Want Prestige? A Lab Coat Will Help, Though Not As Much As It Once Did

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be real estate brokers/agents. In a Harris Poll that asked respondents to gauge the prestige attached to 22 professions, the real estate jobs were the least likely to be seen carrying “very great prestige” (by 5 percent of those polled) and the most likely to be viewed as having “hardly any prestige at all” (30 percent). The poll’s highest score went to the profession of doctor: 52 percent “very great prestige,” 32 percent “considerable prestige,” 14 percent “some prestige” and 1 percent “hardly any prestige at all.” Scientists ran a close second: 52 percent “very great,” 29 percent “considerable,” 15 percent “some” and 3 percent “hardly any.” The “very great prestige” tallies for some other occupations: fireman, 48 percent; teacher, 48 percent; military officer, 47 percent; nurse, 44 percent; police officer, 40 percent; engineer, 29 percent; athlete, 21 percent; architect, 20 percent; business executive, 19 percent; lawyer, 17 percent; entertainer, 16 percent; banker, 15 percent; and stockbroker, 10 percent.

Despite their lofty standing, doctor and scientist are among the professions that have lost the most “very great prestige” votes since Harris started conducting these polls in 1977 (doctor down 9 points, scientist down 14 points). Lawyer is the only profession to have lost more ground over that period (19 points). We can hypothesize that relentless public hammering at the healthcare system and the pharmaceutical industry has taken a toll on the prestige of the white-lab-coat cohort. While medical science is extending life expectancy, despite people’s famously unhealthy lifestyles, Americans aren’t brimming over with gratitude. It seems we now look at scientific progress not with a sense of wonder but with a sense of entitlement.

In some cases, we can link a drop in perceived prestige to specific events. That’s likely true of the priest/minister/clergyman category (down 9 points, to 32 percent), which has been hit by sex-abuse scandals. On the other hand, the innocuous profession of engineer has also suffered a decline during that period (off 5 points). One wonders whether such numbers relate as much to the concept of prestige itself as they do to regard for the particular professions. In our egalitarian era, we’ve grown resistant to the idea that someone else’s profession is more admirable than our own. Likewise, the current obsession with self-esteem may have made people more stingy in doling out esteem to anyone else. The old-fashioned willingness to defer to one’s “betters” has certainly expired, along with the notion that there’s any such thing as one’s betters.