Defining “middle class”

30 Nov

Do you like lists? Sometimes I can’t resist them: top 10 superfoods you should be eating! 5 worst holiday gifts ever! and then there are the plethora of numbered Buddhist lists (the 3 refuges, the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path…)!

So when I saw the headline “10 Middle-Class Jobs That Will Vanish by 2018,” I had to click through.

But before I give you the link, let’s play a game: what middle class jobs come to mind as likely to meet extinction in the near future? Go ahead and list a few. I’ll wait.

OK, now go back to your list and see if you can assess median earnings for each job category. What do you think the middle class folks who work these jobs make?

Here are the jobs that made journalist Christian Hudspeth’s list this summer on the Investing Answers website (in descending order of percentage decline by 2018, with median salaries in parentheses):

  1. Semiconductor Processors ($32,230)
  2. Postal Service Mail Sorters, Processors and Processing Machine Operators ($50,020)
  3. Wellhead Pumpers ($40,640)
  4. Fabric and Apparel Patternmakers ($38,970)
  5. Desktop Publishers ($36,600)
  6. Paper Goods Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders ($34,130)
  7. Computer Operators ($36,930)
  8. Farmers and Ranchers ($33,360)
  9. First-Line Supervisors/Managers of Production and Operating Workers ($53,090)
  10. Machinists ($38,520)


I found myself surprised in more than one sense by this list–or rather, by myself. Here are a few self-observations:

  • I would have designated some of these jobs “working class”–for example, machinists and wellhead pumpers. (And I don’t even know what a wellhead is.) From that assignation, I realize that I have a bias about “middle class” implying more intellectual than physical work (if that makes sense–while I consider teaching to be “physical” in a very real sense, I would categorize it as “intellectual” work).
  • My SF Bay Area bias kicks in when I look at the median earnings for some of these jobs: $32,230? Not middle class around here. Semiconductor processors in the Bay Area must either make more, or they’re barely getting by paycheck to paycheck. Again, revealing an assumption of mine: that middle class income earners are able to put a little money aside (or spend it on extras).
  • I have never thought about farmers as any particular class. I think this is my suburban-urban life bias rearing its geographical head: I don’t know anyone who farms (friends who tend to backyard henhouses and a few tomato plants notwithstanding), and my only real contact with farmers is at farmers’ markets. Once again, for the sheer labor-intensity of their work, I would instinctively have labeled farming as “working class,” even though I’m aware that some farmers live below the poverty line and others are affluent, well beyond my earnings and living standards.

How about you? Any surprises? Revelations about your own preconceptions as you defined “middle-class,” in terms of income and occupation?

What I appreciate about this article is that it concretized this ambiguous term that I always hear, but rarely hear defined. “Middle class” is the metric, the norm by which we gauge excesses of wealth and poverty. But even as it defines what it is not, it remains shrouded in ambiguity, determinedly unclear and yet desirable (because to identify as “middle class” is to avoid offending anyone with our excess or deprivation, and to identify comfortably and anonymously as “normal”).

While I don’t know what authority Hudspeth bases his definition of “middle class” on, it’s useful, regardless, to use him as a reference and ask myself: How much money would I say puts one in the “middle” income bracket? What other factors mix into my schema for the middle class? Clearly, education, profession and lifestyle–not just income–contribute to my profile of the folks in this group.

Actually, I believe Hudspeth’s headline is misleading: he’s really writing about “10 Middle Socioeconomic Jobs That Will Vanish by 2018.”

Huh? What I mean is that he’s writing about work that attaches to a certain range of income and status in our society. The jobs in this “middle” socioeconomic category require certain social capital to hold: enough education, prior work experience and/or recommendations from respected sources to get hired and to function competently. These jobs, in turn, have substantial impact on our access to resources and opportunities–like our next jobs. I’m not sure how often paper goods machine setters move into positions as CEOs of paper goods companies, but I’m guessing it usually requires a substantial investment in more education (or an act of nepotism) before they make that move.

So that’s socioeconomics: in shorthand terms, I define it as the status and everyday experiences that describe us because we have accumulated or lack socially valued “stuff” (money, education, jobs). And while socioeconomic status (SES) and “class” are often used interchangeably, I would argue that SES is actually a variable component of class, like language is to ethnicity.

Class, then, is an aspect of identity and culture informed by:

  • SES
  • access to social resources and opportunities,
  • daily living norms and expectations, and
  • sense of entitlement and constraint in the world.

The reason I make this distinction is because SES is an identity that can change with a winning lottery ticket or a global recession. However, class identity and culture are acquired and lost less easily: my parents, who grew up destitute during and in the aftermath of the Korean War, became a doctor and a chemist in the US. While the educations they earned and jobs they have held have elevated their SES dramatically, to this day, they still evidence the lack of resources, daily routines and sense of constraint imprinted on them by their childhoods. I see it in the way they keep house, the way they prepare for the unreliable future and the way they treat the money they have. Even as they have adopted and internalized the ways of a wealthier class (and fit into it quite well), they still also identify with and negotiate the world through the lenses of their poverty class backgrounds. That’s what I mean by class: the identity and culture defined by resources, opportunity and access that moves glacially, compared to our accumulation and loss of money.

One Response to “Defining “middle class””

  1. Florida Accountant April 8, 2013 at 3:50 pm #

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