Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first appeared in 1954. The world has changed over the past 55 years. We’re not the same and critics have challenged Maslow.

You can read more about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in Motivation and the hierarchy of needs. Some criticism is covered in Challenging Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is often shown as a pyramid. There’s an implication people move up the pyramid as their lives improve.

Take a knowledge worker. The person will gain skills, win responsibility and in turn earn extra income. This takes care of the lower levels of the hierarchy.


According to Maslow this makes it possible to move up to self-actualisation. Think of this as a kind of western nirvana.

Today’s global financial crisis means many workers are moving in the opposite direction.

Being laid off is traumatic. In some cases people can be at the pinnacle of the hierarchy one day and slide all the way to the bottom the moment the pink slip appears. This can also happen when disaster strikes. Finding food, shelter and warmth are once more the most important things on the agenda.

Many redundant workers pick themselves up and climb back up Maslow’s pyramid. The journey is easier the second time around. Knowing the route and recognising the landmarks along the way helps.

Hierarchy all the way?

Maslow’s theory works well enough on the four bottom stages. You only have to look around and see people at each level. And occasionally you’ll notice people moving up or down.

You don’t see many self-actualised pyramid toppers.

Even in the good times before the economy nose-dived, Brahmins were thin on the ground. This would be especially so in the higher levels of the economy (which is where you might expect to find them given the pyramid).

What does this tell us?

Maslow’s hierarchy is a useful theory, but it’s not a pyramid. It is a four-step ladder. At each step up the ladder there’s a slide that could take you back down again. In other words, it’s a game of snakes and ladders.

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