Defining middle class in an era of economic uncertainty

Understanding the middle class requires looking not just at resources but also how the middle-class life is lived:

By the 1990s, the world that Mills had documented was coming apart as corporate downsizing and disinvestment upended the neat equation of secure work and praiseworthy home life. Social thinkers writing in that decade, including the sociologist Katherine Newman and the journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, followed Mills in charting the social and psychological shape of that in-between class. But they found that loss had replaced dependency as the most conspicuous feeling associated with middling workers’ place in the hierarchy.

Today anguish over lost social standing has, in turn, been replaced by a pervasive sense of insecurity…

Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but of managing debts. Trying to give children a shot, parents take on financial burdens that can destabilize their own future security.

Class has always been partly about income, but debt is now an equal component of the middle-class story, leading to a central paradox of aspirational lives: Striving for stability and respectability means inhabiting insecurity both socially and psychologically. Economic metrics alone can only tell a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.

If this is true, perhaps social class should be accompanied by a different sort of measure. Here are a few options:

  1. Economic security or economic insecurity. Perhaps there would be a certain bar to meet – having a certain amount of savings, the ability to find another job, or something else.
  2. Some measure of anxiety or well-being about current economic conditions.

Two households with similar sets of resources could be quite different on these measures based on the particulars of certain jobs, family situations, debt, etc.

The biggest downsides to such measures could be that they remove the baselines that social class measures often have as well as affect the value judgments made about social class. We know that less income or lower wealth matters; a household with $20,000 of income is going to be different than one with $100,000. (Yes, this could be contextual based on cost of living.) But, if we start including some measures of the lived experience of class, is there a baseline? Similarly, what if financial measures were similar for two groups but one group had a higher level of anxiety or insecurity; would researchers and pundits be quick to judge whether that anxiety is justified?

Of course, if the insecurity/anxiety questions are asked alongside more traditional measures of social class, researchers can look at the relationships and determine what a consistent and valid measure of social class should be.

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