Wonders of the Middle Class

Let’s get one thing straight. We all think we’re part of the vast “middle class.” This is not just an American phenomenon but seems to be the norm in all developed economies in the 21st century.

We know that many people are worse off than we. And, for most of us, if we open our eyes and ears, we can see signs that others are better off than us. That puts us in the middle between “lower class” and “upper class.”

We want to be able to look down on those below us, so we can take pride in where we are in society, especially if we see ourselves as “self-made.” Perhaps feeling better than others is its own reward.  Oddly, many of us feel the same about those above us, usually involving some moral judgement.

In addition, those above us serve as aspirational targets. Either for ourselves (if we are young) or for our children. Sometimes wealthy or privileged members of clearly established elites still call themselves “middle class” for purposes of hiding their wealth from others. And, of course, many in the bottom half, even bottom quartile, will call themselves “middle class” to obscure their misery from others. Inequality thus serves a purpose for all of us.

But how many of us know where we stand in terms of income distribution or, even more important, wealth distribution? Maybe the reason we all consider ourselves to be middle class is we don’t know where its upper and lower boundaries are. Maybe it doesn’t matter!

Middle class is really a state of mind. It allows both pride in achievement and goal-seeking behavior. It allows awareness of injustice, too – directed both upward and downward. We think others have either too little or too much. Total elimination of both lower and upper (a classless society where everybody is the “middle”) would eliminate those critical psychic benefits we derive from society. If only the lower were eliminated, leaving middle and upper, everybody in the middle would lose status – being relegated to “working class.” If, conversely, only the upper class were eliminated, via massively redistributive taxes, or revolution, then the middle class would become the new upper and fight just as hard to defend their privilege as did the previous ruling class.

Given the choices, modern democracies (at least in the developed world), including the United States, have mostly opted for a strategy of maximizing the size of the middle class, raising the floor on the bottom rung of society, and constraining the top rung with progressive taxation so they “pay their fair share.” This strategy, however, does not remedy the foundation of that whole class-based state of mind. People in the middle will invariably, no matter where the floor is set for the bottom, oppose any political efforts to allow “those people” below them to presumptively encroach upon their hard-earned privilege (or assets). And they will continue to complain about those at the top preventing them from acquiring more, due to the excessive privilege and political influence they wield (otherwise known as “corruption”). These are the dynamics of the middle class. Conflict is inherent in its structure. It’s what leads to political parties. In a two-party system, political candidates will try to capture an ever-changing balance between aspirations and jealousies of voters. In multi-party systems, new parties can be created to address social changes, rather than forcing the existing parties to alter their messaging to account for such change.

If life weren’t a zero-sum game, we wouldn’t need to see one group’s gain as our loss. Alas, most of our expectations now point to lower or no growth in the foreseeable future. We don’t believe in overall economic improvement anymore – the pie cannot expand infinitely. Climate change amplifies that feeling. The fashionable new “doughnut economics” model for a sustainable future is the perfect explanation.  It focuses on aspirations for the bottom and lower expectations for the top as the best political compromise. But the middle is left hanging on, unsure of its future.

There is an analog to this in generational differences we all see. The young aspire to the future, the old are concerned with maintaining their comfort and passing it on to their offspring. Threats to the young are things that will prevent them from getting where they are going. Threats to the old are things that may take away their comfort or constrain their legacy. The middle class becomes everybody who is on that metaphorical journey from young to old. Most of us.

Demographic characteristics do vary for different social groups. Some groups skew younger or older than others. Some countries’ populations skew younger or older than others. Without delving into precise numbers, we can usually place ourselves on the continuum. Are we more afraid of losing what we have, or of losing opportunity for our future? Both ends of the spectrum are motivated by fear of loss. But the middle is where we spend the most time.

— William Sundwick

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