What does it mean to be middle class?

Many people know what it is like to be relatively poor. And, thanks to the media, we all know what it looks like to be rich. But what does it mean to be middle class?

The word ‘middle‘ means ‘occupying a middle or intermediate place’. We can think of it as the ‘medium’ soda, halfway between the ‘small’ and ‘large’ in size.

The term ‘middle class’ is an indicator of socio-economic status. Another phrase used in Early Modern Europe was ‘the middling sort‘.

In some ways, the reason I’ve saved this topic until last of the three, is because it is so much harder to define. But in many ways, it is the most important of the three.

A sizable, healthy middle class is often considered an important measure of a society. And although income and wealth inequality is growing in many parts of the world, thanks to ongoing development, the middle class is growing worldwide. Rapidly.

How big is the middle class?

The ‘middle class’ constituted over half of the world’s population in 2009, according to The Economist. Since around 2007 or 2008, the number of middle class people in the East outnumbered the number in the West. Between 1990 and 2005, the middle class in China grew from just 15% of the population to 62%, and similar growth is occurring in India.

Yet of course, as with poverty, and wealth, it’s all relative. How ‘middle classness’ is measured differs according to country. And the organisation crunching the numbers.

According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in 2003 only 19% of the population was ‘middle class’ (owning household assets worth $18,000-$36,000). A German Development Institute Report put the middle class of India (having daily household expenditure between $10 and $100) at just 8% of the population. And yet, the same paper reports that 30% of people in India consider themselves middle class.

The eye of the beholder

As a scholar of Japan, one of the facts I came across over and over again was that around 90% of Japanese citizens consider themselves ‘middle class’. I always believed Japan was rather exceptional in this. But as Sugimoto points out, this is far from the case.

In my own country, Australia, for example, 91.2% consider themselves middle class. In fact, Australia is surpassed only by Finland at 91.7%.

But these are self-assessments. Perceptions of one’s own class.

When it comes to the numbers, crunched by an external, impartial observer, only 59.5% of Japanese are considered middle class. In Finland, it’s a shocking 45.6%, with fully half of the population considered ‘lower class’ by the Global Wealth Report. Australia tops the list, at 66.1%

But 66% is still a long way away from 91%. Just as 8% is a long way from the 30% who consider themselves middle class in India.

Are you middle class?

I grew up thinking I was middle class, living in a middle class home with a middle class family. And as an adult, I then went on to live what I considered a middle class life.

According to the above definitions, I think I could say I’m middle class by Indian standards. Our household average daily spending is consistently above $10, but has never approached $100. In the Chinese context, I’d probably be considered upper class. But I’m certainly not part of what has been called the ‘Bling Dynasty‘, so I imagine I’d feel pretty middle class there.

But it’s not just geographic location that’s important. These statistics on China and India also employ different measures – one considering wealth and one considering spending. Yet others, like the Russian Academy of Sciences, which estimates Russia’s middle class at 15%, look at income. 

This leads to a lot of interesting possibilities:

  • You might, for example, have a lot of assets, but not earn or spend much. This is the case for many people who qualify as ‘middle class’ because they own their own home, but struggle to make ends meet.
  • Or, you might earn a lot, and spend a lot, but own little. This is the case for many who are making ends meet, but can’t get a foot on the property ladder.
  • Or, you could spend a lot, and earn and own little. This is the case for many people who find themselves in debt.

A more comprehensive picture might be built up if we combined these measures.

More than numbers

But, as a socio-economic status, middle class is not something that can be understood based on numbers alone. Other characteristics have been proposed to include:

  • education – private schooling, tertiary education
  • professional qualifications – academics, lawyers, engineers, politicians, doctors
  • belief in so-called ‘bourgeois’ values like home ownership, delayed gratification, job security
  • lifestyle – accent, manners, class of one’s family/friends
  • culture – consumption of popular culture (positively correlated in the US, negatively in the UK)

Reading this list was a surprise to me, as it includes many symbols I have long-considered markers of the ‘upper’ rather than ‘middle’ class. Private schooling, for example, is not a middle-class value to me (although I concede that many ‘upper-middle-class’ families in Australia aspire to or actually send their children to independent schools). Lawyers and politicians and doctors sound like ‘upper-class’ careers to me.

But it does point out that class is a complex constellation of social and economic factors – including how we speak. Factors that can differ according to country not just in economic terms, but social ones too – whether popular culture is considered ‘middle class’ or ‘common’ for example, differs between the US and UK. As a result, it’s hardly surprising our perceptions of our class do not always match the class researchers might assign us to.

Social and economic, not socio-economic

A low-income family with few assets could go into debt to pay for their children’s education, cultivate suitable accents, manners, and friendships. They might have a mid to high social standing, but a low economic status.

A high-income family with many assets could send their children to public schools, speak in ‘undesirable’ accents, lack ‘refined’ manners and associate with the ‘wrong types’. They might be considered to have have a low social standing, but they’d still have a high economic status regardless.

Comedy often draws upon such incongruities, like The Beverley Hillbillies, or ‘cashed up bogans’. But they’re more common than you might think.

This also explains Charles Long’s reflection that he didn’t know whether to be shocked or embarrassed when he found out that his family lived below the poverty line. They certainly didn’t feel like they were.

A gap in our vocabulary?

One of the reasons ‘middle class’ is so hard to define is the fact that it has to do twice the work of words like ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, which refer primarily to economic status, and ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ class, which refer primarily to social status.

The poor term ‘middle class’ is saddled with expressing both social and economic status. And there’s with no real alternative. ‘Middle income’, for example, is much too narrow – both ‘poor’ and ‘rich’ conjure up images of not only income but wealth.

So it pays to be specific about what we actually mean when we say someone or something is ‘middle class’.

Choose your own adventure

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what some organisation classes you as, as long as you are happy. When it comes to money, I want to keep as much as I can, and certainly won’t be striving towards any definition of ‘middle class’ that involves me having to spend more than I need.

When it comes to lifestyle, however, I believe we should spend more time enjoying what we truly like, and less time worrying about what others think.

In many countries, ‘class’ has become largely decoupled from money.

It is possible to visit an art gallery, or hear a string quartet – traditionally upper class pursuits – for nothing.

Yet tickets to many popular sporting events –  traditionally a lower class pursuit – will set you back an enormous sum.

In short, measuring perceptions of class can be important, as it gives us a snapshot of how a population feels in regards to relative poverty and (in)equality – provided people have enough access to information.

But we shouldn’t take to heart external assessments of our class based solely on numbers.

Such measurements are not only incomparable across nations, but they are incomplete at the best of times, and dangerously misleading at worst.

Are you middle class? What does it mean to you? Let me know in the comments!

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