In a lonely secular crusade of an unpromising nature, I produce these Well-Infidel columns in order to associate the largely irrelevant and inconsequential wellness movement (i.e., not really wellness at all - it's still a prevention/risk assessment based endeavor) with the pressing issues of the day. Whenever possible, I employ REAL wellness tools (i.e., reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty) to persuade readers that quality of life linkages can and should accompany said pressing issues.
This essay is designed to connect the plight of the growing underclass to economic realities. In it, I cite several nearly self-evident but still alarming trends. My purpose is to persuade those responsible for promoting
wellness to get real, that is, to evolve from a focus on prevention. It is time, given the conditions ahead, to get with the REAL wellness program.
Most people know of three topics traditionally considered unsuitable for polite dinner conversation, namely, politics, sex and religion. But, there is actually a fourth such topic, or would be if more people thought about it. I refer to the mysterious issue of status.
Can you imagine asking someone how much status she has, or thinks she has? Everyone understands there is a dynamic called status, but few are comfortable talking about it. Even fewer understand just what status is and how it might be assessed, or better yet, changed (i.e., upgraded a bit).
However, and this is where status impacts health and wellness, nearly everyone has a vague sense of how much status of one kind or another she has. It may not be accurate, but it is something most people innately sense, with or without much evidence or due diligence for accuracy. Those who assume that they have less status than they need, deserve or desire are usually concerned about it. Thus, it seems that status should be
addressed as a mental health issue in worksite and other institutional wellness programs.
It seems unfortunate that the standard risk assessment tools employed in corporate wellness programming do not address estimates, let alone reliable measures, of status. An individual's belief that he suffers low status might very well be a factor in poor self-worth and thus represent a significant health risk. Therefore, it would be reasonable to recognize status as an element of consequence in an employee's mental health. Perhaps social and other forms of self-assessed status should be addressed and attended. Wellness leaders could guide and assist those who feel they are status impaired. Low status employees, real or imagined, could be guided to undertake appropriate short and long-term remedial actions that have promise for boosting their standing with themselves, and in the eyes of others. Such initiatives might add a prestige factor, a bump in their sense of self-worth while enhancing the degree of responsibility, privilege and esteem associated with added status, real or imagined.
Of course, few if any wellness professionals know how to do this. Nevertheless, if low status is widely recognized as a potential health problem, and common sense suggests it should be, status-boosting efforts could be designed, tested and developed. Low status would be more widely recognized as an affliction not be ignored.
What is it that most affects status, social and otherwise?
The Dynamics of Status
The literature on this topic suggests status is determined by income/wealth, education, power, intelligence and competence/skill levels - and, of course, by a blend of these variables.
In most cultures, everyone knows who has status and who has little or none of it. Naturally, some folks are more impressed and governed by these estimations than others. Individuals who can go about their business and personal lives indifferent to status matters might be considered fortunate.
But, one need not be a fan of AMC's award-winning series Mad Men to know that a lot of people go to heroic lengths to boost their status among peers. Not uncommonly, most efforts to do so in the usual and customary ways (e.g., conspicuous consumption, power seeking and associating with those believed to be of higher status) rarely prove satisfying for long.
Lately, another factor has come into play that affects the extent to which individuals manifest high status - perceived merit.
In a meritocracy, it's not good to be average, just as in a nation wherein 68.8% of adults are overweight or obese, it's not good to be normal. (Data Source: Food Research and Action Center.)
If you are normal in America, you are not only overweight - you are most likely also unfit, stressed out, underemployed and superstitious. Making things worse, if a new book by economist Tyler Cowen is to be taken
seriously, you are going to have to struggle mightily and probably without much success to keep up status in a hyper-meritocracy.
Cowen's latest book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, follows his best-seller, The Great Stagnation. In Average is Over, he reviews key economic trends of the last three decades,
particularly smart technology, disparity of wages, wage stagflation and outsourcing of jobs in the manufacturing sector. In addition, Cowen offers trend projections for the coming decades. Those most likely to suffer low status now (due in part to poor education, cultural disadvantages, limited natural talents and poor social skills) grim prospects in a hyper - meritocracy.
A hyper-meritocracy is marked by reliance on smart machines and an economy wherein an "unprecedented high share of the national product goes to capital rather than to labor." (William A. Galston, Visions of a
Permanent Underclass, Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2013.) Breaking out of a low status self-image will be a severe challenge for those who endure low wages, economic inequality, long bouts of unemployment and few opportunities for advances of material, educational and quality of life natures.
The (Limited) Role of Worksite Wellness
Wellness programs that focus on risk management, problem amelioration and lifestyle assessments, as nearly all institutional efforts do at present, can at least promote recognition of economic and social realities. Worksite wellness programming can address these vital realities while encouraging efforts both personal and governmental to address low status-causing conditions. These would entail activities well beyond the usual and customary risk assessments. They might include training in the use of smart machines, teaching organization skills and offering lessons in recognizing economic while learning the requisite skills of modern business.
Unfortunately, the national political climate of total gridlock militates against two realities critical to raising the status of an underclass - higher taxes to fund programming and lower subsidies to the richest strata of society. Cowen foresees that we are likely to look back in a few years and realize we have produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else.
Texas is seen as typical of havens of cheap housing and lousy public services. Such Republican-dominated states are seen as gloomy refugee environments wherein the new underclass would accept their lot without much complaint, certainly without revolting against it. Even though they had no prospects for escape, the low status underclass would enjoy cheap food and cheap fun, and that would be enough to pacify them.
A Grim Scenario
It seems to me that future scenario is already a reality, not just in Texas but also in most of the other Red states and Congressional districts that send Tea Party reactionaries to Congress. These are the breeding grounds for politicians who want to do battle with government in general and what they see as an entitlement mentality (e.g., Social Security, Medicare and all forms of assistance to the growing low status segments of our population) in America.
How paradoxical that their ranks are comprised of Tea Party types who, as President Obama once noted, cling to guns, religion and feelings of antipathy to people who aren't like them. As noted, more often than not, they are working against against their own interests, beguiled by
reactionary one percenters whose agenda keeps them down and in low status mentality in the first place. C'est dommage.
As Cowen puts it, we can already glimpse a future in which 10% to 15% of Americans enjoy fantastically wealthy and interesting lives while the rest slog along without hope of a better life, tranquilized by free Internet and canned beans.
Meritocracy is a nice way of justifying extreme income and low levels of economic and other states of equality.
If there is a cure, it almost surely won't come from wellness programming that seeks to inform and motivate people to recognize these dreadful realities. Such an agenda would not be permitted at the corporate level. If such an awakening is to come about, It will instead have to be animated by a broad based sense of justified revulsion, whether by accident or by design of social reformers, opines Mr. Cowen.
None of this is to suggest that REAL wellness enthusiasts, those who embrace fairness, decency and a semblance of equal opportunity in their agendas, can't do more to call out for reforms, despite a national tradition of little to no regard for any of these qualities. Doing so certainly seems at least as consequential as the existing focus on weight management and other forms of risk reduction.
Be well and good luck, especially to the young, and see if you can't look on the bright side of life, anyway.