We pay a heavy price for that wispy thing called status.
For example, many people go to law school despite the oversupply, which results in many having to work as powerless paralegals, making too little to even pay back their massive law school loans. Or if they’re “lucky” enough to land a lawyer job, too often it’s soulless, even unethical work. And corporate law work hours can be so onerous that some barristers even have a futon in their offices. Why, despite all that, is a career in law so popular? A major reason is status. It feels good to think and tell others you’re a lawyer.
Many people pursue a career that isn’t prestigious but gives them the money to buy prestigious things. For example, they can buy 3,000 square feet at a luxury address ($1,000,000+) versus 1,500 square feet at a serviceable one (~$300,000 in most coastal suburbs). Or they can forgo Target brands in favor of designer labels costing ten times as much for the privilege of being a walking billboard for a corporation that feeds on “aspirationals.” Coach purses come to mind. And they can buy a new Mercedes every five years instead of a used Toyota every ten.
The latter strikes me as a particularly clear example of choosing status over benefit. Not only does the average Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Lincoln, or Cadillac cost as much as three Toyotas, those cars spend far more time in the shop. There’s nothing prestigious about standing on the side of the road next to your Beemer waiting for the tow truck to come.
Some people pursue prestigious materialism not just for themselves but to keep up with the Joneses because they believe they’ll accrue greater respect. But when you see someone wearing a Rolex rather than a Casio or driving a BMW rather than a Honda, do you respect them more?
Perhaps it’s because I’m a career counselor, but I feel particularly sad when I hear of a person who chose a career he or she didn’t really like because it was prestigious and/or paid more than a middle-income salary: bond trader, widget marketer, and advertising sales rep come to mind. We spend the best hours of our week, the best years of our lives, at work. Doesn’t it feel wrong to forgo a career we’d enjoy far more—perhaps being a teacher, counselor, nurse, writer, or small business owner—merely so we can live on the hedonic treadmill, trying to buy shop our way to contentment? Alas, shopper’s high lasts only so long and then, like a drug addict, he or she requires an ever bigger spending dose yet still ends up feeling unfulfilled.
Chasing status extends to another of life’s key decisions: whom should be your long-term romantic partner. It’s tempting to go for the doctor, lawyer, or executive but if you peel away the status and the money, mightn’t you increase your chances of finding contentment by broadening the pool of prospects to include, for example, nonprofit employees, blue-collar workers, government managers, nurses, creatives, social workers, librarians, and yes, counselors?
The valuing of status is so embedded in our culture that many people pursue it without adequately considering whether its price is too high. The message of this essay is: Perhaps we all might be wise to more consciously weigh the cost-benefit of pursuing status. It can be the enemy of contentment.
Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to his articles here on PsychologyToday.com, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on www.martynemko.com. Of Nemko's seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. His bio is on Wikipedia.