Apr 2, 2010

The Five Social Currencies

The more society has progressed the easier it has become to take its basic necessities for granted. The developed world spends more time debating accessibility to higher education, the cost of healthcare, and funding for the arts rather than availability of basic sustenance, shelter, or day-to-day assurances of safety. Generational increases in worker productivity have helped fuel this economic and societal progression, making the factors that drove career choices fifty years ago less of a concern today. This broad increase in material wealth has brought with it an equally broad shift in how we define our own life's purpose. Current generations might pass up a higher wage in order to teach or help others who are less fortunate. We are now more apt to pursue paths that serve to affirm of our creative and intellectual self-worth and find value in furthering the knowledge set of humanity rather than make our own lives more comfortable.

This multi-generational climb up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is not immune to temporary reversals. 2008's sudden rise in worldwide commodity prices unsettled our notions on the right to basic staples, September 11th pricked our complacent feelings of invulnerability, and the recent implosion of credit is forcing us to question the sustainability of America's deeply ingrained habits of consumption.

I've always been fascinated with how the tiering of values associated with this hierarchy translates into an individual's choice of occupation. While career paths that require some sort of education vary greatly in their expected monetary wage I posit that the all-in differences in compensation, which include intangible and psychological acknowledgment factors, are not nearly so gaping. In an attempt to quantify this idea I've created a simple framework that equalizes total compensation across all careers. I do this by first broadening the definition of compensation factors then assigning each of these five factors with a unitary value that sum to 100.

Post-collegiate career decisions are motivated by and compensated with five Social Currencies:

1.) Monetary: The most obvious, superficial, and sought after reward is many times the primary motivator for those who pursue skills that are highly valued in capitalist economies.

2.) Academic: The societal seal of approval paid to those who serve to maintain and further humanity's knowledge set. Research scientists, engineers, and historians sacrifice more superficial rewards for this honorable, psychological nod.

3.) Altruistic: Similarly, altruistic currency is the character approval given to those who put the well being of others ahead of their own. This motivating element makes up a disproportionate part of the reward given to elementary school teachers, firefighters, EMT paramedics, and social defenders.

4.) Celebrity: Recipients of this currency are either directly or indirectly involved with industries or individuals who are highly exposed to the mass public. Politicians, professional athletes, and entertainers are the main benefactors of the perks (and ills) of this payment.

5.) Cultural: Reserved for individuals who pursue more abstract and intellectual aspects of the arts, entertainment, and literature. Contrary to celebrity currency this form of acknowledgment isn't necessarily correlated to the level of public exposure. Rather, these individuals seek praise for their aesthetic perspective, creativity, and intellect in pursuits that are not necessarily tied to monetary gain. With celebrity and cultural currency comes the corollary currency of influence. The idea value or acknowledgment given to those who have the power to change the way people think and behave.

A few examples are included in the table below.

A few obvious limitations:

* There are surely more than five factors that motivate one’s career choice. This idea becomes more unwieldy when you include those without an elementary or advanced education.
* I believe that there are a small handful of superoptimal pursuits that sum to greater than 100 and a larger set of suboptimal paths that sum to less than 100. An example of a superoptimal path might be a famous documentarian who earns an abundance of all five currencies. A suboptimal example would be a white collar office worker who earns a menial monetary wage and little else.
* Even if you give credence to this framework the values associated to each category are highly subjective and exposed to the biases of the assigner (an interesting perceptional test in itself).