Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first appeared in 1954. The world has changed enormously over the past 55 years and critics have challenged Maslow.

You can read more about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs in Motivation and the hierarchy of needs. There’s criticism 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.

For an example, a knowledge worker will gain skills, win responsibility and in turn earn extra income taking care of the lower levels of the hierarchy.

According to Maslow this makes it possible to move up to self-actualisation – 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. Finding food, shelter and warmth is suddenly the most important thing on the agenda.

Of course many redundant workers pick themselves up and climb back up the pyramid. The journey is easier the second time around. Knowing the route and recognising the landmarks along the way helps.

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.

I don’t think I’ve seen 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 echelons of the economy (which is where you might expect to find them given the pyramid). Smug, self-satisfied bastards were everywhere.

What does this tell me?

Maslow’s hierarchy is a useful theory, but it’s not a pyramid. It is a four step ladder. And each step up the ladder links to slides that will take you back down again. In other words, a game of snakes and ladders.

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