What Does ‘Middle Class’ Even Mean?

The phrase ‘middle class’ gets thrown around a lot, whether we’re looking at articles about the vanishing middle class, conservatives invoking the middle class as justification for some new line of fuckery, or liberals poking at the pedestrian middle class existence. It’s a word that has become so elastic that it almost seems to be without any meaning at all, as I discovered recently when I sat down to try and define it, and challenged others to join me in coming up with a clear picture of what ‘middle class’ is and what it means to be middle class.

Income is often used as the defining measure of class status, but the range of incomes considered ‘middle class’ seems pretty variable. I’ve seen annual income ranges as broad as $25,000 USD to $100,000 USD, which is so big to be almost meaningless. A person making $25,000 a year in an urban area with a high cost of living may be struggling to survive, may be experiencing periodic homelessness and other issues, while $100,000 a year seems like enough to live on in almost any setting to me, but then again I’ve never tried supporting a partner and children on one income or never belonged to a profession with high costs of membership. Clearly, financial hardship is not the only determiner, because people can experience financial hardship at a range of incomes and may define hardship differently.

Middle class, to me and many of the people who tried to describe it, is also about lived experience. I got a lot of interesting definitions but they all boiled down to a few basic things in the lived experience of people who identified as middle class, even if they had experienced downward mobility and might be considered, economically, lower class right now.

Entitlement. Many of the people I talked to said that they felt entitled to a roof over their heads, to go to college, to a good job. Many described career goals as white collar or professional and talked about the fact that they grew up with books, attended good schools, generally assumed they would go to college, were encouraged to pursue hobbies and extracurricular activities.

A safety net. This issue became especially complicated when I talked to people outside the United States. People in the States referenced things like health care and pension benefits as being things middle class people have access to. In nations like Australia and Britain, where these things are provided to all, they are less of an indicator of class status although people did bring up private insurance and access to private retirement savings accounts as upper middle class and upper class characteristics. But the safety net is about more than that—talking about homelessness, one person said that she knew ‘homeless’ for her meant ‘staying with friends,’ not living out on the street. What people think of when they hear ‘safety net’ may very between nations, but generally people seemed to agree that middle class people live with the expectation that they will always have food, health care, and a place to stay, even if not necessarily of the best quality.

Connections. This came up less in conversations, but still seemed important to me. Middle class people generally enjoy social, political, and economic connections that allow them to access jobs, get loans, and obtain other benefits that lower class people cannot. When you’re lower class and everyone around you shares your class status, you don’t have access to people who can do things like help you find work.

Social capital. ‘I talk right,’ as one person put it. Middle class people know standard English (or whatever the dominant language in a country is), they are familiar with basic social mores and attitudes. They may be familiar with the vernacular as well, but they have the ability to blend in ‘professional’ environments. A middle class person knows what a resume is and how to prepare one, knows how to interact with people professionally, knows how to utilise resources like libraries. Because this has been taught, both by growing up in it and often as a direct consequence of going to schools where these things are assumed to be an important part of life.

Economic comfort, tying back in the issue of how much people make, because this is obviously a factor. Middle class people can afford food and necessities like clothing, again, not necessarily of the best quality and not necessarily in unlimited amounts, but there’s not a question about whether to pay rent or buy food. They can also buy things deemed less necessary, and may have differing views on necessity versus luxury; one person may consider massage a necessity and another may consider it a luxury, even if both parties would receive health benefits from regular massage. Being middle class is being able to pay for car repairs when they’re needed, is going to the dentist when your teeth hurt, is getting an unusually large electric bill and being annoyed instead of thrown into a panic. Being middle class also involves a more elastic view of ‘necessary’ or ‘vital for survival.’

It seems, as I think about what middle class means to me and the people around me, that it’s a combination of economic security and cultural attitudes. Which might be the root of some of the friction between people in the lower middle class and the lower class, because people carry their cultural and social attitudes with them, even when they themselves are not making very much money and, economically speaking, are in the lower class. The middle class reticence when it comes to talking frankly about money also plays a role, I think, because people may talk about things like they are entitled, projecting a middle class existence, while doing things like not being able to afford food and utilities, because they think talking about these things is shameful.

Differing attitudes about necessity and hardship also seem to create friction when it comes to things like talking about going to college and university. People who grow up thinking the only obstacle is ability may not understand money as a hardship or comprehend that there are social barriers to college attendance, but people who grew up under the assumption they wouldn’t go to college might not grasp why student loans are so damaging, and how massive student loan debt can disadvantage people who appear to have middle class benefits (like a college education).

People who are culturally middle class but economically lower class lack power, which is something that gets erased in attacks on ‘the middle class’ as a set of ideals, as an ethic. Many ‘middle class’ ideals are things that I believe should be human rights (access to a college education, for example). Setting people who could be working in solidarity with each other against each other is a brilliant way to deflect attention from the real problem here: The vast income inequalities and the tremendous clout held by the upper class.

One thing is for sure; the vanishing middle class is a real issue and it’s not something to be sneered at. When people talk about a vanishing middle class, rest assured, they do not mean that upward mobility is in play and middle class people are getting wealthy. They mean that the widening gap between rich and poor has effectively eliminated many people in the middle, forcing people in the social and economic middle class to the economic lower class, even if they continue to think of themselves, socially, as middle class. Common ground between lower and middle class people must be found, preferably before the upper class laughs its way all the way to the bank, and that requires abandoning some attitudes on both sides to work in solidarity with each other.