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Celebrity Culture, the New Global Upper Class, and the Fear of Insignificance

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SUCCESS DEFINITION

A new species is born: Homo globalis, defined by its intimate connection to the global infotainment system. This is the first human generation that has access to facts, stories and images around the world. The global infotainment system, in turn, thrives on global celebrities. It needs them if it wants to reach worldwide audiences, at least potentially.

Existential psychology has shown the depth of the human need to matter, make a difference, to feel that you have a significant place in this world. We all need to feel that we do something that matters within the frame of reference that defines our experiential world. The question is what this frame of reference is.

Who matters in the global economy and media, and who doesn't? And how does the infotainment system determine who matters? In a field of comparison that spans the earth's population, we gravitate towards quantitative measures, and basically there seem to be two major parameters that can be measured easily: fame and wealth.

As a result, a new craze has evolved: an endless thirst for ranking and rating scales. These matter, first and foremost, economically. Brands, by definition, need to stand out. But now human beings have basically become brands as well. The infotainment system needs to know whose endorsement will matter. They matter politically: without name-recognition, you stand no chance of being elected.

Ranking systems have come to matter for the self-esteem of all Homo globalis. The new principle is "I am ranked; therefore I am." The desire for fame is as old as humanity. From the moment that humans became aware of death, we desired immortality. The Homeric heroes were willing to sacrifice their lives for deeds that would be remembered forever; fame, has always been one of humanity's favorite ways to ensure immortality, if only symbolically.

In our age of global infotainment networks, the Holy Grail is to appear in some ranking system. It starts from the influential global lists, like the TIME list of the 100 most influential persons in the world. It continues through the various lists of the wealthiest, sexiest, best-known of the globe, the continent, the country -- or at least the city.

As a result the Homo globalis' consciousness is filled with the global success stories that fuel the global infotainment networks: from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates, Rihanna to Raphael Nadal, we are getting used to the benchmark of those known to billions and earning phenomenal amounts of money.

This is making life difficult for the overwhelming majority of Homo globalis, who are faced with a difficult predicament. A new class has emerged at the border of the upper and the upper-middle classes, which led Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and now professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, to speak of the "New Rich-Rich Gap." He writes:

A new group is emerging at the very top. They're CEOs and CFOs of global corporations, and partners and executives in global investment banks, law firms and consultancies. Unlike most national symbolic analysts, these global symbolic analysts conduct almost all their work in English, and share with one another an increasingly similar cosmopolitan culture.



Most global symbolic analysts have been educated at the same elite institutions -- America's Ivy League universities, Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics or the University of California, Berkeley. They work in similar environments -- in glass-and-steel office towers in the world's largest cities, in jet planes and international-meeting resorts. And they feel as comfortable in New York, London or Geneva as they do in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Sydney. When they're not working -- and they tend to work very hard -- they live comfortably, and enjoy golf and first-class hotels. Their income and wealth far surpass those of national symbolic analysts.

The impact of this new upper class is felt most strongly by the traditional upper-middle class, which Reich calls the "national symbolic analysts." The first impact is quite concrete. Cities that house the large multinationals companies' headquarters have become virtually unaffordable for a growing number of people, because real estate prices and rents shoot through the roof into stratospheric heights.

The second impact is psychological. I have, for example, worked with physicians who felt deeply frustrated: "I have studied and specialized for 15 years, and I'm starting to make money only now. I feel like a complete idiot when I look at my classmates who dropped out of medicine and moved to some biotech company or a fund that invests in them. They have more money now than I'll make in a lifetime!" Since money is one of the measurable ranking factors in the global village, this has a strong impact on these physicians' self-esteem and sense of significance.

These physicians represent the larger group of the traditional professions who feel largely disenfranchised. First, they feel financially stressed. They need to work very hard to just get their kids through college, and they still feel that they have difficulties maintaining the lifestyles that they were led to expect when they chose their professions.

Second, they feel that the status that they expected when they entered their professions eludes them. If doctors or lawyers could once reasonably expect to be respected in their communities, most of them, except a few stars plugged into the system of Reich's "international symbolic analysts," don't make the type of money needed to afford a lifestyle with the prestige that was associated with the traditional professions in the past.

Those who belong to the group of national symbolic analysts may be highly competent, and do interesting work, but their impact and reach is limited to their immediate environment. Those who are "only" national symbolic analysts feel left out, because the global infotainment system has become Homo globalis' frame of reference.

Add to this that many national symbolic analysts have lost their independence through the new global developments. For lawyers it is becoming increasingly difficult to be competitive in a market that has come to be dominated by ever larger firms able to provide 24/7 services, providing their global clients with legal services at very high speed. The same holds true for consultants, accountants and advertisers whose environment has changed dramatically with the advent of global firms like McKinsey, Ernst and Young and McCann Erickson.

The result is a persistent fear of insignificance: Our culture, addicted to global success stories, is making it increasingly difficult for the overwhelming majority of people who make a decent living through hard work, but do not belong to the global ruling class, to feel that they matter.

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