The American Concept of “Prestige” Has Barely Changed in 37 Years

People respect doctors.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

How does America define prestigious work? A quick glance at the latest poll from Harris suggests it has a lot to do with helping others. Doctors top the list for net prestige, or the percentage of respondents who said the job either “has a great deal of prestige” or “has prestige.” Next came military officer, then firefighter, then scientist, then nurse. The rest of the top 11 includes other service-oriented professions such as police officer, priest/ministry/clergy, and teacher.

Chart from Harris

While this is the first year that Harris has conducted the job prestige survey online (slightly changing the methodology), it has been asking Americans since 1977 about how prestigious they find various occupations to be. Back then, the list of job titles was shorter and scientist earned the highest marks, with 66 percent of respondents choosing to describe it as “an occupation of very great prestige”; doctor came in second. Scientists remained the most esteemed of employees and doctors the second-most respected until the 1997 survey, when the two traded places. All in all, doctors have claimed the No. 1 spot for five of the 16 polls, scientists for six, and firefighters (absent before the 2003 survey) for the other five.

Harris does not give a definition of prestigious in its poll. This year, it simply said: “Below is a list of occupations. For each how, if at all, prestigious do you find the occupation?” Based on the responses, it seems like the average American considers prestigious jobs to be ones that require either a fairly high level of education or a fairly high level of public service. Americans notably do not equate prestige with fame—actors and entertainers fall in the bottom half of the choices. Money doesn’t seem to matter much, either, with lawyers, business executives, and bankers also falling lower on the list.

On the other hand, the calculus is a little different for the jobs people say they’d encourage a child to pursue. In that ranking, engineer overwhelmingly tops the list, with doctor, scientist, and nurse coming next. It seems “most prestigious” is not always exactly the same as “most employable.”