Term coined by British philosopher Alain de Botton to describe an almost pathological obsession people have with how they are perceived by their peers. Whereas Vance Packard monitored how social forces create a pecking order even in the modern era, de Botton more recently suggests that it is a combination of innate human insecuity and a transformation of the social and economic world that has made us more eager to be seen as winners than ever before.

Prior to the American Revolution, class was regarded as inherent and immutable (only much later in Europe, say close to the time of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, would the notion of class be satirically examined; British comic books of the 1980s still portrayed toffs with stovepipe hats and gracious airs). Socratic thought considered that social phenomena like class and status were handled down like God as if he created rocks or volcanoes. Later Christian thought would suggest that poverty could be somewhat virtuous, and that stopped the peasants wanting to aspire to much. In the nineteeth century, with various revolutions going about the place, management theories coming into practice and technologies demanding a new professional class, meritocracy started to emerge. People would be salaried and respected according to their talents, rather than their background or breeding. Of course, the upper class could put their children through the best schools to enstil them with the discipline to make them meritous, but great social levellers like World War One and universal literacy gave others from the lower ranks the chance to show their potential (and in the battlefields of the Somme, the chance for some upper class twits to display their incompetence).

Eventually through the welfare state we have come very close to guaranteeing absolute equality of opportunity - i.e.: we all have an equal chance of becoming rich or poor regardless of who our parents were. Unfortunately in a meritocracy where class can be transcended, this means that

  • If we become losers in life, we only have ourselves to blame.
  • If we become winners in life, we have to continue to struggle to be seen as successful, while protecting our turf.

    de Botton suggests that we have an innate desire to be liked, respected and appreciated by other people. And we choose to flaunt our success with designer clothes and late model BMWs just to call out for the approval of others. Yet, as de Botton says, if we place too much emphasis on success on determining our own identity and ultimately self-worth, then we are only going to be short-changed and depressed as a result.

    Sad, but de Botton has a few solutions. Put priority into things that really matter like genuine friends and family, rather than inconsequential materialist concerns. Critically question how people can weigh your worth when in fact most people can ever fully understand you. Become a Bohemian. And if that doesn't work, remind yourself that life is fleeting and we ultmately will share the same status as fragments of dust and bones.