What does "middle class" mean to you?
October 9, 2004 11:34 AM   Subscribe

When you think "middle class," what does that mean to you? Income range? Education level? Does it vary from region to region and country to country? (Inspired by the Sean Hannity post)
posted by LittleMissCranky to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I always thought of it as people above poverty level and unskilled working class and below true wealth and power. I always figured that someone making say $200,000 a year had departed even the upper-middle-class. But you're right in that with cost-of-living variances from region to region, the amount of money it takes to live comfortably or even luxuriously varies from place to place.

One odd thing I've noticed is that blue collar people tend to consider themselves (and be considered) working class even though I know skilled carpenters, plumbers and the like who clear six figure incomes and union workers who make nice salaries as well. But perhaps that perception comes from the fact that their work does involve physical labor (although there's plenty of thinking involved too.)

Conversely, I know office drudges who make far less but would be considered middle class. So it's a complex equation.
posted by jonmc at 11:42 AM on October 9, 2004

I use a rather broad definition of "middle class": anyone who can afford to make rent and pay bills, yet must still work for a living. Given the cost of living around here, in dollar terms that probably comes out to a $35,000 annual income or better for a single individual, maybe closer to $80,000 for a family of 4 with a car. If you're buying now, you have to bring in over $100,000 to afford to own a low-end home, with $200k being just about what it would take to be a comfortable homeowner in a decent neighborhood. In this, old people have it better, since they're likelier to have purchased a home back when it was possible to do so without an absurdly high income.

Anyone who can afford not to work is rich. Anyone who has to choose between rent and groceries is poor.

Education level doesn't really enter into it. I have little education of any kind at all, yet am easily "middle class" in terms of income and the luxuries I can afford, and I know folks with barely a high school education who make double what I do, just as I know people with advanced degrees who are scraping by on slinging espresso and living on ramen.
posted by majick at 12:29 PM on October 9, 2004

I would consider anyone middle class who is above the ghetto. Roseanne is a good deliniation point between lower-class and lower-middle class. They had enough money to live comfortably and not have to worry about where their next meal was going to come from. They still had money worries (which really differentiates the upper class from the middle class) but not the magnitude where there was any real want.

And from there you go all the way up to anyone who's basically subsisting on their job (no income from other sources) where not having their primary job could severly upset their lives. A CEO earning 300k a year plus benefits has enough interests in other companies and enough talent (he did get to CEO, no matter how bad he was at it) where maintaing current lifestyle would not be hard. A Vice-President without the luxuries, and if he got fired at 55 might not be able to recoup, would be upper-middle class.

There's exceptions but that's the general rule of thumb in my opinion.
posted by geoff. at 12:34 PM on October 9, 2004

To me it means a comfort range and the way you make money. If you've got to go to work 5 days a week to make ends meet and don't live extravagantly then you're probably middle class. If you've inherited daddies money and head up a company or two on paper then you're no longer middle class. I don't know if there's every been a real definition though. Thinking back to Bob Seger's song UMC then being a doctor or a lawyer and owning a yacht just meant you're in the upper middle class.

I've always figured that I'd leave the middle class's definition if most of my money worked for me rather than I worked for most of my money.
posted by substrate at 12:34 PM on October 9, 2004

For me, when I think of socio-economic status (such as middle class), I think of three factors: income, education & experience, and career choice. I don't just look at the current levels, but also at the potential. For example, I would consider a 19 year old office drudge who is considering college to be of a higher SES than a 49 year old office drudge making similar wage (adjusted for raises over the years) who never went to college and has no aspirations to do so. That's how I reconcile a blue collar laborer who is making several times more than someone who is starting their own business being considered working class while the person starting their own business would be considered middle class.

I differ from majick in that I don't think that it can be as simple as just what you can afford to buy. Education and experience are important in that they provide cultural capital and affect the lifestyles that you lead. I know some people living in a middle class lifestyle that could certainly afford to live an upper class lifestyle but they lack the cultural capital to do so. Conversely, I know many people that live a middle class lifestyle that are probably out earned by a good portion of the working class and yet they have a certain amount of cultural capital that allows them a middle class lifestyle.
posted by imbri at 12:43 PM on October 9, 2004 [1 favorite]

I've always thought if you break six figures you're no longer middle class. But majick's definition makes sense to me.
posted by namespan at 1:12 PM on October 9, 2004

I really enjoyed Paul Fussell's cheeky Class: A Guide Through the American Status System in looking at the status and culture side of the class phenomenon (in addition to the usual money and occupation concerns, of course). I don't agree with some of its observations and the book's references date back to the early 80's, but many of his points, IMO, are spot on. He characterizes the middle class as the neurotic class--"keeping up with the Joneses", sending their kids to the "right" schools, trying very hard to make a good first impression on people and putting their best foot too far forward, using "nice" in speech as a catch-all compliment rather than an articulate and precise word that might inadvertently offend, etc. He has a variety of litmus tests throughout the text illustrating the differences in habits between the classes: if you subscribe to magazines to display on your coffee table that you seldom read (or if you have fancy coffee table books), you're middle class; if not, working class. If you worry about drinking a beer directly out of a can around company, you're middle class; if not, you're working class. And so on.

Obviously stereotypes this broad fit individuals rather poorly, but the book is an interesting read nevertheless if you're interested in looking at "class" with a variety of considerations in mind.
posted by DaShiv at 1:28 PM on October 9, 2004

imbri: I think I see a little bit of what you're getting at, but I'm very curious: How do you define or quantify this "cultural capital" you're speaking of? I'm not sure how it would factor in.
posted by majick at 1:41 PM on October 9, 2004

Here in the UK I've often heard it be said that you are born into a class; you cannot move into it.

So someone brought up amidst a background of manual labour, depending upon employers for a living, no intention of them going to university... they might be working class. These values would likely stay with you even if you become rich.

Someone who has confidence that the next bill is going to be paid, who may even have a business of their own, who has been through a university education (which has been paid for by their parents)... they're probably middle class.

As DaShiv says, there's a whole load of cultural symbols behind the lower/middle class divisions. This is exemplified in the kinds of television programmes people might watch or the food they might eat... or even the way in which they cook their food.
posted by skylar at 1:43 PM on October 9, 2004

Best answer: Wow, there are a lot of low standards for middle class here, Many people here include what I would certainly call the working poor - people who might not have to choose between rent and groceries, but if they were sick for a few weeks, or lost their job, would not have enough cushion space to get by. I would also include those who, for reasons of money, choose to live in inadequate housing. (If you have ever lived in an apartment building with roaches and periodically no running water, then you would have a hard time seeing all working people as "middle class").

The definitions here start to explain to me why people act as they do - and why politicians talk the way they do. The defintion (are most posters here American?) seems to have expanded to include everyone.

I see the difference in a few ways - one is relative wealth, the other is property and future orientation. Adam Smith once said that poverty is lacking that which the custom of one's country required to be decent. In most of North America, that often means a car, maybe a house (for a family) - but many working families lack these things. They also lack the money to take their children to McDonalds, to pay for lunches on school trips, to buy the clothes that the other kids are wearing. They cannot participate in the consumer culture of their country - they never go to Disneyworld, and may never take a vacation away (not even a road trip - vacation is too short, and money too tight). Though they may be able to afford rent and groceries (just), all sorts of other things that others would just accept as part of what one has as a North American are beyond their ken. This is what I would call the working poor.

The middle class are those who I would think of as living at least part of that ideal lifestyle - they have a car (except for major cities), the potential to own their own home, they must budget, but not to the penny, they can take vacations, they buy new clothes every school year for the kids, and always have enough school supplies. If they don't have time to pack lunch, they can give their kids money for lunch. These are little things, but middle class people take them for granted.

The "working class" is a term that I am less comfortable with - it does imply a certain solidarity by job type, typically blue collar. Some of that solidarity persists, but as noted above, there is a great deal of distance between the skilled worker or manfacturing working who makes a wage more akin to the middle class, and the unskilled labourer who barely scrapes by (and who is joined by more pink-collar than classic blue collar jobs).

But the other way to think about middle class (as opposed to consumption and lifestyle), and that is in their orientation towards property and furture orientation (two separate issues).

For me, one of the biggest lines between lower class and middle class is the ownership of property - especially a house or condiminium. Lower class people often own little to no valuable property - if they went bankrupt, they would loose their credit rating but nothing else. It's not the same for a home-owner. But more than that - home-owning is an investment. It requires having enough spare money to save up and the confidence in their own income to risk entering into a morgage (I know people who continue renting, because they think that they could be laid off anytime, and have to move somewhere cheaper). But more than that, they start thinking of themselves as "owners"- they worry about taxes. Poor people never do - they pay a lot, through sales taxes and payroll taxes, as well as some income, but they see taxes as having value. Ironically, the "middle classes" may actually have befitted much more from the social services changes in the last 50 years (education, roads, local services (better in middle class areas) - in the UK and Canada, there is healthcare and higher education, which middle class people use more). But they are also much more concious of paying for it. They start seeing themselves as having interests with the upperclass, to protect their property. Whether this is actually in their own benefit is another story.

There are always exceptions, of course - I grew up in a large city, and thus house-ownership carries more significance than it would in a small city. I doubt that the he characters on Roseanne would have called themselves "middle class" despite owning a home (did they own that house? They appeared to live in a town/smallish city, where owning a house seemed to be much easier (after all, that house wasn't well decorated) - and along with the cultural affinity of being blue collar, they had a reall precariousness in their income that just isn't middle class. They couldn't budget for the future, because Dan was in and out of work so much. But I see other families beginning to perceive themselves as middle class, and to start voting for what would benefit the middle class, even when those benefits (like tax cuts) wouldn't help them on their income. But they saw themselves as that prototypical put upon middle class voter, with property at stake.

"Future orientation" is something else that is a difference - apparently there has been studies on this, and they find that future orientation (how much you plan for, think about your future) is correlated with income. Part of this is obvious - if you are naturally future oriented, you would be more likely to do well and increase your income. But it is also then when you are on a low income, and worrying about paying bills this month, it is very difficult to start (for instance), investing for your 2 year old child's college fund. (Actually, in Canada, we have registered education savings plans, buy they are useless unless you can guarentee that your child will go to university before a certain age, like 21 or 23 - but no one I know from lower class family even knew that they would be going to university until their late teens or early twenties (though they are now in grad school.)
posted by jb at 2:20 PM on October 9, 2004 [2 favorites]

Sorry - that was a really long post, but I've spent a lot of time thinking / debating this issue.


Cultural capital: I am not a sociologist, but I believe this is things like education, etc. that really make it easier to get by. Can you imagine how hard it would be for a woman with no high school diploma and poor grammar to deal with her kid's incompetent teacher or an obstinate beurocrat? Now put a college educated mother in her place. Cultural capital would be the main reason that the children of graduate students (who are poor, but definately educated) tend to do very well in school, and life in general, compared to anyone at a similar income.

Social Capital - not sure, but I think it means the people you know - the connections you have. Apparently, most jobs are found through connections - the better your connections, the better your prospects.

(Again, I am not a sociologist - I have gotten these concepts mixed up before, so please correct me if I'm wrong)
posted by jb at 2:24 PM on October 9, 2004

"one of the biggest lines between lower class and middle class is the ownership of property - especially a house or condiminium."

For this to be true, you'd have to define "middle class" as absolutely excluding everyone with an income below, oh, call it $100,000 USD. Or do they not have a real estate market where you're from?

This kind of thing -- using real property as a cultural and economic marker of the middle class -- may have been true 20 years ago, but it's absolutely not true today. Few members of what might be termed "the middle class" are in a position to cover $450,000 of debt just to get into a "starter home." Hell, I just sold off my starter home because the debt burden was too great.

Income may not be the sole indicator of class, but it correlates so strongly as to make all other factors nearly negligible. "Future orientation" is a luxury that even many firmly middle class members can't necessarily afford. That doesn't make them among the working poor, it makes them among the archetypically screwed middle class.

A better indicator of the bottom end of the middle class would be cable TV. If you've got seventy bucks a month to burn on television, you're very much not poor.
posted by majick at 2:51 PM on October 9, 2004

Addressing class structure in UK is never an easy task, skylar's point about moving between classes is an interesting one to me. How does one differentiate movement betwen classes. Self identification in the UK over the last decade suggests a lot more people think of themselves as middle class than was previously the case. I was defintely born into a working class family (father: welder, mother: mostly housewife) but went to university and am now a PhD academic. I don't see how I can be classed as anything but middle class. However, it is also obvious to me that some of my attitudes were formed as a result of my upbringing in a way that could be classed as descriptors of a working class environment (for example, attitude to debt, possibly job and financial security).

I wouldn't want to try to nail things down, short of making it my life's work, and even that might fall short.
posted by biffa at 3:18 PM on October 9, 2004

When I think of middle class, I almost always think of the stereotypical suburban family with the businessman dad, soccer mom, rebelious punk teen, and bratty kid. So here's my profile for them:

Property: Owns a home in the good part of town. Can afford 1 or more cars.

Job: White collar, total family income over 100,000.

Economics: Investments in stocks, bonds, etc. Has a retirement plan, health insurance, college funds, etc.

Spending Attitudes: Shops anywhere from Wal-Mart for necessities to upscale shops for "important" items. Tends to buy name-brand items. Kids get multiple presents for birthdays/Christmas. Fancy furniture, antiques, big TVs, and new cars are all the norm.

In general, I take a negative view on "the middle class." Working class bias (and bitterness) probably, but the attitudes that I've observed from individuals who I'd describe as middle class are off-putting. Especially from middle-class kids who have been given everything (economically), I keep on seeing this sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy for other (lower) economic realities, a general lack of appreciation for their family's economic position, and a self-absorption that comes from it.
posted by lychee at 4:30 PM on October 9, 2004

Whoa, $450,000 starter home? $100,000+ to be middle class? Let's not impose property values of major urban areas of the coast on the rest of the nation. You can still find a nice 1400 sq ft home for around $150,000 at least where I am (Midwest).
posted by geoff. at 5:22 PM on October 9, 2004

Almost everyone in the United States who is above the poverty line but cannot afford to buy a jet considers themselves middle class. But few people consider anyone significantly (say, >150%) richer or poorer than they are to be be middle class as well. Which is why you can make $100k/year and live in a $750,000 house on Staten Island and be "working class" in the eyes of a "middle class" corporate VP pulling in a cool million and taking a sea plane out to the Hamptons every Friday at five.
posted by armchairsocialist at 6:23 PM on October 9, 2004

"Let's not impose property values of major urban areas of the coast on the rest of the nation."

I think we've just established the answer to "Does it vary from region to region...?" Over there, home ownership marks you as probably middle class. Over here, it marks you as probably filthy stinkin' rich.
posted by majick at 6:59 PM on October 9, 2004

For this to be true, you'd have to define "middle class" as absolutely excluding everyone with an income below, oh, call it $100,000 USD. Or do they not have a real estate market where you're from?

I'm with geoff, and I even live on the East coast (albiet in a fairly rural state). My SO and I make under $60K combined, but we own a home, and a pretty nice one at that. I'm very sure that we're middle class.
posted by anastasiav at 8:36 PM on October 9, 2004

I'm British, and have what I would consider to be a a working-class background: my father worked in blue-collar jobs, my mother did low-income part-time work. No-one in my family had been to university. My wife is Canadian, and has a similar family background with regard to income & education-level, yet considers this to have been middle-class, which pretty much fits in with what others have said above, I guess.
posted by misteraitch at 1:20 AM on October 10, 2004

Social class is about one's ideals and aspirations. It's about what you spend your hard earned money on, no matter how much of it you have.

Can't help but think of the "three classes" sketch from the Frost Report with John Cleese (Upper Class), Ronnie Barker (Middle Class) and Ronnie Corbett (Working Class).

Here in the UK, I think class status is based less on income level and more with education and one's choice of lifestyle.

Although having a higher income can make certain choices easier to achieve, I believe it is increasingly based on one's priorities in life.

Some of the main working/middle class distinctions for me include the newspaper you choose to read, choice of holiday destination, if you can bother watching films with subtitles, interest in current affairs, the state of your back garden, the type of food you eat, the amount of television you allow your children to watch, the number of times you eat out, if you've ever been to the theatre to see a play or draw the line at musicals.

On a personal level, my parents would have been described as working class by income level (father a copy reader and mother a lollypop lady (school crossing attentant). Yet they made many sacrifices for the sake their childrens' education and thier own lifestyle.

Based on income, I am very definately working class. And yet socially I find I have very little in common with many of my workmates. This is mainly due to the fact that I decided not to have children until I can afford to, and hence have more disposable income. When these friends complain about their lot, as they often do, I have to bite my tongue as I know it is largely due to their priorites. They simply make unwise financial decisions IMHO. They spend £50+/month on TV packages and video rental, spend more money on packaged and fast food , buy expensive 'designer' clothes.

I know friends of friends who I would still classify as working class, but would consider themselves upper class based solely on their level of income. I would simply call them tacky and crass.

Whereas my sister and brother in law have a household income of over £400,000 and would be horrified if someone described them as upper class.
posted by desert_roamer at 1:52 AM on October 10, 2004

It also appears that people have differing views on class depending on what class they occupy, the exception being countries with a strict caste system.
posted by desert_roamer at 1:56 AM on October 10, 2004

If you ask me, working class is primary/secondary/tertiary industry (producing raw materials, manufacturing -- "blue collar", but also service industries), while middle class is quaternary/quinary industry (research and "creative"). In my view, it's possible to move up from working to middle class by means of education. It's also entirely possible to be doing a working class job temporarily when you're not actually working class.

Upper class is a completely different idea, though. There's no magic income or job barrier where you move out of the middle class and become upper class -- if you were upper class, you wouldn't really be 'working' per se. You have to be born upper class... millionaire entrepeneurs aren't upper class, they're nouveau riche.
posted by reklaw at 8:14 AM on October 10, 2004

On Roseanne, when the power company turned off the lights for nonpayment, she said "Well, middle class was fun."
posted by NortonDC at 4:12 PM on October 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

I don't know why most respondents here are focusing on income as the first discriminator of class. Education, demeanour, and self-perception are more important, as far as I'm concerned. It's possible to be premier of Ontario-- with trips to New York City to dine at 21-- and still be working-class.
posted by joeclark at 9:06 PM on October 10, 2004

majick - I didn't mean outright home ownership, but the line between renting and morgaging. I grew up in Toronto (tight housing market) - most people making 50-70K CND were looking to buy homes, albeit often in the cheaper suburbs, or very small homes in the centre. I know that NYC is crazy for home-ownership, but just 2 hours away by train, I know graduate students who can afford to buy.

NortonDC - good quote. I think I remember Roseanne playing with the idea of class many times, which was one of the reasons I liked the show.

joeclark - I really like your namesake (unless you are really him, in which case I will just call you sir), but no, you cannot be Premier of Ontario and be working class. You can pretend to be (to the shock of your father, who goes to reporters to deny the charges that you ever had it bad or had to eat baloney), but you aren't working class, not any more.

Lots of people change class in their life; I've watched several people do that. You never forget where you are from, but you aren't there any more. I don't know if I believe, but I don't buy the cheapest groceries any more - I will actually pay a few cents more to get the better tasting. I think I've become middle class.

It isn't all income - it is culture and education as well. But, in North America at least, income is a big part of it. I find that pink-collar office workers often live/feel more like working class due to their low income, but well paid blue-collar, like auto-manufacturing, are more like middle class. Frankly, the people I know who work in autofactories live in suburban homes (that they own) and drive cars, while the office workers I know struggle by trying to pay rent in a small, cramped apartment. Which is "working class" and which "middle"?

lychee also hit many good points, but I would say that many below 100,000 can also afford those things, depending on the area. (50-70K CND in Toronto)
posted by jb at 11:53 PM on October 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

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