What Is Considered Middle Class? Hint: It’s Not Your Income
When people talk about being middle class, they're not talking about an income threshold or investment in assets. They're talking about a set of values.
What is considered middle-class? Is it an income threshold? A series of checkmarks: home-ownership, a decent salary, a car? Is a two-parent working household? Or, is it, as Hadas Weiss, an anthropologist at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Study, argues in We Have Never Been Middle Class: How Social Mobility Misleads Us, simply an ideology that many of us have organized our lives around, by making investments in education, property, and the stock market as a way to gain wealth? It very well may be — after all, some 70 percent of Americans self-identify as having a middle class income, but far less than that actually meet the monetary guidelines to be considered as such. Add that to the new report from Brookings found that 53 million workers in the U.S. aged 18 to 64, almost half of all workers, make only $18,000 a year. Two-thirds of low wage workers are in their prime earning years. Meanwhile, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Recognizing Poverty Act in November of 2019 to redefine the federal poverty level for a single household as $38,000 — a number many Americans consider to be a middle class income. Add all this together and it seems like Weiss has a point: the term ‘middle-class’ means next to nothing in real, financial terms.
In her new book, Weiss argues that the ideology, and near-mythic status, of the middle class has forced us all to live in a not only a constant state of competition but also a constant state of worry about our assets and investments (like the prohibitive costs of private education from K-12 through college for our kids) that may or may not pay off. The myth of advancement, which has become an increasingly untenable goal in this economy, she argues, keeps us tethered to these values. This is in spite of the fact that in recent years, advancement might not be attainable after all.
Fatherly spoke to Weiss about how middle-class families struggle under this framework, why being middle class is often more defined as what you’re not than what you are, and why parents should realize the problems they face economically and otherwise are not personal failures — but the intended consequence of the structure of an unfair system.
Why did you want to write about the middle class?
I come from what you might call a middle-class family, where the message I absorbed was that if I study and save and invest in future goals, I’d be rewarded for my efforts and renunciations. The environment I grew up in until grad school, was sheltered enough and more or less confirmed this expectation. For a very long time, I was convinced that it was because of the hard work that I was doing well. But then the real world hit me. In the past decade, I’ve been hanging onto academia by a thread, no matter how hard I worked. At the same time, I was studying self-identified middle classes as part of in my anthropological research. I saw them rehearsing the same mantra I grew up with, even though their expectations were similarly frustrated. The mantra started looking compulsive to me, and I wanted to figure out where it came from and why it was so resilient. This book is the result of that quest.
You argue that being middle class is more of an ideology than an actual, definitive middle class salary or income. Can you explain?
There is no accepted scholarly definition of what “middle class” is. Everywhere in the world, the term is used loosely and shaped to promote various agendas. There are also many more people who self-identify as middle class than any of the income, status or employment criteria that scholars argue about. In that sense, the middle class has never existed as an identifiable group of any kind.
So it doesn’t exist.
It does exist in people’s minds. People who label themselves middle class do so to assert what they’re not: they didn’t have their fortunes handed down to them like elites, nor are they shackled to their misery like the underclasses. It’s a way of signaling social mobility, then, with an added twist. People who identify as middle class believe that whatever cards they’re dealt with, their efforts and investments in education, professional skills, homeownership, social networks, savings, insurance, and a pension are what drives this mobility. All of these investments are future-oriented and demand some renunciation of time, money or comfort in the present. If people end up doing well, then, they trace their good fortune to these investments. If they don’t, they blame themselves for having invested poorly or insufficiently. It’s also how they judge other people’s situations.
It’s not just who they are — and what they aspire to be — it’s also who they’re not.
Two things make this an ideology, rather than just one of the many unfounded beliefs we have. The first is that it’s simply not true that our fortune reflects our investments. Ask anyone who can’t get a decent job for all of their education, who are paying more in mortgage than their house is worth, or whose pension savings have been devalued. Even when these investments are rewarded, it’s never clear if the reward is worth everything that’s been invested. These calculations are very hard to make, and most people don’t even want to go there.
The other reason it’s an ideology is that it motivates us to pursue self-undermining goals.
What do you mean, self-undermining?
Believing that our investments will be rewarded, we keep investing. When everyone does this, competition escalates. Home prices rise, many more people with the same qualifications vie for the same jobs and so on. We respond to competition by stepping up our investments, never stopping to ask ourselves if they’re really worth it. If we would, we’d realize that on the whole, our investments deliver diminishing returns. Before we know it, we’re not jostling to do better, but simply to keep up with others, and to protect ourselves and our families against calamity.
In the book, you bring up the era of financialization, which began in the 1980s with the supremacy of the stock market. You mention that the rise of financialization has a lot to do with the way the middle class lives today. How?
We’re living at an age where finance dominates our everyday lives, which is what I call financialization. Finance helps us invest. The education and property we can’t afford, we get through credit and installment plans. This vastly increases the number of people who invest in property and education. Finance is now flooding the Global South as well, allowing the populations of these countries to reach for the same things; hence all the talk about a rising global middle class.
But the dominance of finance also raises the price of the property, assets, and credentials that we invest in. It also makes their value fluctuate more than it ever has before. Even as more of us are empowered to invest, rising prices force us to make ever greater investments, while the returns on them are less secure. That’s what leads to the phenomenon we now talk about as a middle-class squeeze. So, financialization increases investments exponentially while making the ideology of the middle class even more questionable.
Is the ideology of the middle class generated by politicians or by the people who claim to be middle class? Does that distinction even matter?
Those propagating the ideology of the middle class – not only politicians but also marketeers, the business sector, financiers and development agencies – have something to gain from a system in which we’re all jostling over advantages in property-ownership, education, and other social and material assets. A great amount of money is put into circulation through our investments, and those in privileged positions can pocket some of it. The gains are also political: if we’re all scrambling to get a leg up in a competition over the same assets and jobs, we’re more likely to keep a wary eye on our competitors than to ask pointed questions about the system that forces us to make such efforts with no guarantee that they’d pay off. You can think about it as a contemporary version of the age-old strategy of divide and rule: having us duke it out against each other while those in power retain it at our expense. But ideology doesn’t need to be propagated so much if people buy into it anyway, and take its tenets for granted. And they do, to varying extents. The distinction matters, then, insofar as it helps us gauge how successful the ideology is.
So the middle class, and ultimately an income that’s considered middle class, is a myth. A fallacy, an ideology, and one that we’re all getting squeezed out of one way or another. Why do we still hold onto the ideology that surrounds it?
Because there is one important sense in which we do indeed ascend or descend socially as an outcome of our investment — and that is the relative sense. Bigger investors usually do better than smaller ones. Early investors in homeownership can profit from the rising real estate prices that latecomers’ investments set off, and they can even charge them rent. People who already have credentials have the first bid on good jobs. They can also protect the value of their credentials by raising entry criteria to their schools, disciplines, or professions, limiting widespread access to them. People who live in a nice neighborhood can keep its value high through zoning laws that set an income floor on others.
So, the ideologies of the middle class seem to be linked inextricably to meritocracy: that our hard work gets us where we are; and then, where we are must be protected to ensure that the value of where we are stays what it is. Letting more people into the club diminishes our value.
People resort to these strategies because of the value of the things they invested in rises, and falls, according to how many other people own the same things. In the big picture, we’re investing more for uncertain or diminishing returns. But all we really see is the small picture, in which our fate depends on where we stand in a real estate or education ladder, where we can either be priced out, or price others out, either pay rent or charge others rent. Given the intensity of competition for a steady income and other forms of security, we’re haunted by the justified fear that if we don’t invest, we’re doomed ourselves or even worse: we’re dooming our children. These are very compelling reasons for the middle-class ideology to retain its hold. I’ll add one last reason: we tend to love the investments that we’d already made and ourselves for having made them. It’s actually very hard to own up to the futility of our past efforts, especially if they entailed sacrifices.
So what does the economic market look like for the average millennial today?
In a word: insecure. The irony is that most 30-year-olds invest for the sake of security. The insecurity we’re experiencing is not some existential fate of mankind: it’s manufactured insecurity, structurally built into our economic system. As long as profit remains the goal and yardstick for everything that’s produced in our economy, competitive pressures will keep pressing down hard. They’re the reason why we can never sit back and enjoy the fruits of our prior investments. The value of the house we bought will fluctuate. The educational and professional skills we’ve accumulated will become outdated. The value of our savings will be eaten away by inflation. We’re practically forced by manufactured competition and insecurity to keep investing and then invest some more, without knowing what the outcomes of our investments will be.
What should middle-class parents take away from your book? There’s no way they can just disinvest in my kid’s future, even if it is a wildly insecure investment.
I devote an entire chapter to the family and to the strains that the ideology of the middle-class places on it because families are considered the cradle of the middle class. Children are parents’ strongest motivation to invest. They fear that if they don’t, their children will be at a disadvantage. Parents invest an enormous amount of time and money and effort to create a nurturing environment for their children to cultivate their skills and networks, and in ensuring that their children get a good education. But these investments in children are very long term and for that reason, the least secure of all.
With a mercurial job market, in which some skills are being devalued, and new ones popping up, who knows what fruit investments in children will bear 10 or 20 years from now?
The fact that parents spend so much of their resources, and borrow those they don’t have themselves, to give their children a good education makes these children’s choices and fortunes very loaded. Grown children can vindicate all of the efforts and sacrifices that their parents made, or they can render them futile. If that’s not pressure enough on today’s families, the necessity to always be investing and the impossibility of knowing which investments will pay off creates helicopter parents whose sense of responsibility for their children doesn’t allow them to let go. What I hope parents will take away from my book is an understanding that the problems they’re experiencing around their children’s education are not personal or psychological or even cultural, and they’re certainly not parents’ own fault. These are structural problems, built into our economy, and so it’s the economic system that needs to be changed if we want to solve them.
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