Are we in a permanent identity crisis?

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EVP & Group Director, Anthropology

The philosopher and social scientist Max Weber made a stark judgment of American culture almost a hundred years ago. He noted that unlike society and culture in Europe where one’s social status is rather “fixed” — the family you’re born into, the type of education and vocation you choose being the predominant drivers of said status, in the United States, young people concern themselves more with the desire to make money than with the desire to acquire a traditional education or normative forms of status (as defined in European society). Noting this, he remarked that in the absence of a fixed social status, the American youth find themselves in a constant state of identity crisis (he actually used the term isolation to describe this idea but the Weberian sociologist Peter Berger later rearticulated it as an identity crisis).

Curiously enough, this notion of living in a permanent state of identity crisis is remarkably true in today’s context. As a cultural anthropologist, I have been studying American culture extensively for the past decade in various capacities. Over time, I have witnessed first hand, the emergence of new and nuanced forms of symbolic capital (status giving intangible currency). Similar to how globalization and ecommerce has given us all access to luxuries that were just a decade ago the domain of the rich and famous, it has also birthed new and nuanced forms of symbolic currency that now allot us status without any of the traditional requirements of education, wealth, family name, etc.

Through unique knowledge about gut health, and some interesting household hacks to improve one’s gut biome, a consumer can acquire symbolic capital in their social circles and trade it for status and recognition (perhaps as the person to go to for advice on healthy living).

Choosing to work a certain way — let’s say a maximum of 6 hours a day, with time carved out for meditation and mindfulness, one can establish themselves as an authority on productivity or creativity, gaining the respect and admiration of fellow colleagues and peer groups. And remarkably, one truly does not need to be Jeff Bezos to do so. It can be just about anybody.

Our culture today is so fragmented and nuanced that there is truly an absence of a fixed social status. Status can now be acquired in thousands of different ways. But this fragmentation also brings with it certain complexities. Simply put, it lowers the lifespan of certain forms of symbolic capital, quickly depreciating in value as a currency for status and power.

The forms of capital that give us status today will be different from the forms that will give us status just a year from now. The mere act of maintaining one’s status is a constant endeavor in acquiring new knowledge and developing and adopting new habits, rituals, and even hacks in one’s life and lifestyle.

Today’s consumer has no choice but to remain on the move. Like busy bees that are on what only feels like a never ending journey of hive building, human beings today have no choice but to keep evolving their beliefs and habits to continue to acquire new and emerging forms of symbolic capital in order to maintain or grow their status and power in their social communities.

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