This question is inspired by David Brooks’ latest pseudo-anthropological musings regarding the subject. (A curious feature of this column is that it’s obvious Brooks is discussing the white working class, but he never acknowledges this).
There’s now a rift within the working class between mostly older people who are self disciplined, respectable and, often, bigoted, and parts of a younger cohort that are more disordered, less industrious, more celebrity-obsessed, but also more tolerant and open to the world.
Trump (and probably Brexit) voters are in the first group. They are not poor, making on average over $70,000 a year. But they perceive that their grandchildren’s world is quickly coming apart.
Now obviously the phrase “working class” has multiple meanings in American politics and culture, but defining a cohort that has an average household income of $72,000 (about 30% above the national average) as working class stretches any plausible definition well past the breaking point. And Brooks’ cavalier use of the term underlines how amorphous this concept — a key one in contemporary political discourse — can be.
Anyway, what does “working class” mean in America today? I haven’t studied this question systematically or even thought about it much, which is probably representative of how most Americans think, or rather don’t think, about class matters in general. So these suggestions are very much off the cuff: (Note that the point here isn’t to describe the “real” working class, which strikes me as a pretty meaningless endeavor, but rather to suggest what the most widely held views of the concept are).
(1) No college degree, especially no four-year degree. It’s difficult or impossible to be working class if you’re a college graduate (The status of an associate’s degree is somewhat ambiguous in this regard.) In fact that’s probably the single biggest function of college in American culture: to work as as an all but formal class sorting mechanism.
(2) Working a job that doesn’t make much money and doesn’t confer much social status, with those involving significant physical labor or heavily managed customer interaction being the prototypes.
(3) Renting rather than owning one’s residence.
(4) Little or negative net worth.
All of these are of course subject to lots of exceptions, caveats, and gray areas, and it’s certainly possible to be considered working class while not fitting into one or even more than one of these categories. But it’s a start. Thoughts?
. . . In what ways is the concept of working class captured by the white collar/blue collar/pink collar/schema? Can a white collar job be working class?