Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Middle Class

Now we come to a huge group, everything between the poor and rich, assuming that we keep the term "poor." What is this gigantic object, the middle class?

It is service workers, office workers, factory workers, technical workers, skilled trade workers, professional workers, small business people, many artists. You could argue that it's everyone who has to work (the truly rich can live on investments, I would argue) and who makes more than $25,000 a year for a household.

Is a term this large useful? How much do these people share in common?

The old middle class, the one called the petit bourgeoisie in the 19th century, was made up of shopkeepers and self-employed professionals. They owned their own tools and work space and might employ a few helpers. Mostly they worked for themselves, as did family farmers. Jefferson wanted to build his republic on these people.

Some of this middle class remains. There are still plenty of shops and small businesses. Some professionals work for themselves, as do some skilled tradesmen and women.

But many people who are grouped in our modern middle class work for big businesses. If they are middle class, they are a new kind of middle class: the doctors employed by HMOs, the lawyers in huge national and international firms.

So what is a doctor who works for an HMO? What are the people who keep modern colleges and universities going: the graduate assistants and the adjunct faculty? (To be fair, the clerical and maintenance staffs also keep schools going.) (How are the graduate assistants different from the clerks and janitors?)

So this is another slippery area. Just as the border between the poor and the middle class is fuzzy and permeable, so the various parts of the middle class fuzz into one another. People move back and forth between being employees and being self-employed. Income is not invariably connected to education: a union construction worker makes a more than a lot of professional people with advanced degrees. During the dot com boom, some tech workers became millionaires.

I would be inclined to argue that the old middle class, which actually did exist as a separate class in the 19th century, is mostly gone; and that a majority of working people are usually employees, but sometimes self-employed; and that there are cultural differences, which have to do with background and education, but that these do not necessarily have much to do with how you work, how much you make, how safe you are or how much control you have over your life.

This social class can't really be called the middle class, because it's no longer in the middle of anything. We can call it the working class, because it's made up of people who have to earn their living; or we can call it the lower class, since it is below the rich. I am willing to go with either term.


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