Class Reunion10. December 2012 by Joachim Goldberg
A class reunion is a very peculiar event. I have often wondered what it is about these anniversary get-togethers – 10, 20 or 25 years after leaving school – that makes them so appealing. Naturally, there is a certain thrill about the prospect of seeing an old buddy from one’s childhood again. But not all of those present are former friends. Not only classmates are reunited at these events, but human reference points. Whatever became of Susan? How many wives did Ben get through? How much real estate does Gerald have in his portfolio now? These are the kind of questions one asks in order to facilitate comparisons with one’s own post-school achievements. We make social comparisons all the time, of course, but there is no purer comparison than with people who were born in the same year, grew up in the same neighbourhood, and received the same education. These were presumably people who also shared the same dreams, goals, ideals and promising futures. The reunion is the chance to see what they made of them.
Recently, my friend K. was invited to such a reunion. He is a former banker, and has a good financial situation. He might not have rolled in the kind of oversized bonuses we often read about in the papers, but I always thought he was well paid for the work he did. His marriage has seen the usual ups and downs, but has remained solid. The couple also produced two well-balanced children. In all K. would consider his life to be a happy one. At least, this is what he thought until he attended a class reunion last week.
They were all there: the swot who tried so hard to win the teacher’s adoration, but never managed to be the favourite; the grey eminence, the one who always decided who conformed to the group norms and who didn’t; and the guy who always seemed to be near the bottom where grades were concerned, but still managed to squeeze through. This latter has now climbed into the ranks of the nouveau-riche. Even though K. and the others ran rings around this chap in school, it was he who topped the income league today. As if to prove his point, he fished a photograph of an attractive brunette out of his wallet and plopped it on the desk: “Look! That’s my wife,” he grinned. Without wanting to be mean, this upstart had revealed everything that K. had secretly dreamed of, but couldn’t get. In short, K. was envious.
Over the subsequent three days, K. underwent a frightening change. His contentedness vanished although nothing in his life had changed. He earned as much as he did on the Friday before the class reunion; neither he nor any member of his family had suffered any accident or illness; his wife was still charming and attentive; and his children were as well-behaved as ever. Yet, under the influence of this new reference point, K. saw his income as miserable in comparison with the earnings of this academic lightweight from his schooldays. And as for the top-model the usurper had managed to woo, she managed to make his wife, who hadn’t turned any heads in quite a while, look a little mousy. There was no doubt about it. The social comparison had imposed a new reference point against which K. simply failed to measure up. He perceived all the salient gains of the other as a loss for himself.
The story reminded me why I have always felt uneasy about attending reunion events like that. Class get-togethers have much in common with the stock market. At the end of the trading session, the winners and the losers are not simply those who made or lost money; relative evaluations count too. Investors who made money, but not as much as colleagues, peers or benchmarks, will perceive a loss although they are actually richer. Similarly, investors can draw malicious satisfaction when they see the price collapse of stocks they do not own, even though they are no richer as a result. From relative evaluations, one can easily fall victim to emotions like envy and schadenfreude, neither of which make one happy.