Downward Mobility

To some people, I and a few of my friends are downwardly mobile, but to us it is a different matter; we would rather read than win at poker. Downward mobility has some distinct advantages, and I want to present them to you.

Downward Is Failure

Upward mobility is generally presented as an obvious goal, but it is seldom examined and even less frequently questioned. It is the goal of advertising and also the goal of prep school and Ivy League educations. Upward desires are the standard fare of conversations and seem to be widely accepted. "I'd like to get a Ford Bronco and buy a house in Montana with 1,000 acres and a swimming pool." "Yeah, and I'd like to have a black Charger with a roll bar, canvas top, and a big winch on the front." And so forth.

I have two reasons to favor downward mobility and both involve ambiguous words that need expansion: license and benignity. To explain their relevance I need to explain how I see our society.

Not wanting to meet common norms is something most of us encounter in a variety of forms. We can all recall fellow students who made no effort to get good grades in school; these were the kids who disliked the social atmosphere of school and were contemptuous of editing the school paper, being in student government, taking part in school plays ,or being on the debate team. Many kids, then and now, just want to get drunk, party, mess around, hang out, and focus on style.

Often the rejecting of social norms seems to be a tactic of people who know that they themselves have been, or might be, rejected by society. Often people will reject a value, system, order, hierarchy, or a step upward because of their own perceived lack of competence.

There is another catergory of people who know their own competence and reject social norms. These are the people this article is about.

A few of us have known people who were unusually competent yet rejected promotions to officer rank in the military or to supervisorial positions at work. Often, these otherwise baffling actions made sense in terms of the individuals involved. I see a social mechanism that would make skilled, industrious, educated, and wise people wish to reject the norms of society and refuse to aspire to its goals. The mechanism they are rejecting is: the hierarchy of social control.

Hierarchy of Social Control

This hierarchy is structured as follows: The people who are at the top have the most control&emdash;financial, political, and otherwise&emdash;and the people at the bottom have the least. The ones at the top exercise the most personal and social restraint; the ones at the bottom the least.

At the top are people who own the most resources, live in the biggest houses, have the largest incomes, and spend the most money. They also, when they want to, are able to use their money to buy political influence, influential advisors, and good counsel. This is not a new observation. What is new is the recognition that these people are subject to excessive and significant personal restraints in social, psychological, and physical terms.

Social Restraints

People on the top usually wear ties, starched white shirts, and suits, while their counterparts at the bottom occasionally wear uniforms to show their conformity and good behavior. The language at the top is more carefully selected, more self-conscious in public and private, and more soft spoken. There are high expectations and a general conformity at the top to social conventions in regard to eating, public manners, dress, and social propriety.

Every reader can think of exceptions to these observations, but the norms remain the same. When Bill Gates was on top of the world he wore casual clothes. When the Justice Department announced its intention to take Microsoft to court for monopoly practices, Gates started wearing suits and ties.

Control in public is not always the same as behavior in private. Readers may be thinking about elite society notions of sexuality. As Kinsey first reported, people at the top are much more promiscuous and sexually adventurous, and have been for a long time. They kept this secret by convention and still do to some extent.

Psychological Restraints

People at the top have many responsibilities, especially supervisorial ones. They have extensive household help, including maids, gardeners, drivers, and nannies. They also manage employees in their work environment.

It may appear to someone who has not been a supervisor or administrator that it is a lot easier to tell someone to do the gardening than it is to do it. This isn't so from a psychological perspective. The supervisor is more likely to be frustrated and disappointed and to withhold anger, rage, and distress than the worker. Expressing negative emotions to inferiors is not effective management, so it is seldom done. The frustrations just accumulate. In addition, supervisors are often manipulated by their employees; managers are constantly required to reward and punish in circumstances where both actions are difficult.

I was a supervisor and manager for twenty years of my life, increasing my responsibilities slowly over time without noticing the effects it had on me. After abandoning it for six years, I was called back to be a manager for three months and suffered severely in terms of stress, exhaustion, and misery. The responsibility was all-consuming. Like a mother who may leave her infant with a perfect baby sitter, the fears can never be fully alleviated, only repressed.

Physical Restraints

There is also a hierarchy of physical self-control in America. People at the top blink only a few times per minute, people at the bottom dozens of times a minute. Facial tics are rare at the top and common at the bottom. Everyone in between is on a linear scale. People at the top watch their weight carefully and effectively, don't smoke these days, and generally have good posture and well-cared-for hair. They don't pick their noses in public or talk with food in their mouth. More people on the bottom tend to do nearly all of these things, including smoking and getting fat.


Perceiving the world from the viewpoint described above, you can see why the rewards of downward mobility might be a powerful attractant. One appealing quality of downward mobility is license. This word has several meanings. Permission to act is one. Freedom, with outrageous and bawdy overtones, is another (as in licentious). And a document, plate, or tag, as in driver's license, is another meaning. All these definitions embody the deeper notion of being unshackled from restraint and empowered to act individually.

License is one of the most powerful factors in downward mobility. Most Americans claim that freedom is a significant value, but believe somehow that acquiring money is a preliminary step. What is clear to me is that lowering my status is the preliminary step. It offers me less responsibility, creates fewer social expectations, and gives me a greater range of behavioral options. I can comfortably live in a house that rents for less, drive a cheaper car or take public transportation, own less, and consequently have less need to earn money.

With that decision in place, there are more potential types of work available. Seventy-five percent of the jobs and occupations in America pay less than half the average wage, and the top 10 percent of wage and salary income goes to people in less than 2 percent of the jobs.

I don't have to be a supervisor or a manager. The lower on the totem pole I place myself, the less responsibility I will have and the less time I may have to work also. I don't have to work at what I don't like, either.

Remember, please, I'm not downwardly mobile because I lack skills or education or any recognized competence. It is because I choose to have license.


The second reason for my choice is benignity. The dictionary meaning, based on the word's Latin origins, connotes a gentle disposition, a degree of graciousness, and an abundance of kindness. On a deeper level, benignity refers to a near state of grace in ordinary people, and it is the only word I know of that has that connotation. That is the meaning I am using here, and it is my second reason for downward mobility.

Logic suggests, and my personal experience confirms, that people at the lower end of the social hierarchy are disproportionately kinder and gentler (maybe not more gracious, since that has overtones associated with good manners). This is where the caring people come from who clean the bed pans in hospitals, wash the elderly, cook for the infirm, and care for the babies of others. This is where we find the people who take in stray teenagers, difficult relatives, and comfort the mentally and emotionally disturbed.

Am I wrong? When you think of a caring person is it a psychiatrist in a fancy office or is it an overweight black woman from a poor neighborhood in her late fifties who took care of your mother when she was ill?

Three elements tend to confuse our ability to think clearly about this issue of benignity being disproportionate in the bottom ranks of our social ladder. They are the fear of young black men, our notions of the relationship between money and pleasure, and our deep concerns about public aspirations.

Fear of Black Men: The young black man seems to create a degree of fear in our lives far out of proportion to his presence. Nevertheless, it is true that criminals are more abundant at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and they disproportionately prey on the gentle and meek. If dangerous criminals are less than 1 percent in well-to-do neighborhoods, they are probably 5 percent in the least-well-to-do areas, and they do prey on their neighbors. It's tragic, unfair, and disgusting, and it is a valid reason for staying away from people on the bottom. It doesn't, however, decrease the number or proportion of the kind and gentle people who live in the lower echelons, and for that matter it doesn't increase the tiny number who live near the top. Fear, legitimate fear, can keep one away from available benignity.

Money vs. Pleasure: We sometimes, in our mind, rank our pleasures. For many people, these pleasures are "spendy" (my sister Joan's euphemism for expensive). Spendy pleasures include expensive restaurants, luxury travel, spacious accommodations, room service, isolation, and status symbols (limousines, silk skirts, and private helicopters). We justifiably conclude that these aren't available in poor neighborhoods, and that, consequently, pleasures, or at least major ones, are also absent there.

This belief is based on a misunderstanding of pleasure. It needn't be associated with spending money, as a spring wildflower walk with a close friend can remind us.

Even though expensive pleasures are not physically associated with the bottom of the social ladder, doesn't mean that benignity isn't. Benignity can have its own pleasures and rewards.

Concern About Public Aspirations: Lastly, we are loathe to conclude that benignity is rare in the upper reaches of our social hierarchy because it means that the higher we mentally place ourselves in that hierarchy the less kind we are. The way to cope with this incriminating thought is to think of people we love who are low in the hierarchy, our personal saints. That is the way to self-correct our perception of this issue. If you are like me, I can think of plenty of them, and it is abrasively painful to me that they are so far down on the ladder.

It also means that our form of social organization may be morally contemptible, because it punishes saintliness and rewards animosity.

Machiavelli was one of the first to recognize this, and his observations have been ignored and misrepresented for centuries. We are encouraged to think of Machiavellianism as being disingenuous talk and behavior. But what Machiavelli actually taught was that rulers must operate with a different morality than their subjects, because the morality of ruling was of necessity very different. Much more cunning and preditory. Pretty much what I am saying here.

Recognizing the moral problems involved in acknowledging downward mobility doesn't make its reality disappear. Downward mobility exists, albeit on a small scale. That people voluntarily chose it. That it could be a social good.


Our society rewards people who exercise personal control and control over others and who have wealth and status. This process of rewarding managerial skills and emotional restraint leaves our kindest and gentlest members on the bottom. It is possible for one to simultaneously choose a life of license and also choose to be among the kind and gentle members of our society by embracing downward, rather than upward, mobility.

Michael Phillips, 1985 (revised 2000)


Home |Public Radio |Clear Glass Press |Resume |MP's Books |Articles |Misc |E-mail|