Have you ever experienced a decline in your social standing, such as feeling less respected in your life? Whatever the reason, losing social status can be a challenging experience. It can undermine overall well-being, as it reflects the image one has in the eyes of others. What is more, status loss can have detrimental consequences, particularly if a person feels stuck and unable to move up the social ladder. But did you know that your age and beliefs in upward mobility can play a role in how you react to such changes?

We asked over 6,500 people between 18 to 89 years of age about their experience of status loss, beliefs in opportunity and upward mobility, and their life satisfaction at the beginning and end of the study (between 3 months and 2 years later). We found that those who held stronger beliefs in their potential to enhance their social status in the future were less likely to report lower life satisfaction when they had experienced status loss. Specifically, our results showed that people who held beliefs in opportunity and believed that status differences are malleable experienced less impact on their well-being when facing status loss, than those who saw limited opportunities and perceived their social status position as immutable.

While this may seem not very surprising, our research also revealed that age plays a significant part in this association. Younger individuals (18-39 years) were more likely to hold beliefs in upward mobility and opportunity, and thus were better able to mitigate the negative effects of status loss on life satisfaction than adults who were older. From a lifespan perspective, these findings suggest that at a younger age people hold stronger upward mobility beliefs due to their stronger inclination towards growth. These beliefs may act as a driving force for exploring new environments, overcoming setbacks, and accumulating experiences to optimize future outcomes.

By contrast, due to middle-aged and older individuals' stronger focus on maintenance and loss prevention, they were less likely to endorse beliefs in upward mobility and opportunity. In addition, as people age they may tend to withdraw from status-oriented goals and prioritize goals linked to emotional closeness and intimacy. This may render beliefs in upward mobility less adaptive during middle and later stages of life.

Summing Up

Thus, your beliefs in upward mobility and opportunity can play an important role in how you react to changes in social status. If you believe that you have the potential to improve your status in the future, losing social status might not have a severe impact. Nevertheless, as you age, you may become less inclined to endorse these beliefs and may instead adopt alternative strategies to deal with status loss.

But keep in mind that the protective effect of opportunity and upward mobility beliefs may only work in the short term. In the long run, such beliefs may prove to be counterproductive and even detrimental when people realize that their beliefs about upward mobility do not match reality.

Losing social status can be a challenging experience that can impact a person's overall well-being. However, one's status beliefs matter. Our results suggest that at least in the short term, maintaining a focus on future opportunities and potential for upward mobility may help to lessen the negative impact of status loss on life satisfaction.

For Further Reading

Weiss, D., & Blöchl, M. (2023). Loss of Social Status and Subjective Well-Being Across the Adult Life Span: Feeling Stuck or Moving Up? Social Psychological and Personality Science,0(0). https://doi.org/10.1177/19485506231162405

David Weiss is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Halle. His research interests include social identity, age stereotypes, and social hierarchies across the lifespan.