The General Social Survey has spent four decades asking Americans about their self-perceived status:

If you were asked to use one of four names for your social
class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class (=1), the
working class (=2), the middle class (=3), or the upper class (=4)?

During this period, Americans experienced substantial absolute gains in income and education.  Yet average status actually has a slight downward trend.  Here’s what you get if you regress status on year.  (yeara=year/1000)


If you correct for rising income and education, though, status has noticeably fallen.  Translation: People today need higher levels of achievement to feel superior to other people.  See what happens as soon as you adjust for log family income, years of education, and attained degrees:


Magnitudes?  The last equation implies that from 1972-2012, achievement-corrected status fell by .14.  That’s larger than the status gain people get when their income doubles.

Is this all obvious?  To me, yes.  But lately several economists I know have challenged me when I claimed that status is basically a zero-sum game.  For America during my lifetime, they seem to be wrong – and I’m here to collect a little of their status. 🙂