Making It in the World Today

by Editors

HISTORY & SOCIETY

Making It in the World Today:

Musings on the Historical Definition of Success

By Sarah Katherine Mergel

Recently, while writing lectures on both Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a republic of successful independent farmers and the life during the Great Depression, I began to muse about the meaning of success in the American past. Americans in both eras essentially wanted to achieve what colonial Americans called a competence, where they could provide for the needs of their families. In part because of the depression, in the years following World War II American intellectuals frequently examined the traditional definitions of success. More specifically, social thinkers, including Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, Christopher Lasch and others, addressed what it meant to succeed and how in turn striving for success impacted the “successful” and those around them.

Independence and self-sufficiency, historically speaking, served as the primary measures of success in the United States. The Protestant Work Ethic-the pursuit of individual salvation through hard work-dominated the American conception of success well into the twentieth century. At heart, this work ethic stressed self-discipline and self-improvement. Success implied that a person met his social and familial responsibilities. Conventional wisdom also suggested that an individual who attained independence and self-sufficiency would experience upward social mobility. The American dream embodied the idea that hard working people would eventually ascend the social ladder.

The self-made man long symbolized success in American popular culture. Christopher Lasch noted in The Culture of Narcissism that Horatio Alger’s characters represented for many people the independent man who through hard work and dedication rose in social status. Lasch traced how the Protestant Work Ethic, so influential in American life, changed from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Self-sufficiency gave way to self-improvement that in turn gave way to self-culture and self-advancement. Advertisers in the 1920s, for example, used the ideas of self-help to sell products. By the middle of the twentieth century, “success appeared as an end in its own right.” Success no longer seemed about achieving a competence; victory over others became the one thing that retained the capacity to instill a sense of self-approval. [1]

The achievement of status through prestige provided another means to measure success. Upward social mobility increased the prestige one was likely to receive. C. Wright Mills in White Collar indicated that during economic booms, success for the American individual seemed a sure sign of social progress and exemplified personal virtue. The competitive nature of the quest for success formed the cradle of a self-reliant personality and the guarantee of economic and political democracy. The entrepreneurial pattern of success rested upon an economy of many small businesses (just like Jefferson’s yeoman farmer republic). The shift to a corporate system of monopoly capitalism provided the basis for the shift in the path and content of success. For the white-collar workers Mills described, the occupational climb replaced heroic tactics of the typical rags to riches story in the open competitive market. [2]

Success through gaining prestige was not just about moving up the social ladder. Prestige involved two persons: one to claim it and one to honor that claim. Almost anything could distinguish one person from another. In the status system of a society, people organized claims for prestige as rules and expectations. They regulated who could claim prestige from whom and on what basis. According to Mills, status position depended on a person’s chances in the commodity market, i.e., how well he could sell himself. Christopher Lasch sounded a similar note about prestige when he noted that “self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim.” By the late 1970s, men sought approval that applauded not “their actions, but their personal attributes.” [3]

Education served as one mechanism for becoming successful. According to Mills, education strengthened the feeling of status equality, aided in Americanizing the immigrant, and strengthened old middle class ideologies. Yet, mass education was also one of the major social mechanisms of the rise of the new middle-class occupations, for these occupations required the skills provided by education. In essence, in the white-collar world education became the key to occupational fate. Americans demanded equal educational opportunity for all and more secure positions for those educated. [4] Read the rest of this entry »