Does the U.S. Still Have a ‘Middle Class’?

White-collar work today is fundamentally insecure.

A house perched precariously on a narrow piece of land
Artazum / photo_jeongh / sumroeng chinnapan / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

About the author: Caitlin Zaloom is a cultural anthropologist, Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, and Editor in Chief of Public Books.

The question of how to define the middle class is one of the perennial mysteries of American social life. Most people say they’re “middle class,” so how can we know what this really means? Every few years some intrepid social scientists venture a new definition.

This September, the Brookings Institution economists Richard Reeves and Katherine Guyot argued that the middle class is “the middle 60 percent of households on the income distribution,” which represents $37,000 to $147,000 for a three-person household. Full stop. Downplaying the importance of education, they wrote that income is the most useful measure of class because it captures all of the other conditions that make a person middling, including consumption, education, and relative social standing; it is not only how much money individuals take home.

Definitions that conflate income and class are all too common. For instance, in a well-cited 2015 article, “The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground,” the Pew Research Center used the terms middle class and middle income interchangeably; by “middle class” they meant households that take home “two-thirds to double the national median” income.

The main problem with this approach is obvious: The same income buys a vastly different quality of life in different parts of the country. That is to say, $60,000 goes much further in Missoula, Montana, than in Brooklyn, New York.

There’s another problem: Class has always been about more than earnings. For many decades, social scientists and historians have debated how jobs, education, politics, consumption, and, yes, income come together with values, habits, geography, and social status to create class in America. In other words, the question is not who but what makes the middle class. Today there can be no pretending that middle-class status is anchored by a single economic reality. Instead, it is primarily an aspiration.

Being middle class means striving for the stability and respectability that older generations achieved by holding down steady jobs, owning a home, and raising upright kids who could take their place. These benchmarks are no longer simple to attain. Instead, middle-class desires are marred by an insecurity historically associated with the American working class. Definitions should reflect that.

In his 1951 landmark book, White Collar, the sociologist C. Wright Mills offered a way to study the middle class that remains useful today, despite vastly changed circumstances. He did not seek merely to delineate the middle class, but to explain what it is like—socially and psychologically—to live in the middle of the class structure.

Since the 1830s, clerks and small-scale entrepreneurs had been carving out a space between factory workers and factory owners in northern cities. Men worked with their head, not their hands. They spent their days bent over account books in offices while their wife stayed behind to make sure that the home was clean, the cupboard stocked, and the children tended to.

By the mid-1900s, this in-between class worked in large, impersonal bureaucratic organizations that changed little. They managed people and manipulated numbers and words, keeping corporate offices and government bureaus humming with activity.

Unlike laborers below them, white-collar workers were unlikely to send a piece of their paycheck to local AFL-CIO chapters. They enjoyed higher, more consistent pay, and were willing to accept company goals as their own. Mills’s colleague William H. Whyte found that these office workers identified so completely with their corporate or government job that he named a new social type for them: “the organization man.”

Organization men were attached to their firm— they were psychologically “dependent.” Beyond their personal commitments, moreover, these mid-rung workers were dependent in another crucial way: They did not make decisions about the shape of their job. Owners and high-level executives controlled and spelled-out white-collar responsibilities, from pushing paper to smiling at potential customers.

This work contained little inherent satisfaction, so the fact that it provided income—putting Wonder Bread on the kitchen table and a Buick in the driveway—became the singular reason to make the commute from the suburbs each morning. Stability on the job gave shape to the idealized nuclear family, one that white-collar men and women could imagine anchoring their children’s adulthoods, too. White-collar privileges meant that parents could draw on the husband’s steady salary to send their children through high school or college and on toward their own constant suburban life.

Americans have inherited their idea of middle-class work and respectability from this long-gone era. Even then, class could not be reduced to income—but white-collar stability made it possible to assume that income was a reasonable stand-in. A respectable family could be supported for decades on a good wage in a solid company. Income was not simply a snapshot in a moment of family life; it was a reliable predictor. But manipulating words and numbers isn’t what it once was.

To define class in 2018, it would be better to follow White Collar’s example by examining the conditions of work and status than to lean on an outdated proxy.

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 a 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.

Contingent work has changed the landscape of employment. According to the economists Lawrence Katz and Alan Krueger, today 15 percent of workers are in nontraditional or alternative positions, and from 2005 to 2015, “alternative” jobs accounted for 94 percent of net job growth.

Steady work can feel uncertain, too, as some jobs no longer hold the real promise of financial stability, let alone upward mobility. Across many states, for example, tax and service cuts have left teachers without raises as they grapple with outsize classes, crumbling infrastructure, and ancient textbooks. Nurses have also seen the growth of temporary work, which exposes these medical professionals to rapid-fire changes as they move from hospital to hospital for the next job.

Eroded work is such a cornerstone of middle-class life that middle-rung workers lean on contingent jobs to buoy their income. Uber has even built this into its business model. As the journalist Alissa Quart has reported, Uber actively recruits teachers and nurses into its ride service, especially in regions like the Bay Area where living costs are so high that even a secure income of more than $100,000 can leave a family in tough straits to pay for the housing and day care it needs to work in the first place.

The rise of contingent and eroded work is the result of a corporate strategy. Reducing the number of steady, dependent employees and replacing them with temporary workers or contractors relieves business leaders from having to offer expensive benefits and boosts profits. Work might still be boring, and now it can’t be counted on.

Uncertainty comes from other sources, too.

Many white-collar workers, including loan officers, customer-service representatives, and paralegals, live in the sights of artificial-intelligence engineers. So do pilots, journalists, and lawyers. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk in the current wave of computerization.

Insecure work has been matched by insecurity in family life, as well. In mid-century, white-collar parents wanted their children to make stable lives that looked like their own, and their children were able to do it, too; today, that’s much more difficult.

A college education for the kids has long been at the core of respectability, but now it comes at a historically novel social and psychological cost. Because college is so expensive, students shoulder debts that follow them through their 20s, shaping their decisions about where to work, what to buy, and when to marry. Parents, meanwhile, find that the cost of college consumes savings and redirects funds that might have been socked away for retirement.

Although middle-age Americans have always carried the most debt, relying on home loans and credit-card charges to build their family, now they must also take out loans to meet their children’s tuition responsibilities. As students hit the ceiling on their federal borrowing, parents are stepping in to fill the gap. Household debt is graying, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has found. Borrowers in their later years—between the ages of 50 and 80— have propelled consumer debt to its new heights.

Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but 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 tell only a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.

The deeper story lies beyond these metrics, however. The middle class is tricky to define today because the secure jobs and stable home lives that supplied its historical definition are now gone for most Americans.

Under these conditions, it may no longer even make sense to talk about the “middle class” at all. New concepts may be necessary to describe the social stratification in America’s polarized society.