialties. The growth of bureaucratic thinking -- with its passion for job definition -- is partly responsible for this. More responsible, however, is the emergence of effficiency engineers who know that money can be saved for a company by reducing a job to a simple repetitive level so that any alert twelve-year-old with a capacity for withstanding boredom could handle it. This practice, while saving money for management, reduces the social prestige attached to the job and reduces the employee's job satisfaction and self-esteem.

10. The mass production of homes, with the attendant growth of homogeneous suburban communities. In earlier days, an American community was usually a scale model of all society, with a fair share of butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, creamery owners, manufacturers, laborers. Such towns are relentlessly being replaced by one-layer towns, which encourage birds-of-a-feather flocking. Many of the new suburban towns, built around shopping centers born full grown, not only attract buyers of specific income level (almost everyone's in- come will fall, say, between $5,000 and $6,250) but also people of specific ethnic backgrounds. Further, they are rather narrowly age- graded. A town built by a home marketer specializing in houses ranging in price from $27,500 to $32,500, for example, will attract families of middle-management men and other successful couples capable of paying that price. Typically, only couples over forty years of age qualify. In such developments you will see few smal1 children -- and few grandmothers.


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