Meritocracy is not a common word we hear every day, but it’s something we see all around us. In this episode, Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen dissect how meritocracy in the upper-middle class manifests itself through parents’ and children’s mental and psychological well-being. The jarring wealth inequality only pushes those in this status in this toxic cycle of driving this wealth inequality further while trying to maintain their status. Jason and Whitney dive deep into the impact this has on children and, essentially, on one’s quality of life. Tune in for a thought-provoking discussion on how society has driven us to sacrifice ourselves for the unattainable.
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Are You Sacrificing Who You Are To Get Ahead?
I come across a lot of interesting articles on social media because the algorithm does a good job at doing what it’s supposed to do, which is delivering more of what I’m clicking on. I have clicked on a fair share of articles about the state of society, classism and finances. It’s a subject matter that is relevant to our show. In previous episodes, we’ve talked a lot about classism, privilege, wealth inequality, and a lot of the things that do affect our mental health on an individual and collective level.
One thing popped out at me and what jumped out at me was not the headline of the article per se, but the subhead where I went, “I need to click on this.” Before we dive into this article and its many fascinating ramifications, I’d never heard the phrase “optimizing children” before. I thought, “What in the hell is that, optimizing children?” It was enough to make me click because it gave me the heebie-jeebies when I read that line. What does that mean optimizing your children?
I’ve found out that this article is from Vox. We have referenced Vox in the past. I like them as a media outlet. They have some fascinating topics. This one is The problem with America’s semi-rich: America’s upper-middle-class works more, optimizes their kids and is miserable. That was enough to suck me in. I thought, “Tell me more. What can you tell me about the upper middle-class and what they’re doing to their children?” It’s probably no surprise to most people that we have a pretty glaring and stultifying wealth inequality in America.
The article reiterates some of the statistics. It starts out by saying that a lot of the vitriol around economic and class disparity is aimed at the 0.1%. They hoard a disproportionate amount of wealth and are taking on an increasingly and unacceptably large part of the country’s economic growth and the benefit of the boom. I didn’t know it was this bad, but the 0.1% in the US holds a similar amount of wealth as the bottom 90% of the country. I didn’t know it was that high. First of all, that’s like a holy shit moment.
It says here that there’s a space that resides between the 0.1% and the 90% in America that’s often overlooked, the 9.9% that resides between them. There’s a new book by a guy named Matthew Stewart about this 9.9%. The interesting thing about this 9.9% is there are some defining characteristics of the current upper middle-class. Apparently, they are hyper-focused on getting their kids into great schools, and themselves into great jobs at which they’re willing to work super long, exhausting hours.
They want to live in great neighbourhoods, even if that means keeping other people out and will pay what it takes to ensure their family’s health and fitness. They believe in meritocracy. I’d never heard this phrase before ever, meritocracy. Apparently, the definition is they believe that they’ve gained their positions in life and in society by talent and hard work. They’ve earned what they’ve earned through merit.
I didn’t know that that was even a term, but that’s what meritocracy is. They believe in markets. They’re technically financially rich but they don’t feel like it. They’re always looking at someone else who’s richer. The 9.9% is also terrified, while this 9.9% of the American population drives inequality. They want to lock in their positions in society for themselves and their families. They’re also driven by inequality.
They recognize that American society is increasingly one of the have-nots, and they are determined to not be one of them. This is super interesting. It goes into this interview in this article with Matthew Stewart who is the author of this new book. I want to talk about meritocracy because it’s a brand-new concept to me. It says the culture of the 9.9% and how they separate themselves from other people.
He says that the guiding ideology is meritocracy. The driving idea is that people get to where they are in society through a combination of talent, hard work and study. The main measures of that are educational attainments and material wellbeing. Anything that we provide to society or other people is on top of the side of that and is a reflection of our own personal virtue, and not in any way necessary for social functioning or part of a good life. It’s always essentially a sacrifice.
The crux of this is these people have a lot of wealth. They’re not in the billionaire class or in the hundreds of millions. They have a lot of wealth but they feel like it’s never enough. The only way they can get ahead is by doing more, getting more education, putting their kids in the right schools, having the right job titles.You have significant increases in anxiety related disorders and other forms of an unhappiness, even among people who are fairly well-off. It's a trade-off that all or most of them are willing to make. Click To Tweet
It gets into the psychosis of this upper-middle class, and how they feel that there is a constant pressure to not only maintain their status, but get higher up in status. It’s sad. He talks about fear being the crux of this, the pressure to make their kids, jobs and their lives the best. He says, “The driving motivation is fear, but that fear is well-grounded.” People intuit that in this meritocracy game, the odds are getting increasingly long of succeeding.
They work extra hard to stack the odds in their and their children’s favor, but they know as the odds get longer, they may not succeed. That’s coupled with another one of the traits of this class, which is a lack of imagination. The source of this fear is also the inability to imagine a life that doesn’t involve getting these high-status credentials and having a high-status occupation.
The life plan looks good and it certainly looked good in the past when the odds are more sensible, but it’s not a great deal. It’s something that isn’t just harmful to the people who don’t make it. It’s also harmful to the people who get involved and do make it in some sense. If you feel like you’re winning at the game, you’re destroying yourself in the process, and sacrificing who you are to get ahead. It’s interesting. It makes me wonder why.
I do want to get this book and read it because he doesn’t cover the psychological motivations of what is driving these people to do what they do. I think about this sometimes. You get the car that you want. You get the fancy house. You’re making a few million dollars a year, yet you still don’t feel enoughhere’s always room for more accomplishments, more money and more status.
Where I go with this is like, “So what?” What are people trying to achieve? Is it brutal narcissism? Is it that they feel like once they achieve a certain level of wealth and status, they’ll somehow feel safer or more protected?” I’m curious about what is the deeper emotional and psychological underpinnings of this kind of behavior.
How does this hit you? I know I sent you this article. We’re both digging into it in real-time. I’m curious if you have observed people like this growing up, if you have people in your family like this if you know people personally that are friends that are caught in this upper-middle-class hamster wheel of never enough. How does that hit you?
It hits very close to home because I’m probably around that range and most of my friends are. Do you not feel like you’re in the upper-middle class, Jason? I don’t know what that financially means. Does it get into the details of approximately how much money you have to have? I’m not saying directly with the income that I make, but with the lifestyle that I live and the lifestyle I had growing up. It felt that way but it’s not like I was looking at dollar amounts.
I found an article on Money.USNews.com. It says, “Where do I fall in the American economic class system?” According to this article that came out in December of 2020, the upper-middle class range is $106,000 to $373,000. I don’t know if this is gross or net income, it doesn’t specify. I’m definitely not an upper-middle-class.
You have been. You have made that much money in a year. Your lifestyle now is not that different from your lifestyle then, in a lot of ways. You’re still living as upper-middle-class, even if your average financial threshold doesn’t meet that. That’s what I mean because I’m not fully up there myself, but I certainly have experienced a lot of that. Most of my friends fall into that category. I don’t talk to my parents about money in that sense. It’s not clear to me. I grew up with the privilege of not having to think about money in that way.
As an adult, I’m able to look back and see how privileged I was. I grew up in an upper-middle class town. Without knowing exactly how much people are making, I’m associating that with the nice house, yards, nice cars, and the ability to pay for things without being concerned about it, the clothes and on and on. That’s how I grew up. Most of the people were like that in my school and my town. When you’re growing up in it, you don’t think that much about it because you think that everyone is similar to you in that sense.
It probably wasn’t until I got to college, and my college was not a cheap college. It wasn’t a state college. It was an art school. It was expensive to go there. Unless you were getting a scholarship and had some financial support from the school, you probably came from a family with a good amount of money or you put yourself in crazy debt. I remember when I got to college, that was my first major experience of being around people that didn’t grow up like me. That’s the truth for a lot of us.
Even before then, my first major experience being around people outside of my town that were around my age was when I did the summer program in New York City. I did a one-month film program at NYU, and that was certainly full of privileged kids. A lot of them were much more privileged than me because it costs money to go to this. They were all the kids that were going to NYU, and they were the kids that went to my film school. That was the world that I was in for so long.
When you grow up around all these people that are like you, you don’t have a lot of perspectives. It’s interesting. I bring this all up to say how that has had a ripple effect on my life. Even though I haven’t met that financial threshold of what it means to be upper-middle-class, my lifestyle has sustained that. That’s part of what’s interesting to me about money too. Having a Tesla, for example, is a huge percentage of my expenses every month.
The thing that makes it interesting about money is that it’s so hard to know exactly what somebody’s financial situation is based on how they’re living. I continue to live upper-middle-class even if my income doesn’t fully reflect that because that’s been my whole life. That gives me a lot of perspective on some of the things that were explained in this especially this line, “They’re rich but they don’t feel like it. They’re always looking at someone else who’s richer.”
That is certainly my experience growing up. My sister and I did not feel like we had a lot of money. With the maturity and perspective that I have now, I can see we had a lot of money relatively, but I was in that mindset of, “My parents won’t let us have everything we want.” You’re always thinking about what you don’t have. That’s very common for children. Maybe that’s where it starts to some extent if you grow up in that environment.
The other thing that’s interesting and correlated is that line about American society is increasingly one of the have-nots, and they’re determined not to be one of them. I wonder sometimes, do some of my financial decisions reflect my deep-seated desire not to be one of them? It’s not coming from any conscious bias or fear. It’s not about making myself better than others as far as I’m aware. It’s just that I have been conditioned my whole life to think this way. It’s always striving. It isn’t until recently that I’ve tried to detach myself. A lot of what this is touching upon and other people are talking so much about it as part of the cultural ethos, mindset or trend of it’s never good enough. That have-not feeling extends into all different people despite what their class is.
The other thing I found interesting about this article is that the psychological damage to the upper-middle class is trivial compared to the substances damages that other people face. It is nonetheless pretty real. The person interviewed in this article points to the sociological and psychological evidence that you have significant increases in anxiety-related disorders and other forms of unhappiness even among people who are fairly well-off. It’s a trade-off that all or most of them are willing to make. That’s another thing I observe a ton.
Fortunately, I feel like I’ve got that fairly under control even though I do struggle with anxiety. I don’t feel unhappy. Honestly, my experience of anxiety often feels like it’s just an imbalance. It doesn’t feel like, “I don’t have this or that.” I’ve taught myself how to feel grateful and aware of my privileges. However, I witnessed this in other people and friends of mine, family members who are caught up in that cycle of unhappiness, and always trying to get more because they’re afraid of being a have-not. They feel like they constantly have to hustle.
In fact, somebody who I was speaking to, I’m witnessing them being consumed by the anxiety. This person worked a twelve-hour day and called them up to catch up. They said, “I can’t talk to you right now. I’m so overwhelmed. I have so much anxiety. I’m feeling depressed. I want to be by myself.” This is an ongoing expression from the specific person. It’s so hard to witness this because this person has everything that they could need. They never feel good enough. They’re always striving for more and more.
It’s a trade-off that all or most of them are willing to make. They know that they have anxiety. They know that they feel unhappy but they will continue putting themselves over and over again in these situations. That to me is an epidemic of its own. They know on a cognitive logical level that their lifestyle is great. They have everything that they need. Especially if they fall into this 9.9%, they are literally better off the majority of the people in this country, and yet they continue to feel these unpleasant emotions.These mental health issues are, in many ways, just as dangerous as a lot of other issues that people who are less well-off are facing. Click To Tweet
As we know, these mental health issues are in many ways just as dangerous as a lot of other issues that people that are less well-off are facing. I like the way that the author puts it. It’s a man that’s being interviewed here. They’re not suggesting it’s equally harmful. I do want to clarify that. It’s not necessarily equal but it’s still substantive. It’s substantial because it’s causing people so much distress, and they’re living life completely miserable.
Some people will view that as they’ve got everything but they’re unhappy. We’ve talked about this a ton. It’s like that famous Jim Carrey quote, “Just because you have everything doesn’t mean that you will be happy.” Some people that don’t have that much wealth and are not in that position of class and privilege may feel not justified but like, “At least I’m happy.” I feel like it makes other people feel better about themselves. They know that just because you have it all doesn’t mean that you truly have it all. What does it even mean to have it all? That’s the other big question that we keep coming back to.
To me, the other big thing when you’re talking about this is I keep thinking, “I want to be happy. I want to help other people be happy. I want to pass on some happiness as much as I possibly can. That means so much to me. I don’t need all of that money.” We’ve talked about so much on the show, Jason, that you and I could do plenty of things to make more money. In fact, I had a conversation with a friend about this. I can see the path to making more money but I am not willing to put myself in that position where I’m constantly feeling anxious.
I don’t want to work twelve hours a day like this other person I mentioned. I don’t want to come home at the end of the day feeling so stretched thin that I can’t talk to the people that I love. I don’t want to feel anxious and unhappy. I’m working hard every day not to, and I’m achieving that. I don’t need to be upper-middle class. It makes me think that just because you’re upper-middle class does not mean that you feel miserable, unhappy and anxious.
There are so many nuances to this. It’s not a direct correlation. It’s very common as this article is pointing out. The big takeaway is that we can assume that money solves all the issues, that money is the ultimate goal, and that money is worth it unless we are truly willing to have that trade-off as this article points out. I know I’m not.
Go back to the emotional and psychological underpinnings for this kind of behavior. It’s this ideal that people have in their minds of, “When I get to a certain level of status, wealth, perfection, optimization, then suddenly what? I’ll love and accept myself and feel like my life is complete. Is it the sense of always chasing perfection and optimizing every aspect of our life?”
You get into the mental health aspects of this. The author says, “I know people who are in the top 1% of the wealth distribution, who feel incredibly poor and stretched thin because they’re looking around and they see other people who’ve got that much more and can do that much better. The insecurity is what runs throughout the entire system. Just because you’re in the top decile or the 9.9% of society, that doesn’t mean you escape it. In some ways, you’re more subject to insecurity. That drives people to do crazy things to stay where they are and to avoid falling.”
I mentioned the thing that drew me in was the “optimizing your kids,” and how weird, draconian, hyper-futuristic, and bizarre that statement is. I clicked on an article embedded in this Vox article, and it led me to an article that says, “Wealthy New Yorkers are dropping $375 an hour on preparatory courses to get their kids into $50,000 a year, baby Ivy League kindergartens, in an effort to eventually get them into top colleges.” I say this because before going to bed, sometimes when I’m drifting off to sleep, I have ideas that come through.
A phrase came through before I saw this article. The phrase was, “Capitalism kills innocence.” I thought, “That’s interesting.” I didn’t even know why that phrase came through my brain. When I read things like this, where they’re putting children under the age of five into prep courses to get them into baby Ivy League school for $50,000 a year, I’m no person to dish out parenting advice because I’m not a parent, but it sounds to me this race to attain status, wealth, privilege and merit is robbing a lot of children of the experience of being children. That’s my impression of it.
You’re going to shove a kid in this baby Ivy League school to prepare them to get into Harvard or Yale someday. There’s something deeply unsettling to me about that. It goes on to say, “What about the people who can’t afford to super credential their kids and eventually get them into Harvard?” They ask the author that question.
He says, “The under-emphasized concern here is to the extent to which the other 90% end up buying into this system to some degree, the other 90% of society. I’ve been in this child-rearing game and I see a lot of madness firsthand. Parents freak out when their child takes a sip of soda out of the fridge because the parents somehow imagine this is going to make it impossible for them to demonstrate enough virtue to get into the right college. They ended up curating every experience for their kids, every travel experience, and every friendship.”
This is crazy. He says, “I see it mostly among members of the upper-middle class who can afford it but increasingly, the same sets of values and practices are spreading to where people can’t afford it and where it doesn’t make sense.” They’re also buying into this idea that kids have to be optimized and maximized so they can get onto a narrow path that leads them to a stable upper-middle-class future or otherwise, it’s Starbucks until the end of time.
These parents are hyper-micromanaging their kids to what they eat, their friendships, where they travel, how they dress so that they can be in that status and in that class. To me, it doesn’t sound like even a fear response. It sounds like there is trauma behind this. Something happened in people’s lives maybe where they’re like, “We got to get ahead. We have to succeed. We have to beat everyone.” It’s like this mutated sense of competitiveness where people, in my opinion, are robbing their children of the experience of being children. It’s like, “You have to succeed at all costs.”
I’m reflecting on whether I experienced that as a child. I don’t know that I did. I don’t think my mom pushed me like that. I’m wondering, Whitney, does that resonate for you at all in your experience of childhood? Did you feel any of that pressure like, “You have to do this because then you’re going to be successful in life?”
Yes and no. There certainly was some amount of pressure, but I’m not exactly sure where it all came from. There was this underlying pressure of staying in the upper-middle class. That felt important to either both my parent or one of them specifically. In my school system, I’m there among all these other students that are in similar positions because their parents are upper-middle-class too and are around the same age. This reminds me of that book I read, A Generation of Sociopaths, which is about the Boomer generation, and all of the ways that the Boomers have influenced their children but the whole country, specifically in the US.
It’s interesting because there certainly is this mentality of keeping up with the Joneses, getting ahead and succeeding, “If you follow this formula you will get there.” Those of us who are Millennials or around the Millennial generation found that those same steps that worked for our parents do not necessarily work for us, even when we followed all of the guidance that they gave us. I’ve always been fascinated by the path that my classmates from my hometown have gone. They’ve gone in all sorts of different directions.
I don’t know of a single one of them that seems to be insanely happy and successful. I haven’t gone through and checked up on each of them. My general viewpoint of them is they’re probably living the average Millennial lives in a lot of ways. Some of them are in big cities and some of them stayed close by Massachusetts. What I have witnessed are two things. One, I grew up babysitting. Because I babysat mostly in my hometown, I was around a lot of the younger kids that they might’ve been still Millennials too, given our age gap, but maybe some of them were older Gen Z.
I also now have a lot of friends, most of them are Millennials, that have children. I’ve witnessed these different generations of kids. Having done so many years of babysitting in upper-middle-class areas, that’s the great majority of my experience. I have babysat for insanely wealthy people and celebrities as well. When you were talking, I was thinking about my job working as a personal assistant to a celebrity family. Their kids were endlessly fascinating to me. They went to these private schools. They had all this money. They were friends with other celebrities’ kids. They were living in this fascinating world in Los Angeles.
There was one very specific moment that I’ll never forget. Their parents used to plan these insane vacations. As a personal assistant, I had to support them in that, working with the travel agents and planning all the details of their trips. I remember this one trip, I forget where they were going, it might’ve been Switzerland or somewhere beautiful. I’m looking at these photos of where they’re headed out on this trip and thinking, “This is so amazing.” I said to one of the youngest children of the family, “Aren’t you so excited about this trip? It looks so great.” The child was like, “Yeah, whatever.”When you have privilege, it puts you in a completely different place than others, so it's not fair to say, “If I can do it, you can do it.” There are so many factors that contribute to whatever “doing it” is. Click To Tweet
Also, I babysat for another family, not knowing the details of either their financial situations but a general estimate, another extremely well-off family. It’s a very similar experience. They had three kids. That was life for them. They did not get excited about doing things like that because it was so commonplace for them. I remember feeling sad for these kids because, for me, I find the greatest joy in the simplest things like being present.
I’m in Massachusetts and I’m in complete awe every day I step outside. It’s so amazing being here at my parents’ house where I grew up, and seeing it from this lens of not being here very often. It’s like, “This is a pretty great place.” You don’t always see that when you’re a kid. I can relate to that feeling of being so used to something that you don’t know what it’s like to not have it because you’re so privileged. In a way, that makes me feel sad.
There are two sides to this. The constant striving and pressure that a lot of upper-middle-class and upper-class people put on their children cause them to be stressed out at young ages. They’re often high achieving and it’s common. A lot of them have a lot of restrictions. A lot of them are constantly going to classes. That is an extremely common experience. They’re going to private schools and they have to dress a certain way. They have to do all these extracurricular activities. They’re hanging out with friends. They’re so over-scheduled. That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve noticed.
They can’t relax and they can’t even appreciate things because they have them already. It’s like, “All right, I’m going to continue striving because I want to impress my parents and my friends. I want to be competitive and become this big shot in whatever my field is.” They then get there and it’s like, “Can they even appreciate it? Have they even learned how to appreciate things?”
It’s a little different with the children of my friends. Because many of my friends are Millennials, they fall into that category of not having a ton of money. Maybe they’re still technically upper-middle class. In fact, I would be willing to guess, especially with the combined income of both parents, many of which both work. Most of my friends that have kids fall into the upper-middle class, but it’s a little different with them because I wouldn’t say their lives are lavish. It’s a complete juggling act but it’s still in that realm of trying to optimize the kids so much that you’re talking about, Jason.
With the reflections that you shared, it does feel a little nerve-wracking. I get the feeling of like, “I want what’s best for my kids so I’m going to send them to the best schools.” That’s a huge thing that most of my friends are doing for their kids. Most of these kids are between 5 to 10 range. Going to the “right school,” the best school is top of mind. A lot of these schools cost a lot of money. If I had to say the number one thing that I’ve heard the parents say is that school is a huge focus. It’s fascinating because not being a parent, I imagine I understand the education is so important, but all these schools have issues, no matter what.
It does bring up this question of like, “Why do they have to get into some specific school?” It’s a complicated issue. I imagine that a huge part of that, if not the main part, is getting the “right education”, the best education. How important is that? To me, it would be like, “Are they safe? Are they protected from anything awful that could happen at school? Are their basic needs being met? Are they happy? Are they nourished? Are they constantly stressed out? Is going to the best or the right school pushing them hard to be great students?”
We all know the school systems have so many issues with the hours that the kids have to get up and the lack of sleep that they get as a result. There are so many issues with the food at schools. School in general sounds like a complete nightmare. It’s part of parenting that I’m glad I don’t have to do, but I do wonder what does that underlying fear that parents have about sending their kids to school, and the pressure that they feel to pick the right school, to pay for the school, and to do all the things that come along with school.
I imagine and based on what I’m witnessing, it’s also incredibly stressful. Not to mention these parents are stretched so thin because their whole days revolve around the school themselves. A lot of these parents are shuffling around, trying to make the timing work, when do they drop them off, which parent is doing that, and do they have a nanny? That’s the tough side of parenting that I’m like, “Will I ever want to do that?”
That doesn’t sound happy to me. Why are we in this system of doing all these things where no one’s happy? The teachers aren’t that happy in most cases. They’re not getting paid that well. The students are stressed out, anxious, depressed, and all the other issues that kids are facing these days. The parents are completely stressed out and anxious too. Schools could be a whole another topic because it sounds like a complete nightmare.
There’s so much I want to say about this. To go back to the article, the interviewer asked the author about nannies and how this class, the 9.9%, are obsessed with child-rearing in general. They’re so busy that they can’t afford to be there to raise their children, so they find someone to raise them for them. He says, “Nannies cost a lot. You have to hire another full-time individual, and that’s not something that most individuals can do in this country.” It’s creating a definition of success that will define most people out of the running even before they start.
The 9.9% have all internalized this idea that child-rearing is meritocratic breeding. The measure of your success personally is how well you optimize your child as a future member of the meritocracy. We had an amazing conversation, a wonderful interview with Khaled who’s the CEO of Legacy. We talked a lot about parenting. He flat out said that parenthood and having children have a huge element of narcissism embedded in them for a lot of people.
If you are optimizing your kid and you’re “setting” them up for the best life, it’s a reflection on you as a parent. Consequentially, if your child does not accomplish “the things you think they ought to,” even if the deck is stacked in their favor, that’s a poor reflection on you as a parent. If you didn’t get a 4.0 GPA, and your kid doesn’t get accepted into Harvard, and doesn’t graduate with honors, and doesn’t immediately have a six-figure job right out of college at age 21 or 22, you must’ve done something wrong as a parent then.
He nails it in this quote, “How well you optimize your child as a future member of meritocracy is a reflection on your success as a parent.” I don’t want to judge it but that sounds fucked up. It says, “That means to the extent that you can’t spend all of your time raising your child, you get someone else to do it. That person’s task is not child-rearing as it used to be understood, which was just feeding them and preventing them from harming themselves, keeping them safe. It’s about optimizing the kids, and there was no limit to what you can do to optimize them.”
That’s why when you’re going to look for a nanny who’s college-educated, preferably with a degree in Child Psychology who’s capable of organizing all sorts of enriching experiences to grow with the child. He says, “Generally, I don’t think it’s terrible for the kids. It’s a model of parenting that is insane and cannot conceivably be emulated by most of the population.”
I don’t know. It hits me in a way that just because you optimize your child and you have a nanny with a degree in Child Psychology and your kid gets into an Ivy League school and gets the six-figure, it doesn’t guarantee, and the overarching thing is that they’re going to be joyful, fulfilled or feel a sense of alignment with a deep purpose on this planet. Essentially, to me, there’s no sense of conversation about being here.
“We want you to achieve a certain level of status, money and security.” To me, that’s what it boils down to. The status, money and security equal a fulfilled, happy and joyful child. There’s no conversation about that here. “Let’s make sure your material status requirements are met, and then that should make you happy.” The point is that the parents don’t sound happy.
He’s talking about status anxiety, the mental health issues of people in the upper-middle class. You want your child to emulate the lifestyle you’ve created for yourself when you’re unhappy, you’re full of anxiety, your mental health is failing, and you think it’s going to work for them when you’re modeling their life after the life you’ve created for yourself? To me, that sounds like insanity. “You do all the things that I did, more and better, and you’ll be happy even though I’m not and I hate my life.” It’s nuts. What’s wrong with simplicity? What’s wrong with living a simpler life?
Another thing he purports in this article that is so interesting is about the class disparity, racial disparity and inequality. He says, “In this debate of understanding the role of the 9.9%, there is a tendency for other members of the meritocratic class to say, ‘The problem is that we’re hoarding these spots in society. We’re hoarding spots at elite universities, Ivy League schools, certain professions, high-paid professions.’ What we need to do is to make sure that we’re represented and engaged in higher equality, so we let more people into our class.'”
That’s a solution some people have proposed. That’s wonderful for people to think about and do but that’s not going to be the solution to anything. He says it takes for granted that the hierarchy itself is justified and is economically productive. It’s a matter of making sure that everyone has a fair shot of getting in. He says, “Let’s say you have a society, which we’re not that far removed from, where you have serfs and you have lords,” which is pretty much what we’re in now. Let’s call it what it is.Education and financial success have become these huge pinnacles, but if they don't lead us to feeling happy, satisfied, and helping others, they're completely worthless. Click To Tweet
People with a shit ton of money, wealth and power, and everyone else is a servant. That’s a crude way of saying it. He says, “Let’s raise a society of serfs and lords and every year, you’re going to have a lottery where 1 out of 100 serfs will become a lord. Every year or every generation, you rotate and bring someone new in. That’s not going to make a just society. That’s going to make a more perverse society, and that’s a false solution.”
You’re not destroying the mechanics of classism. You’re not destroying the metrics of meritocracy. You’re saying, “Let that lower-income person in and brainwash them into thinking this is going to make them happy.” It’s not dismantling the system. It makes me think all the time that we talked about equality. We talked about, “Let’s make sure there’s a greater access to opportunities and greater access to wealth.”
On principle, those are great ideas but this point he’s making, just because you grant access to the upper-middle-class, to people of different ethnicities, color, sexual orientations, the mechanics of what is holding up an unfair system still exist. That’s not fundamentally changing the system. I agree that it doesn’t sound very much of a solution to me if it’s upholding the thing that isn’t working in the first place.
Speaking of solutions, there’s a little bit of one at the end. This is such a complicated issue that it’s not an easy one to solve. He says that he doesn’t think the answer is to put the 9.9% in a boat, send them out to sea and sink them. He thinks the issue is that a class has allowed itself to dilute itself about the sources of its own privilege. Its main contribution would be opening its eyes, and then living and working more in accordance with what was the original inspiration of the class.
What follows when people recognize the actual sources of their privilege is they become a little bit more humble. They are more willing to help other people and are more willing to invest in the future. I don’t want to give myself a pat on the back but I feel like the greater awareness I have, I’ve fallen into that point where it’s very humbling when you think, “I’ve been in this world that is not sustainable, kind or it doesn’t fall into my values.”
That desire to help people and invest in the future together is a driving force. I have to constantly check myself on it because when you grow up with all this privilege, whether it’s money, race or whatever else, it’s hard to remember because you’ve been caught up in this bubble. Forcing yourself to look outside of it over and over again, and to listen to what other people are going through is incredibly important. I personally don’t want to be in a place of just helping myself.
After that statement, he says, “One of the most distressing statistics is that the richer people get, the less they believe in publicly supported childcare.” It’s not that they don’t want their taxes to go to pay for childcare. It’s that they’ve internalized this idea that everyone can do this. Everyone can raise their own child or hire a nanny. That’s been a humbling thing for me because I used to believe that sentiment, “If I can do it, you can do it.”
Once I recognized how much privilege I have, it occurred to me that that statement is not true because when you have privilege, it puts you in a completely different place than others. It’s not fair to say, “If I can do it, you can do it.” There are so many factors that contribute to whatever doing that is. I know people that are in the upper-middle-class that have that internalized idea. They think that they’ve made it.
It’s like that whole story around one of the Jenner girls was the first “self-made billionaire.” Kylie was the one with her beauty care line. People were outraged by it. They were like, “What do you mean self-made? You grew up with so much privilege and money. You’ve got all these family members that are bringing you press and on and on.” I can see the sides of it. To an extent, she did work hard. I don’t know enough about her but from what I perceive, it’s not easy to run a business as she has.
There are a lot of challenges that come along, but she has privileges that give her levels of ease that other people don’t experience and may never experience. That’s why it’s important to be aware of your privilege, especially if we’re going to say something like, “If I can do it, you can do it.” Which in general, I don’t believe to be true. I might be able to say that about my sister because she’s on some level of an equal playing field, but even her mind works completely differently than mine.
That statement, “If I can do it, you can do it,” is not true because her brain works differently. She might have the same privilege but she doesn’t think the way that I do. Some things aren’t as easy. To me, that’s the phrase I’m trying not to say anymore because I don’t think that it’s fair. It’s incredibly short-sighted and it is an internalized idea. The article ends by saying, “It shows how this incredibly, virtuous, and super well-educated class becomes oblivious to the basis of its own existence.”
Ultimately, it comes back to the biggest conclusion that we have in most of our episodes, which is awareness is the key, and awareness is the opposite of being oblivious. You have to continue to reflect on yourself relative to others. To me, that’s one of the first ways that you can start to help people. It’s not always self-centered about what you can get, what your life is, and all of this egocentric narcissistic behavior that we have.
We can begin to combat that by saying, “What’s going on for others?” It’s not, “What do they have that I don’t?” but “What don’t they have that I do have? How can I contribute to that financially, mentally, resource-wise or whatever it is that I have to offer?” That’s at least a step in the right direction, and having this awareness and this bigger picture thinking.
Many people are making decisions that are short-term. They’re doing things because that’s the way other people around them are doing it, but they’re not looking at the big picture and the long-term side effects of these things and the trade-offs. As one of the biggest themes here, so many of us have been conditioned that we have to be successful. To be successful, we have to get the right education and we have to be slaves in a lot of ways to whatever work that we’re doing in order to make the money.
Education and financial success have become these huge pinnacles, but if they don’t lead us to feel happy, satisfied and helping others, they’re completely worthless. That’s why I’m letting go of a lot of those measures of success and financial things. If I can pay my bills and do that in a way that is contributing to some positive change or moment, to me, that’s where it’s at. It’s a complicated issue. It’s not that easy, I suppose. For you, Jason, what is your big takeaway given everything that’s brought up in this article and your perspectives?
The allure of things and stuff, what that stuff says about us, whether that’s a degree from a specific university, how much money we make, the class we fall into based on what US News and World Report tell us, the medals, the achievements, whatever it is that we’re trying to acquire or achieve. The sooner that we can collectively, as humanity, disentangle ourselves from all of those externalities, having to do with our beingness here, we’re going to see a quantum shift in how we treat each other and how we live our lives.
Now it’s like, “I got to get a BMW. I got to get Maserati. I need a McLaren. McLaren is not enough. I need to get a Bugatti.” It’s like, “Why?” We always go to this spot. Why do you feel you need that? Why do you feel you need to chase that? Why are we as humanity chasing things, status, accolades? Do we want to feel loved? Do we not feel important enough? Do we not feel significant? To me, it sounds like the hungry ghost there’s some deep knowing emptiness in the collective human consciousness that can’t get filled by these things.
On some level, we know. It’s like being an addict. We keep wanting more and more. The hole never gets filled but yet we keep chasing the high. We keep chasing things. It leaves me as like, “Why do we feel we need these things? What are we trying to fill? What are we trying to feel?” To back up your point, one of your final thoughts, if we go about and we get the car, house, status, neighborhood, zip code, degree, the letters after our name, and we still feel empty and sad and lost, it seems like a brutal waste of time, effort and energy.
Certainly, there are lessons in the journey for everyone. I don’t want to say it’s all a waste. This article among many is an opportunity for us to wake up to our behaviors, and what we’re putting our emphasis on in our lives. That’s what I leave with it. I’m de–emphasizing material things in my life the more that I live, and that feels good.
I used to be focused on like, “You got to 10X and you got to make more money every single year. You got to get this kind of car and you got to live in this neighbourhood.” I’m caring less and less about those things the more that I live in. I feel more slowly liberated the more that I let go. For me to feel free and at peace, I want to do things that make me feel free and at peace. Chasing money, status, and accolades doesn’t make me feel free and make me feel at peace.
We are always curious to hear your thoughts, dear readers. We always love to hear your reflections on the intersection of identity, emotion, class, money and everything we’ve talked about here. You can also shoot Whitney and me a direct email, [email protected], or a DM on social media @Wellevatr. This is always a constant exploration of how do we come together and unify as human beings and have a more peaceful, just, equitable society. Let us know what you think.
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- The Problem with America’s Semi-Rich
- The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture
- A Generation of Sociopaths
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