Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Unexpected institutional change and status

People invest quite a lot into status. But status is sensitive to when the institutional frame changes.

In Germany, there’s a late night talk show called “Domian”, after the host who’s run the show since 20 years. One time I listened to the show and a man called. He grew up in communist East Germany where he had attended a prestigious elite academy which educated future diplomats. He learned to speak several languages and was on track to become an important public servant in his country.

But then the GDR collapsed and he lost everything. He now holds irregular jobs selling electronics and is poor. He never married, is lonely and depressed.

A lot of our status is specific to institutional settings. With hindsight, it seems obvious that this or that regime could not possibly have survived, so people must have been mistaken to put so much trust in them. But I doubt we can foresee the stability of our own institutions so reliably. Some would even say that chasing status is always doomed for failure, as:

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration.

Yet that seems exaggerated as well. A degree from Oxford was a useful status marker in the 19th century and continues to be that. But compare how the perceived desirability of a job at an investment bank has changed relative to that of working at a start-up or an incubator in just the last ten years. So maybe we should value those things more highly that survive institutional change, such as our health, the part of education that’s not signaling and some assets.

But what probably hurts Domian’s caller most are his unfulfilled hopes. He could reasonably have expected to live among the elite of his country, but instead he lives at the fringes of a society he does not feel part of.

The literature of how life happiness varies over one’s life has documented a U-shape: Young and old people report being more happy than middle-aged people. Hannes Schwandt argues that this is due to unmet expectations when we’re middle-aged. When we’re at the beginning of our careers we have great plans for ourselves and often our aspirations are greater than our achievements. But later in life this reverses and we’re pleasantly surprised more often.

I’m not sure if there’s much we can do to influence how these things will turn out. We could try caring less about status and we’d like to be able to deal well with setbacks.

But how to become like that? I don’t know.