From Academic Kids
The middle class refers to people neither at the top nor bottom of a social hierarchy. In today's usage, the term is often applied to people who have a degree of economic independence, but not a great deal of social influence or power in their society. For example, in the United States, a small business owner who owns their own home and cleans it themselves would generally be described as "middle class". This would be in contrast to a lower class person who relies upon the good graces of an employer and landlord, as well as to an upper class person who can live off investments and pay someone else to clean their house for them.
History and evolution of the term
The preceding example will not be accepted by all people. The term "middle class" has a long history, and has had many, sometimes contradictory, meanings. It was once defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry of Europe. While the nobility owned the countryside, and the peasantry worked the countryside, a new bourgeoisie (literally town-dweller) arose around mercantile functions in the city.
Descending from this distinction, "middle class" once referred in the United Kingdom to people who were actually quite wealthy, and sometimes powerful, but who lacked an hereditary lordship. Throughout the twentieth century, the titled aristocracy of the United Kingdom became less homogenous. This was because of the increasingly eclectic background of new creations, most of which were politically driven by the so-called middle class, and the declining power of the House of Lords relative to the House of Commons after the Parliament Act 1911. So far as the hereditary element of class was concerned, the titled upper class became less numerous because of the near-cessation of new hereditary creations after the Life Peerages Act 1958. This was coupled with the natural rate of extinction of existing hereditary titles and the near-abolition of the hereditary element of the House of Lords at the end of the twentieth century. At this point, hereditary titles are in no way the key to being "upper class" although they do lend a distinctive panache within the upper class.
In early industrial capitalism the middle class was defined primarily as white collar workers, those who worked for wages (unlike the aristocracy mentioned above), but did so in conditions that were comfortable and safe compared to the conditions for blue collar workers of the "working class". The expansion of the phrase "middle class" in the United States appears to have been predicated in the 1970s by the decline of labor unions and the entrance of formerly domestic women into the public work force. A great number of pink collar jobs arose, where people could avoid the dangerous conditions of blue collar work and therefore claim to be "middle class" even if they were making far less money than a unionized blue collar worker.
By the end of the twentieth century, more people identified themselves as middle class than as lower or "working" class, with statistically insignificant numbers identifying themselves as upper class. Hence, even the British Labour Party, which grew out of the organised labour movement and originally drew almost all its support from the working class, re-invented itself under Tony Blair as 'New Labour', a party competing with the Conservative Party for the votes of the middle class as well as the working class. The size of the middle class depends on how it is defined, whether by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, genetic relationships, social network, etc. These are all related, though far from deterministically dependent. The following factors are often ascribed in modern usage to a "middle class":
- Achievement of tertiary education, including all financiers, lawyers, doctors and clergymen regardless of their leisure or wealth.
- Belief in bourgeois values, such as high rates of house or long-term lease ownership and jobs which are perceived to be "secure". In the United States, and in the United Kingdom, politicians typically target the votes of the middle classes.
- Lifestyle. In the United Kingdom, social status has been less directly linked to wealth than in the United States, and has also been judged by pointers such as accent, manners, place of education and the class of a person's circle of friends and acquaintances. Often in the United States, the middle class are the most eager participants in pop culture. The second generation of new immigrants will often enthusiastically forsake their traditional folk culture as a sign of having arrived in the middle class.
- Low rates of union membership
- A middle range income. What is considered "middle range" can be quite broad, especially since most Americans yearn to be known as "middle class". Though an average yearly income in the United States is about $30,000, incomes all the way from $20,000 up to $75,000 a year are generally considered middle class. Around 1980, when asked what level of personal income would qualify as middle-class, George H. W. Bush replied: $50,000. In fact, only 5 percent of the U.S. population was making that level of income at the time.
- A net worth- what a person's total material assets are worth, minus their debt. Most economists define "middle class" citizens as those with net worths of between $25,000 (low-middle class) to $250,000. Those with net worths between $250,000 and $500,000 typically are categorized as upper-middle-class.
Some modern theories of political economy consider a large middle class to be a beneficial, stabilizing influence on society, because it has neither the possible explosive revolutionary tendencies of the lower class, nor the absolutist tendencies of an entrenched upper class. Most sociological definitions of middle class follow Max Weber. Here the middle class is defined by a similar income level as semi-professionals, or business owners; by a shared culture of domesticity and sub-urbanity; and, by a level of relative security against social crisis in the form of socially desired skill or wealth. While 95 percent of Americans identify themselves as middle-class, using the measures of sociology the reality seems different. Some of these individuals are (in those terms) lower or upper class.
Threats to the US middle class
Since the 1990s, there has been media driven fear that the spreading of a perceived wealth gap will lead to a "collapse of the middle" in American society. Some economists believe that the perceived threats to the middle-class are economic stagnation, overtaxation and overregulation. Other economists claim threats to the middle class are downsizing in many sectors of the American economy, and the systematic elimination of unionized labor. Political theories are in conflict as to whether a wealth gap is growing (or even shrinking), and as to whether that is actually a bad thing or not. It is worth noting that research, such as Diener's and Suh's Culture and Subjective Well-Being, MIT Press, indicates that there is more subjective well being when there is greater inequality, and less subjective well being with greater equality.
Marxism and the middle class
Marxism does not necessarily see the groups described above as the middle class. The middle class is not a fixed category within Marxism, and debate continues as to the content of this social group. For Marxist views on this class, compare bourgeoisie. Note that this is not the same thing as middle class to a Marxist.
Marxism postulates that social classes have a specific relationship with means of production. A noble owns land. A capitalist owns capital. A worker owns their ability to work. However, between the rulers and the ruled there is most often a group of people, often called a middle class, which lacks a specific relationship. Historically, during feudalism, the bourgeoisie were that middle class. People often describe the contemporary bourgeoisie, incorrectly from a Marxist point of view, as a middle class.
The exact composition of the middle class under capitalism is vigourously debated by Marxists. Some describe a "coordinating class" which implements capitalism, composed of the petit bourgeoisie, professionals and managers. Others dispute this, freely using the term middle class to refer to affluent white collar workers as described above. Still others, (Council communists) allege that there is a class comprising intellectuals, technocrats and managers which seeks power in its own right. This last group of communists allege that such technocratic middle classes seized power and government for themselves in the Soviet-style societies.