I’ve been part of a lot of discussions lately on what exactly constitutes the middle class nowadays. Of course there was Financial Samurai’s article on how a couple would need $300k to live a middle class lifestyle – plenty of discussion on Twitter and in the comments about how this was ridiculous. And when researching my article on poverty tourism and whether frugality is for the rich, I saw a lot of comments claiming that folks making $200k+ per year were not middle class.
If you’re reading this and consider yourself middle class, you’re not alone – apparently nine in ten Americans would classify themselves this way. If 90% of people think they fall into a group called “middle”, what are they the middle of?
All this discussion led me to ask myself – what exactly is middle class anyway? What’s rich? Does it vary by location? What if you make less than all your neighbors, but more than the average American? What if you live paycheck to paycheck-are you poor? What about if you live paycheck to paycheck on $500k per year?
I was surprised to find I wasn’t asking the right question.
Today I’ll share the surprising results of my research with you, talk a bit about what it’s like straddling the working and middle class worlds, and ask that you join the (always respectful!) discussion in the comments.
The Argument – High Incomes Kick You Out Of The Middle Class
I’ve seen so much arguing that there’s no way $200k, $300k, $500k per year can’t possibly be considered middle class. These arguments are based on how far away these incomes are from the median US income, and arguing that incomes so far exceeding that median can’t be middle class. With the median US income currently at nearly 60k, the argument goes, incomes 2x, 3x, or 10x that amount can’t be considered middle class.
Interestingly, what I found was that these folks are mixing up social class with income level. You can make $10k per year and be upper class, or make $1 million a year and be working class.
Researching The Definition Of Middle Class
First I started out with a simple google search of “middle class”. In case you don’t want to search it yourself, I’ll share what I found below, or you can let me Google it for you.
There are two things I found immediately interesting about these definitions:
1- The middle class is defined as a social group, not as a specific amount of income or net worth. So a multi millionaire can still be working class, and someone making $30k per year with nothing in the bank could be upper class.
2- This definition includes professional and business workers. Many professional and business workers earn over six figures. Some earn pretty high six figure amounts. They would still be middle class according to these definitions.
So I dove a bit deeper. We always hear about the different strata of middle class – Upper Middle, Lower Middle, etc. They’re defined as:
Upper or Professional Middle Class
Representing about 15-20% of households. Mostly consisting of highly educated, salaried professionals and managers.
Examples falling into this category would include doctors making $250-$750k per year, mid level managers at big companies making say $300k per year. But it could also include a highly educated doctor who chooses to work in another country on a tiny stipend, like for a great organization like Doctors Without Borders. Or someone with a PHd who works as a bartender. Making a smaller income would not change their social class.
Lower Middle Class
These folks would be another third of folks in the “middle class” social group. These would be semi-professionals, skilled craftsmen and lower level management.
Are Nine Out of Ten Americans Really Middle Class? No.
Interestingly most Americans are not middle class – they’re working class. The working class hold positions related to production of goods and services. It’s the nature of the work, degree of influence and responsibility, and complexity and creativity.
This makes sense if you know a bit about education and job statistics. Quick, what percentage of Americans have a college degree? Did you say only two in five? Then you’d be right. Meaning that sixty percent did not.
Those sixty percent are the majority of America.
Don’t Confuse Social Class and Income Level
Does this mean that without a college degree you can’t get a good job, or make good money? Heck no. Social class and income aren’t the same thing.
In The Millionaire Next Door, Dr. Thomas Stanley talked about the wealth of folks in what he called “dull normal” businesses. These were businesses like auto mechanics, garbage disposal, and even purveyors of dirt. Highly educated folks would often look down on these kinds of businesses as quite working class, but those folks are laughing at the guy in the suit all the way to the bank. Plumbers, electricians, and other skilled tradespeople can easily outearn a manager with an MBA. Heck aircraft maintenance workers can earn over $130k.
This shows exactly how social class and income are very different things. It’s about education, values, and type of work – not about how much you make. A working class household can actually out-earn an upper middle class household.
Another example from Dr. Stanley was about two married bus drivers who earned more than their next door neighbor – a salesman with an MBA whose wife stayed at home with their kids. The salesman thought he deserved a certain lifestyle, home, car, etc. as a result of his education and position. The bus drivers, earning a higher household income, were much less likely to do so. Why? Because even though they made more, they don’t feel the same kinds of social pressure as the salesman. They may have other kinds of pressure, though.
So If Income Doesn’t Equal Social Class, What About Income Anyway?
As I mentioned, most of the debate I’ve seen online conflates middle class with median income. We’ve seen from the above that social class does not have anything to do with income-and in fact a majority of households would be considered working class. So let’s explore a bit more about income percentiles. For this we’re going to turn to the authoritative source – the US Census Bureau Income Data Tables.
First, lets look at the breakdown of income in the most recent year where data is available – 2016.
So there are two medians provided here – one for all worker, another for full time workers. The full time, year round workers have a significant income jump from the total workers, which means that there’s a good portion of folks working part-time or part-year. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, there are currently about 28 million part time workers.
Also I wanted to be sure to note that this is where the oft-quoted statistic of women making eighty cents for every dollar a man makes comes from. If you look at that male:female ratio, it’s 0.8.
Now let’s see what percent of households fall into six different income buckets:
You can clearly see that the majority – over 50% – of households make under $70k per year.
Now remember, we’ve defined class above largely by education level, and type of work. The data isn’t broken out by job type, but it is by education level. So lets take a closer look at that data. It’s a bit different than the above, because this data only looks at folks 25 years old and older, to give them time to complete an education.
For those that doubt an education increases your income, you can really just read the statistics. It most certainly does not for everyone – you’ll see there’s 1% of people with less than a ninth grade education making over $200k per year, and 9% of folks with doctorate degrees making under $30k per year – but at an aggregate population level you can clearly see the impact.
Working Class to Middle Class -A Mental Disconnect
Going from working class to middle class – or vice versa – can cause a huge mental disconnect and make you feel alone. My husband is squarely in the working class. His parents are also working class – his father was a prison guard, and his mother was a nurse. He’s worked his whole life in a factory, loading packages, and construction work.
My family is not quite working class, but certainly not upper class – or even upper middle class. I’m the first person in my family, and still the only one, to get a professional degree. My father has a bachelors, and for my childhood he worked doing training for a large corporation, but when I was 18 he was laid off and started a painting business. My mother has an associates degree.
I’ve seen the disconnects my upbringing gives me when interacting with others in the “upper middle” or professional middle class, which is where I would technically belong right now. My coworkers talk about how much fun they had in college, while I worked full time and went to school full time for four years. When I traveled to China with my fellow MBA students, I couldn’t relate to them.
They were all experienced world travelers, who had grown up in that environment, blew money like it was water, and still talked about their parents and their financial role in their lives. They pretty much all went full time to college, and maybe held down a part time job for some extras. They didn’t have kids like I did. I’d been on my own financially since I was 20. So even though I had the same education they did, I didn’t have a similar background or worldview.
I read an interesting article on this topic the other day, all about going from poverty to middle class to out of place. My story is not about poverty – I was not in poverty – but even moving from lower to upper, or vice versa can be jarring. You don’t know the language. You don’t share the values. You look at people and don’t understand their choices, because you don’t share their background.
To answer the question posed in the title – I would be considered upper middle class by professional degree, lower middle by values, with a streak of working class from living with my husband. My husband would be working class, with a streak of upper middle class from living with me. So as a household, I’m not sure how to answer that question – is this a thing where you round up? Round down? I’m not really clear here.
Time To Hear Your Thoughts
Did you read something today that surprised you? Can you relate to the odd feeling of shifting classes? After reading through this – are you really middle class? Am I? Let me know in the comments.
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31 thoughts on “Am I Middle Class? Are You? What Is Middle Class, Anyway?”
That’s interesting. I didn’t know people defined it as a social construct. I guess it makes sense though. We do call it “_____ class”.
The trust fund kid who makes $0 is arguably upper class.
Someone who saved up $2M but doesn’t associate with the characteristics of upper/middle you mentioned could be considered lower class.
It’s harder to quantify classes on a large-scale though than it is income/net worth I feel.
Thats what I found most interesting, but it made sense when I thought about it more. People are always talking about middle class and the median income, but if the majority of Americans are considered working class, that definition wouldn’t be accurate. And I certainly see people who saved up a lot but aren’t part of the “professional” sphere of work sharing more values, and identifying better, with lower income folks than those who technically have the same income.
What a great post! I love it when people dig into the data. Yes, class should be defined by how you live, not how much you make. It goes along the same lines as people complaining that Warren Buffett doesn’t pay anything in taxes. That’s because he doesn’t have hardly any income. But of course he’s rich.
I know it sounds cliche and naive, but I’m just hoping for a world where where we are not definig ourselves by class. And that of course goes for race and sexual orientation as well, but we seem to be going backwards on all of this and the desire to label everybody and form tribe’s seems to be stronger than ever.
That would be nice, wouldn’t it? I’ve noticed the same urge to assign labels, and be “against” those of a different label. Not specific to class discussions, I see the same pattern everywhere. It would be great if we can move beyond the labels and move to more respect for one another.
Interesting – I’ve really never thought about this before! But you raise many thought-provoking points. Most people I know consider themselves middle class. I do know some people that I would consider “upper-class” by the way they spend their money and the backgrounds they come from.
Nine out of ten Americans consider themselves middle class-so the people you know are the majority! 😃
It’s an interesting question, trying to relate class, lifestyle, and income. I think part of the issue is we don’t really have a common vernacular for describing someone’s income, only their lifestyle like you say. People don’t really talk about living a “Median income” life so much as a middle class life.
I guess what we really want is a new set of words/definitions, like middle income Americans, to describe the conversation I think people are trying to have when describing middle vs. upper class incomes.
Using the current “class” language makes these conversations really difficult across different backgrounds. Neither of my parents graduated college, yet their four kids hve 2 masters degrees and 2 Ph.D’s. We were raised very working class, but now us four siblings find ourselves with incomes/lifestyles/spending habits that span from working class to middle class to upper class. How we should classify ourselves and how society should classify us is a really hard to answer question.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post. There’s a lot to mull over.
I also thought it was interesting, which is why I decided to dive into the data. When you’re raised working class, or lower middle class, suddenly being part of the upper middle class (or upper class) can be disorienting. I know I relate better to folks with more modest backgrounds than I do to most of my coworkers who reached adulthood a very different way than I did.
Very interesting article. Especially the idea of jumping up and down classes and ability to relate to others without shared experience.
Your experience sounds very similar to mine and my wife’s, coming from working class, busting butts to get into professional middle class, and then living very intentionally to design life we desire on however you would describe our salaries which were above the median, but not massive by any means.
I think this is why I’ve been struggling recently as “privilege” seems to be the buzzword in PF blogs and podcasts, where people are made to feel as though they need to apologize for successes in life. I think it’s important to be honest and as transparent as possible while protecting your personal information and family, but a lot of the talk of class and privilege is a waste of time that could be better spent on making the best of playing the hand you’re dealt and living the best life you can, IMHO.
I’m with you. I find being overly apologetic about privilege awkward. Transparency, yes, but no need to apologize. We all have to play the hand we’re dealt, and focusing on that is the only way to move forward in our own lives.
Your post raises really interesting points, and I’ve never thought much about the social construct of classes, but I find myself saying, yes!! It’s so true. Case in point: my husband’s best friend is a VP in his company, earning a very healthy upper class salary. However, he grew up lower middle class, and when he goes to board meetings, he feels extremely awkward when board members start talking about their yachts or whatnot. My husband grew up in a third world country, and was poor. But, his mother and grandmother were upper class Chileans for years before losing all their money, so they imbued upon my husband a sense of upper-classiness. It sounds weird, but they insisted upon him being well-educated with sparkling manners, and he can easily mingle with people of any class, without feeling too awkward (but always feeling like he has less money even if it’s not true). I grew up upper class, so I’ve realized as an adult that I feel really comfortable hanging out with people from the upper class, even as I’ve adopted the frugal values of my lower middle class grandparents and great-grandparents. And I feel comfortable hanging out with blue collar and working class people, because that’s the small town environment I grew up in in SC.
Knowing what I know about socio-economic class and achievement in school (there is a terribly depressing correlation between being lower class and less achievement in school–even amount of brain activity and language acquisition!!), I would love to see a study done about family incomes versus kindergarten readiness, for example. Because my thinking is that higher income would provide you enough money to give your young children more varied experiences, perhaps more mental bandwidth to engage them, read to them, etc., regardless of your “mental” class.
I agree, that would be an interesting study! I do wonder if my kids will also feel out of place with their peers or coworkers when they grow up. Who knows, maybe they’ll feel totally comfortable like you do? And I totally relate to your husbands friend-when people around me start talking about their fancy cars, second homes and the like I just can’t relate
Great article I think you it the nail on the head with it. It’s all about state of mind and your own personal history. Growing up with immigrant parents who lived frugally on 80k a year would have put us in a middle class upbringing. We grew up in a very affluent area with upper class people for the schools and my peers experiences were much different then mine as a kid. I held onto alot of those working/lower middle class traits into medical school. But now as a physician making 5 times what my parents did I can tell my kids will grow up different and I am happy and sad for that.
I totally understand the conflicting feelings you talk about-I’m also happy my kids won’t have the same kinds of struggles I did. On the other hand, at the same time I hope they keep some of the values of hard work and sacrifice I have-even if they don’t have to work as hard or sacrifice as much as I did
Financially I think location plays a big role as well. Middle class financially in Silicon Valley is not middle class financially in Appalachia.
As for social class I did much the same jump you talk about. Over the years I’ve adapted to the move up. The hard part for me is not relating so much as getting advice. Other then mentors I meet at work there is no one to advise on corporate life let alone management and now executive life. It can be jarring. It’s why I so strongly push mentors, without a guide especially at the management level it’s easy to fail.
You know I didn’t think about that, but it’s a great point. I don’t have anyone in my “real life” outside work who can help me with questions, problems, advice, etc because they can’t relate. It certainly can be quite jarring, and feel lonely at times. And in my case I’m by far the most successful person-let alone woman-so I have some trouble in that space.
A voice of reason! Well done. If people are going to mindlessly focus on an income level to define middle class, even though the cost to be middle class has risen and changes by the location, then they are missing the point.
Money is a means to an end! And the means required has skyrocketed thanks to inflation, demand growth, and population growth.
Rigid minds need to be bent.
That’s so true! Income level and social class-even income level and lifestyle-are not necessarily the same thing. I also think people have differing pictures of exactly what a “middle class lifestyle” entails, depending on their surroundings, family, history, etc. Thanks for getting me thinking on this subject!
Seriously agree with this! Ufh, so good. I married upper middle but trust me, there’s plenty of everything but upper/middle where I’m from and where my parents are from. I hate it when people take the assumption you are your income. The people can’t see past income as a definition of people are those who will never understand the real concept of how money or the world will work. It’s such a combative mindset to have and best to broaden.
I bet you sometimes feel like you also “don’t belong” with those upper/middle social class folks-would that be right? I know I don’t, and given your background I would guess you don’t either
Great post! Another take is that words don’t mean what the dictionary or the originators intended but that they mean what the majority of people think they mean. Languages evolve and I think middle class and upper class , in the US, are wealth (either income or net worth) labels and no longer are social group labels. This country was largely founded on the idea that social class is an immoral construct because we are all created with equal opportunity. And at least in my experience wealth is the most common measure of success and is how people determine how to label each other here. But I am frequently off base and may be way off here.
I would think they may change the dictionary definition one day-or maybe there will be new words to better articulate the differences. There’s a world of difference between “social middle class,” “median income,” and “middle class lifestyle”. One does not necessarily mean the same as the others!
I don’t know if we should go by the original definition now. The meaning has changed overtime. I think of myself as middle class and I’m sure most of my friends do too. I think the popular definition now really means lifestyle. If you’re living a comfortable lifestyle, you’re in the middle class.
I believe you also have a college degree and used to be an engineer, right Joe? I think even with this definition it would put you into the middle class.
Insightful. Do you know what would distinguish upper from professional middle class then? The need to work?
I get that the mindset, and feeling like you belong in another social class. My family and I have been through all from working class to high class, so it’s a bit of a blurry line for me.
But top 1% households by income in your area is above middle class to me. In Canada, to define middle class voters in the last election, figures up to $120000 household income was used.
So say half a million gross household income puts you squarely in the top 1% even in the most expensive Canadian city.
That’s a great question-I’ve been thinking about that a lot since I wrote this. Upper class I would think would be high level company executives and successful business owners. Here in the US those folks would probably make millions per year. I don’t know that there’s a hard line though-it’s a great question.
Oh wow, haven’t really thought a lot about this. I’ve always thought the majority of Americans were middle class, I heard the term working class before but never really knew if they were between upper and middle class or somewhere else. Thanks for digging more info about this.
As someone from the other side of the pond, this is an interesting discussion to watch. Here in the old world, one cannot enter the upper class except by birth or marriage, no amount of money can buy you entry. It’s a very strict social construct based in your families status.
Hence I am firmly middle class, and always will be. My parents were born working class, but worked themselves up to the middle class with solid government jobs.
I can see the new world making new definitions for these terms, as you don’t have an entrenched aristocracy holding the wealth, although not sure the robber barons are really much better to be honest.
That’s interesting. Part of the debate around the income-based definition definition of the middle class here kind of ignores what you’re considered if you’re above that “middle class cutoff”. Are you upper class? Not really-the upper class are usually the really, really rich. It’s interesting to me how different countries have different social constructs. It sounds like what we might call “old money” versus “new money”. The “old money” is more like your upper class.
I’d say that the “middle class” are those that can buy a full size house, pay for kids college tuition, take annual vacations, and retire comfortably at 62. At least that was the old definition. It really boils down to how you spend your money. You could make 100k+ annually and still have the standard of living that those in the 50k salary range have.
I think the definition of “lower class”, “middle class”, and “upper class” has pretty much broken down nowadays. It made sense 30 years ago when most people followed the same kind of lifestyle: get married, get a job, and slowly climb the corporate ladder.
Nowadays society is much more fluid. You have a lot of poor entrepreneurs who will strike it rich some day. You have people who are travelling and working through the developing world. The cost of living is so different depending on where you live.