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What are the meanings of “working class” in America today?

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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?

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  • tony in san diego

    it’s obvious Brooks is discussing the white working class, but he never acknowledges this

    that is because the blahs don’t work: they just take welfare and government handouts.

    • AMK

      I’m pretty sure most people in the actual white working class would love to make $70K/year.

      But of course the definition today is almost entirely a function of socio-cultural background, not income. There are skilled welders in the frack-lands of Texas and Ohio who make well over six figures, but they’re still more “working class” than Brooks’ NYC assistant who makes 45K but went to a top 50 university, and has white-collar parents.

      • Amanda in the South Bay

        People working in the North Dakota oil boom also don’t have a lot of security when it busts. Good paying jobs in resource extractive industries may not last long.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Don’t be so fast with that $70,000 a year. If it’s two people making $35,000 a piece then even though that’s very near the median household income for the country I might consider it working class. If only because when Pop gets laid off or mom gets knocked up and no longer works then that family is having to get by on $35,000 a year year.

        But as a general definition I generally look at the bottom third of the population as working class.

        • djw

          even though that’s very near the median household income for the country I might consider it working class.

          As Paul said, it’s 30% higher than the median household income (54K). That seems like a stretch for “very near”–I expect most people at 54 wouldn’t consider going to 70 trivial.

          • Joe Bob the III

            How you experience median depends greatly on your local/regional cost of living. $70K puts you solidly in the middle quintile in many states.

          • SamChevre

            It’s very near the median family income. For useful reference, here is the median income of families by size by state.

      • Ahuitzotl

        Brooks’ NYC assistant who makes 45K

        Brooks overpays that much?

        • los

          right! hire a j-1 “intern” like trump would…
          /s

        • @ahuitzotl: Andy Rosenthal overpays that much. Imagine what he pays Brooks.

      • Richard Hershberger

        But of course the definition today is almost entirely a function of socio-cultural background, not income.

        That’s not just today. That is traditional. Look at the English gentry class, up through the Edwardian era. This class descended from the medieval English knightly class, owning sufficient land to keep you in horse and armor. This evolved into a class which still, at least ideally, derived its income from owning agricultural land. More was better, as anyone who has ever read a Jane Austen novel knows, but the important dividing line was between gentry and non-gentry. Hence Eliza Bennett’s point to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Mr. Darcy was a gentleman and she was the daughter of a gentleman, so chill out.

        It was entirely possible to be wealthy without being gentry. Money earned from trade was the classic way. It was not possible to buy your way into the gentry, but you could buy your child’s or (more likely) grandchild’s way in by sending him to the right schools and with a well chosen marriage.

        The rules in modern America are different, but the underlying fact remains that class and wealth are correlated, but imperfectly.

        • pianomover

          “Welcome to Costco I love you”
          “Welcome to Costco I love you”

        • Lurking Canadian

          I once read a book by de Tocqueville, “Reflections on the Revolution in France” or something, in which he suggests that the key reason Britain didn’t have a revolution and France did, was that in France it plain was not possible to buy your way to the top AT ALL unless you had the right bloodline, but in Britain (as you say), you could. de Tocqueville saw that as the release valve that kept things from boiling over.

          Mr. Bingley’s father was in trade and would always have been. Mr. Bingley was a gentleman.

          • Domino

            Interesting, though as someone who is quite familiar with Japanese history, there was a similar type of set up under the Shogun. For hundreds of years, Japan was ruled by a caste system that stated whichever class you were born into you would be in forever.

            So if you were born into a peasant family, that was your place for your whole life. No chance at all to advance.

            On the flip side – if you were born into the Samurai class, that was your place. And what would you do, since you were living in peaceful times and your grandfather was the last man in your line to actually fight in a conflict? Most of them just got drunk in the red light district.

            But to counter Tocqueville’s point – there was never a peasant uprising against the ruling class in all of Japanese recorded history. Granted, the current Emperor’s bloodline can be traced back roughly 1400 years, so there has always been this respect for authority in the society that hasn’t ever been broken over a really long time.

            • LeeEsq

              This isn’t strictly true. The Mitsui family were Samurai that decided to give up their status to go into commerce. It’s why they had a surname before the Meiji Restoration.

          • Linnaeus

            I once read a book by de Tocqueville, “Reflections on the Revolution in France” or something

            Pedantry alert: I think the book you’re thinking of is The Old Regime and the Revolution. Reflections on the Revolution in France is by Edmund Burke.

            • Lurking Canadian

              On the outside chance that anybody cares, and in order to maintain the high scholarly standards of the blog, I should point out that we are both right. “Reflections on the Revolution in France” is indeed the name of a work by Burke. As it happens, I have actually never read it, though I probably should. The book I was thinking of was called “L’ancien regime et la revolution”, by de Tocqueville.

              I read it in the original, and my French is not great, so if anybody reads it and cannot find the message I took away, it is not unlikely that I missed his point.

          • njorl

            I was about to “correct” you by pointing out that there was the “noblesse de robe” as opposed to the “noblesse d’epee”, but the sales of the former had almost completely stopped by the eve of the revolution, according to wikipedia at least.

      • PJR

        BTW, $70,000 is (lower-) working-class in the 1960s if one adjusts for inflation AND for productivity growth. Maybe Brooks’s brain is stuck back in the olden days before working class incomes declined relative to upper-income-class incomes.

    • Mona Williams

      “it’s obvious Brooks is discussing the white working class…”

      Yes, I think the nonwhite working class are generally known as “the poor.”

  • Thom

    I think I would add to your list,

    5. Having had parents who also had conditions 1-4.

    But I’m not sure about #3. At least in the past, a lot of people most of us would consider working class owned their own homes. Obviously this is not possible in Manhattan or San Francsico now, but it was the case in, for instance, the Lower 9th Ward in NOLA in 2005–most people there were homeowners.

    • Well, historically people with unionized factory jobs; public sector jobs such as cops, firefighters, bus drivers — that sort of thing — were definitely considered working class and they cold certainly own homes and accumulate some savings. They didn’t have college degrees. I think that the expectations for people without college have definitely gotten worse. That’s the source of discontent. It’s what working class used to mean vs. what it means now.

      • Derelict

        When I was a kid, the guy who delivered milk to our house three times a week lived a block away. Working full-time as a milkman, he was able to afford a home and put his two daughters through college.

        Today, of course, that same job is part-time minimum wage with no benefits. If we look at how working-class jobs have shifted–going from paying adequate and even middle-class wages to paying next to nothing–we can see that “working class” today is more like working poor. And the number of working poor is rising while the gap between the working poor and everyone else widens.

        • Keaaukane

          Wait, you still have milk men where you live? I thought they were all dead.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyaK3jo4Sl4

          • BiloSagdiyev

            Curse you! I thought it would be this:

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4nSt0q_Jfo

          • los

            the old milkman hasn’t been there long?
            do they survive by cannibalism? then who bothered to reclothe the skeletal milkman?
            why don’t any make a sound? or toss the skeletal milkman out the window?

            I’m Just Asking Questions.

      • PohranicniStraze

        Definitely! I work for the postal service, in a white collar capacity, and many of our craft employees, when overtime is included, make low six figures or close to it. So are they working class (because their job involves non-supervisory, non-skilled trade, no degree required work running machinery) or non-working class, because they make too much money to be included in the OP’s definition?

        • ThrottleJockey

          Yeah I had a uncle he was making six figure income as a machinist for Colgate-Palmolive back in the eighties. He didn’t have a college degree and he kept turning down supervisor positions in order to keep making overtime. He averaged about 80 hours a week for over 20 years. Do you know how much $130,000 was worth in 1989?

          Funnier still he lived smack dab in the hood in a house my grandfather had bought and drove a raggedy beat down hooptie truck. God bless Uncle Leon, the best uncle ever. When I was in college he gave me the money I needed to study overseas and when I got out lent me the money I needed to buy my first car. He didn’t even charge me Interest and let me pay him back at the low low rate of $100 a month. What a great man.

      • MikeJake

        My dad was a millwright at Alcoa, and he made pretty damn good money in the 90s with all the overtime that was available. But he was working 12 hours a day and double shifts on the weekends.

    • slothrop1

      Mishel mostly agrees with you, I think. It is a huge chunk of the workforce – around 66% of those persons who have no college education.

      Why doesn’t Brooks simply look at the pew research on millennials? What he says about younger people is mostly untrue.

      • Derelict

        Why doesn’t Brooks simply look at the pew research . . .
        Then it wouldn’t be a Brooks column, would it? There’s research that’s done by people who go into the field and conduct interviews and surveys and such. And then there’s research that’s done by people who read the results produced by the first group of people.

        And then there’s “research” as conducted by Brooks and his ilk: “What quality can I sneeringly project onto group X that I hold in utter contempt?” In this case, it’s that millennials are lazy lay-abouts, which Brooks knows because it just feels right to him.

        • Origami Isopod

          Then it wouldn’t be a Brooks column, would it?

          You got it. Who wants to do something so pedestrian as research when there Applebee’s salad bars to make up shit about?

    • libarbarian

      I think I would add to your list,

      5. Having had parents who also had conditions 1-4.

      Bullshit!

      A rich person who grew up working class is still rich. A person struggling to make ends meet who had a comfortable childhood is still a person struggling to make ends meet.

      I usually hear this from people who either
      (1) want to claim the mantle of being “working class”, despite not actually being so, because their parents were
      -or-
      (2) want to disparage others who are working class because their parents had money (even though they obviously didn’t inherit any fortune).

      What’s your angle?

      • Thom

        My angle is trying to understand the world better. While how much money one has is critically important, it does not explain everything about the world. Also, you seem to have not noticed that I was adding 5 to 1-4, not substituting it.

        • nixnutz

          One important thing though is with the huge growth in income inequality you can’t expect everyone who was born into the middle class to remain there. Do we need to invent a new class for people whose parents were professionals but who never meet the same economic standards? What about this generation’s kids? There will be a bunch of them whose parents went to good schools but still grew up poor. How long does that cultural identity last?

          Which is just to say that while these things have always been poorly defined in the current moment they’re particularly confusing. There’s the whole category of low-paying, low-security white-collar jobs to think about too.

      • ThrottleJockey

        A person who grew up working class and is now rich is certainly rich but they might still identify and psychologically think like Working Class People.

        • searcher

          Eh, as a person who grew up working class and is now for all intents and purposes of my former life “rich”, there is a huge, insane difference.

          I don’t worry about money.

          I mean, I don’t have unlimited money, and a lot of my financial flexibility comes from not spending money on expensive status symbols like fancy cars or houses, but I never worry about living expenses, car or home repair, medical bills or any other unexpected costs. I don’t really even need to budget. If I need a new roof, I just buy a new roof. I don’t worry what paying for it is going to do to my budget for the next year or whether I should defer because the car was making a funny noise…

          It’s insane, a giant weight off my chest. I knew having more money would be nice because I could buy more nicer things with it, but I never imagined the staggering gulf between “worrying about money” and “not worrying about money”.

          • Derelict

            THIS. I’m in a similar condition–not fabulously wealthy, but definitely not worried about paying for even catastrophic expenses. And, yes–it’s a whole different world when you’re not worried about money.

            It frees up lots of time and energy to focus on other things, for good or ill.

          • Rob in CT

            Thinking about this from the other direction (I’ve never had to worry about money) is one of the things the pushed me leftward. I did a bit of imagining and found it horrifying. I have enough trouble being a functional adult without the (serious) fear of financial ruin hanging over me. I mean, I’m capable of worrying anyway, but there’s mild worry that you’re not maximizing your savings/investments and there’s like, worrying about that roof or car repair (or health insurance, or hell even the rather large vet bill we just paid…).

            Therefore, a modicum of financial security for all became a big deal for me. I went from someone who would nod along with calls to raise the retirement age or other cuts to SS to someone who rejects that completely.

            • searcher

              Yeah, knowing what a huge difference there is between “worrying about money” and “not worrying about money” (and still having family on the other side of that line), it makes me incredibly angry that the level of security I have isn’t some sort of fundamental human right.

              But at another level, from here on out — god willing — I’ll only be able to understand the sorts of problems other people face raising a family or retiring in the abstract; I can’t even imagine all of the small and large problems the working class face, let alone pretend that I have the answers for them. “Happen to by a healthy white male with an in-demand skill-set in an industry with entry-level positions yet high pay” doesn’t really scale.

              • Derelict

                Having been poor (eating Minute Rice for a week because you can’t buy anything at all), I don’t have to strain my imagination or consider such perils in the abstract. I know what it’s like to have a dead car battery and have to choose between food this week or making it to work.

          • kg

            A wise man once said “Havin’ money’s not everything not having it is”

            • tsam

              Right–and a lot of stupid people fall for some nicely disgusting cliches.

              “Money is the root of all evil”
              “The happiest man in the kingdom has no shirt”
              “Money can’t buy you….”

              Now there’s some truth to many of those statements, but I usually hear them in the context of some super nice person telling everyone to just be happy with what they have, which is usually nothing.

              • Derelict

                As the sage Sheryl Crow put it so fatuously, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

              • Angry Warthog Breath

                We can note that the Beatles wrote “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” when they had more than enough of it to run repeated experiments on the subject. Before that, they were very interested in money. It was what they wanted.

      • Origami Isopod

        There’s definitely some sociological stuff going on that doesn’t correlate entirely to current earnings. The child of upper-middle-class parents who’s struggling in a flea-trap studio apartment can, theoretically, always go back home. The child of poor rural people doesn’t have that option. The former also has manners of speaking and dressing to help them “pass” in certain situations, and probably has a post-high-school degree as well. These things open doors.

  • gorillagogo

    It’s not at all uncommon to make a decent wage and own your own home working blue collar jobs such as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, truck drivers, etc, and they are most definitely working class

    • Truck drivers not so much any more. But skilled trades, yes.

      • Derelict

        Depends on the trucker. Around Albany, NY, drivers with liquid tanker endorsements are starting at $65,000/yr. Even local-haul dry-goods truckers are being offered $50,000+ starting salaries with full benefits.

        We may not manufacture much in America, but we still have to move stuff from port to store.

        • Amanda in the South Bay

          I can see that happening, especially in less expensive parts of the country.

        • Murc

          Pedantry: we still manufacture a shit-ton of things in this country. We’re the worlds second largest manufacturing economy. America makes a lot of stuff.

          We just make less than we did, and we require less people to do it.

          • Rob in CT

            Even more pedantry:

            We just make less than we did

            as a percentage of world output, and we require less people to do it.

            IIRC, our actual output is up. Though that may be real $$ value, rather than, like, tonnage or somesuch, so I guess it’s debatable.

          • Jonas

            To echo Rob in CT, manufacturing output in the US has continually gone up, we are just so efficient at it, it doesn’t eat up as much of the workforce as it used to.

    • Murc

      It’s not at all uncommon to make a decent wage and own your own home working blue collar jobs such as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, truck drivers, etc, and they are most definitely working class

      It’s weird, right?

      Those guys don’t just make a living wage; if you’re at all competent as a carpenter, plumber, or electrician you can make a very, very comfortable living. If you’re not just competent but very good at your job, you can compete competitively, earnings-wise, with white-collar work.

      • slothrop1

        And by the time you are in your late 40s, having finally mastered your trade, your body is shot.

        Also, there is still a wage premium for college-educated workers.This is why they are seldom included as “working class.”

      • los

        plumbers, carpenters, electricians
        as non-unionized employee? maybe renting, not buying.

    • maurinsky

      I was going to say the same thing. My father was a carpenter, and was the sole breadwinner supporting a family of 7 in a nice home, and he only went to school until he was 12.

      I have a degree and a professional job, but I don’t make as much money in actual dollars in 2016 as he made in actual dollars in 1989.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I don’t really consider skilled Tradesman to be working class. They might work hard and under hard conditions but they’re making well above middle class money normally. Who do you think are those $70,000 a year Trump voters after all?

      • Rob in CT

        “Single truck contractors” was the term somebody used (here, I think) that made a lot of sense.

    • tsam

      It’s not at all uncommon to make a decent wage and own your own home working blue collar jobs such as plumbers, carpenters, electricians, truck drivers, etc, and they are most definitely working class

      Actually, it’s becoming more and more uncommon. Trade unions are shrinking as fast as all the others, and if you don’t work commercial construction (where most jobs are government funded and required to be prevailing wage), it’s easy to end up building houses, apartments, mall tenant spaces and office spaces for $10/hour. If you’re all the way up to foreman, you could get something like $15/hour.

    • wkiernan

      My daughter who has college degrees pays a lot more per month to rent an apartment in Boston, Massachusetts, than I with only a hi-skool diploma do to pay off my house in Clearwater, Florida.

  • CP

    Is “living paycheck to paycheck” too broad?

    • Crusty

      Yes. There are people who live paycheck to paycheck because after one paycheck goes towards their hefty mortgage payment, lease on an infiniti and an acura, nanny, kids summer camp and expensive clothing purchases, there is nothing left until the next paycheck. But that doesn’t seem working class.

  • yet_another_lawyer

    The phrase itself is the problem. I’ve never been crazy about it, primarily due to the implication that everybody not in the “working class” doesn’t work, which is nonsense. Referencing my own field, a lawyer isn’t working class but the profession is notorious for requiring working a ton of hours.

    It seems like twenty years ago what we now call the “working class” was called the “working poor,” neatly referencing the group who work but make so little they’re still poor. Why did that phrase go away?

    • Wapiti

      I thin the phrase is a problem, too. I thought we used poor/middle class/upper class when I was a kid, and that working class/middle class/upper class was a British usage. Did it come over with some crop of British-born pundits? It seems to have come over without a user manual.

      • Craigo

        I might be younger than most here, but it’s always been “working-class” here. The “poor” was not a third class, but an underclass beneath those.

        • Crusty

          I’ve always thought of the middle class- white collar non-massive paying jobs and the well off contractor, carpenter, plumber, etc., followed by the working class- less skilled physical work, and then the working poor- minimum wage walmart type jobs, but they are working, as distinguished with people who are not working.

      • Cassiodorus

        It’s always struck me as just a more polite way of saying poor.

        • Origami Isopod

          There’s no hard line, but to me “working-class” always connoted jobs requiring either manual or emotional labor that at least paid the bills, while “poor” connoted jobs that didn’t pay the bills or no jobs at all.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Naw, working class is a term that has certainly been used here.

        America generally lacks the vocabulary to talk about class. It’s not allowed. Bring it up, and you’re a communist. (Or at least a very prescient medieval peasant.)

        I think it was Paul Fussell who divvied it up into:
        poor out of sight (prisoners, mental hospitals, mole people, Boxcar Willy)
        poor (Low Juggalo*)
        lower middle (High Juggalo*)
        middle middle
        upper middle
        rich
        rich out-of-sight (Adelman, Koch, Soros)

        There’s a looooot of territory in those three middles. To include that whiny Univ Chicago professor from a few years ago, although if you ask anybody on the rungs below him, yeah, he’s rich.

        * Fussell did not know of Juggalos, thank goodness.

        • Origami Isopod

          Fussell came up with nine classes altogether, IIRC. But, yeah, they were along the lines you’re talking about. Nobody sees the ultra-poor or the ultra-rich, for very different reasons.

      • bender

        I think that during the anti-Communist frenzy after WWII, using the terms “working class” or “workers” became identified with having a Marxist perspective, so it became unsafe to use those terms.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Perhaps also because everybody wants to think they’re something else. Like Joe the Unlicensed Plumber who would have been so badly treated by the tax scheme if he ever someday made that much money.

      • los

        Did it come over with some crop of British-born pundits? It seems to have come over without a user manual.
        Lazy no-good F pundits. Never F did a F lick of F work such as F including TFM!

    • Charrua

      Yeah, the expression is deliberately vague. In Spanish, the expression used to be “clase obrera”, which means something like the class of manual workers (especially blue collar).

      • los

        clase obrera
        visually, that looks too much like “clase obliterata”.

    • Matt McIrvin

      It’s a holdover from the days when most people who weren’t poor were rentiers of some sort, or living off inherited wealth. But in the US today there are a lot of salaried professionals who are rich by any reasonable classification of income or wealth.

      • BigHank53

        Worthwhile to remember that when the US did their first deep census (as opposed to just counting noses) the threshold for putting families into the middle class was if they had hired servants.

        • Apropos of nothing, I was browsing census records and discovered my only ancestor with a surname that’s easy to find had two sisters with a different name living with them around 1900. I don’t know whether they were servants or boarders and my mother never heard of them, and doesn’t remember her family having either, though that is the more “middle class” branch of the family. As far as I can tell, the more “working class” branch evaded the census until 1950 or so, or else lived in a different city and didn’t tell anybody.

  • I agree with (1), and disagree with the rest. There is nothing about being ‘working class’ that would preclude you from working a good job, owning a home, and amassing some wealth. That this is happening is merely an artifact of the extreme concentration of wealth in this country. But the primary differentiator is that the working class is comprised of those who work with their ‘hands’ (such as laborers, skilled tradespeople, construction workers, nurses, service workers, plumbers), while the professional class is made up of those requiring a college education to do their jobs (teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.).

    I think whether you are a part of the middle class is not the same as if you are a member of the working or professional classes. You can be working class and middle class. You can be professional class and poor.

    • lunaticllama

      I feel like this definition is just restating the blue collar/white collar divide (there might not be a difference between blue collar/white collar and working class/professional class.) As is commonly said, blue collar/working class jobs require you to be on your feet, white collar jobs you can typically sit down all day.

      • Yes. I think the working/professional class and blue/white collar divides are essentially the same. I think poor, middle, upper class is different. There is obviously a fairly strong correlation as to where you may land on the economic scale based on whether you’re blue or white collar, but they’re also different classifications.

        I think one of the most distressing issues facing our country is the loss of good paying blue collar jobs that allowed working class people to sit comfortably in the middle class. I think it’s bad policy for society to require a college education to have a chance of becoming middle class.

    • Jim in Baltimore

      RNs need a degree.

      • Not necessarily a bachelor’s degree, however, although many do have one.

        • Nursing is probably a gray area. Some highly specialized nurses have master’s degrees.

          Project management is another. Project managers are generally considered the blue collar workers of the professional class.

          • Crusty

            Nursing is very confusing. There are nursing schools at Yale, Columbia, Penn, Duke and Johns Hopkins. I don’t know what that means, but it seems to complicate it, as I gather there not being a Princeton department of masonry and roofing also has something to do with perceptions.

            • ricegol

              nursing requirements have changed in the last decade or so. for example, Pennsylvania is making all its old RNs who only had an Associates Degree go back and take classes.

              about two years ago my little sister was contemplating a BSN program in New Jersey for people who already have non-STEM bachelor degrees. after I read the brochure, I asked her: why bother? you might as well go to med school. Apparently this program and the extensive requirements are fairly news.

            • Origami Isopod

              as I gather there not being a Princeton department of masonry and roofing also has something to do with perceptions.

              You learn about masonry and roofing on the job, not in a classroom. Nursing does require hands-on learning but it also requires classroom time.

          • Burning_River

            But even that depends on the industry. In construction, energy, things like that? Sure. Sprinkled into finance, tech, etc? Less so, I’d argue.

  • Jim in Baltimore

    I’ve always assumed that “working class” means those who need to work to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves. The “upper class” own enough that they could live off it without working, and the “middle class” own something, but not enough to live off of, or at least in anything but the most straightened circumstances.

    • Crusty

      Those are good.

      • Brett

        I like it too, although I think of it more in terms of

        1. Working Class
        2. Professional/Management Class
        3. Rich Class

        #2 can own a fair number of assets, but they can’t live off of them alone except under very austere circumstances.

        • Crusty

          Also good.

          Maybe these-

          1) Marginally adequate income
          2) good income
          3) income might be huge, might also be an afterthought

          or this-

          1) paycheck to paycheck
          2) paycheck to paycheck with nicer stuff
          3) definitely not paycheck to paycheck

          or maybe this-

          1) If you lost your job, you’d be out of your home within a month
          2) If you lost your job, you might be out of your home within a year
          3) Will not be out of your home under any circumstances

          • Just_Dropping_By

            Your last set of categories ties nicely with my position that “rich” is only usefully defined as being able to sustain an upper middle class or higher lifestyle indefinitely while relying entirely on investment or other passively obtained income.

        • Anna in PDX

          I like this – I myself am a college-educated person who makes more than 100% of my local median income and works in the public sector as a “financial analyst” – my partner, who used to be a Maoist when he was in college, calls this sector “mandarins” which I always thought was sort of descriptive. David Brooks sort of falls into that category too, though of course he makes more than I do.

        • wkiernan

          Instead of “the rich class,” how about “the investing class”? As contrasted with “the working class.”

  • J. Otto Pohl

    This is in fact one of the questions that I think has a rather easy answer. The Working Class or Proletariat is that class that has a relationship to the means of production defined by only selling their labor and being alienated from that same labor. Marx is not the end all and be all. But, he was probably the most important social theorist to come out of Europe in modern times. His definition of class still holds up.

    • Joseph Slater

      While I don’t think there is an “easy” answer to this question, I do agree that what you say is *part* of the answer. I go on about this at more length below.

    • I would agree to that. If your derive the majority of your income from labor, then you could be considered working class, but then that would extend the definition well into what is generally called professional territory. Most doctors, for example, live off their wages as a doctor. Would a doctor then be working class?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Doctors like craftsmen have generally not been alienated from their labor like factory workers. HMOs might alter this somewhat.

        • Perhaps a definition of working class might be those who derive their primary source of income from jobs that could be replaced by robots :-)

          • dn

            This is more or less my working definition.

            I still like the phrase “petty bourgeois” as a synonym for “middle class”, i.e. someone who needs to work to live, but possesses some social independence due to ownership of physical means of production and/or of a credential. The latter indicates the possession of scarce skills which cannot yet be rendered superfluous by technology or assembly-line methods.

            Of course Marx himself argued that the classic means-of-production-owning petty bourgeois was a dying breed and that skilled proles were still proles, albeit of a slightly higher class. But as J. Otto notes, Marx’s main bugbear was specifically “alienation”, which as Craigo notes below is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of class existence.

            Anyway, the classic prole – a worker with none of the above – remains a thing, and it’s still these people who we really mean most of the time when we talk about “the working poor”. Because more and more of them really are poor now, unlike in the heyday of Fordism when a lot of them won incomes and wealth that could rival that of a real petty bourgeois due to the ability of unions to make headway in an environment of relatively low capital mobility.

            • bender

              I would define the working poor as people who have some income from jobs or self-employment, but very little discretionary income or savings. If the income is interrupted or they have an unexpected expense, there is no spare money and they have to pay bills late, depend on the food bank, go without basic medical care, and in a short time will become homeless.

              Working class people have enough assets that they can take a vacation or absorb an unexpected expense without getting so behind on bills that they end up on the street within months.

              • If you think of an imagined version of “the old days,” the working class didn’t take vacations, and if they fell on hard times, had to borrow from friends or ask for help from their church or other charity. That hasn’t been the case for a long time, though, as much as some people would like to turn back the clock to when their imagined idea of “culture” supposedly reigned.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Oh, the rent-seekers and MBA’s and vampire squid assistants are doing everything they can to turn many doctors, like they have airline pilots, into hired help and crankers of levers and widget-punchers.

    • Craigo

      Marx’s definition of working class is too broad to be especially useful. If you believe that those who labor for others will inevitably rise up against those who profit from that labor, then yeah, those are your relevant categories. For the rest of us, more nuance is needed.

      • Joseph Slater

        I agree more nuance is needed, and obviously Marx’s prediction about the working class rising up in rebellion wasn’t correct. But I do think Marx’s idea that alienation from labor and relation to the means of production can affect how people think and view the world in significant ways is an important and accurate insight.

    • Nubby

      I’m w/ J. Otto on this one. If you can’t appropriate the labor surplus value of others, you’re working class.

      My boss comes into work about as much as I do w/ the primary difference that he has an ownership stake in the company. He doesn’t have to work, he can and does siphon off LSV for an income stream.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        Except that by this definition a solo practicing attorney in a small town market making $40K a year pretax is not “working class” while a mid-level associate at a large New York firm earning $240K a year pretax from salary plus bonus is “working class.”

        • dn

          The key problem with the Marxian approach is Marx’s claim that all labor, including skilled labor, is ultimately theoretically reducible to unskilled labor (at least potentially if not yet in practice) and hence eventually susceptible to mechanization, which leads him to regard the possession of skill as more or less irrelevant in the long run, while possession of property remains paramount.

          Hence a doctrinaire Marxist would have it that while the big-firm lawyer is a high class of skilled prole, the small-town lawyer is something arguably worse – a petty-bourgeois, a member of an obsolescent class whose future is proletarianization.

          Will it happen? Who knows. Not to all small-town lawyers in the near future, I presume. But it goes to show the stupidity of using the vague term “working class” as a synonym for the Marxian “proletariat”.

          • Joseph Slater

            I think a more sophisticated Marxist would look at the amount of control the worker/employee currently has over the work process. Lawyers, generally, have more control over how to handle cases (and not infrequently, what cases to handle at all) than most factory workers have over how/when/what they do at their jobs.

    • Brett

      The problem is that, as CV Danes pointed out, you have a pretty substantial number of people who are “rich” (or at least very well-off) but draw most of their income off of work rather than asset ownership. In fact, you have to get up pretty high into the Top 1% before you start getting folks whose incomes are primarily drawn from investments – and part of that is a tax dodge to avoid paying higher personal income taxes.

  • Amanda in the South Bay

    I’ve seen tech workers in the Bay Area try and redefine themselves as middle class-and they might have a point to a degree (at least by the skewed definitions of Bay Area salaries). Though someone making 150K a year should be really careful about trying to claim working/middle class slumming cred. If you make 150 K a year you can pretty much rent an apartment anyplace outside of SF. You might not be able to buy a house in Sunnyvale, but can easily rent in Sunnyvale at 150K a year.

    But basically if you can afford to live on your own in the Bay Area without any roommates, I think you should STFU about being middle class (and especially working class).

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Not my insight, but I think some social scientists or economists figured it out: everybody just looks up at the rungs on the ladder above them. They are very familiar with the rung above and the rung below. Where the techboys works, the rungs above are making ungodly money.

      • Joshua

        We saw this sort of thing as soon as Obama went into office. People writing editorials about how their $250,000 income is not “that much money” in New York, or how they were going to take their ball and go home, etc.

  • Karen24

    I agree with all of the above posters who object to describing what is objectively a lower class with the word “working.” I work, in that I have to get to a job at 7 a.m. Each weekday and perform a series of rather complicated tasks in order to get paid each month, but since I’m a lawyer and the daughter of college graduates who owned a considerable amount of valuable farmland, and married to another well-off lawyer, no one would describe me as “working class.” I have a posh accent and I know lots of things — another 1.75 languages, the names of opera arias, fancy table manners — that mark me as at least upper middle class regardless of my salary. I have also had the experience of being called a snob by men who made several times my income but who didn’t have college degrees and worked at highly paid but not highly regarded jobs like car dealers or air conditioning contractors.* I think we need to start following the European custom and just use the actual words instead of euphemisms.

    I also think there is a complicating factor in that some jobs which don’t require a degree but which are performed in the orbit of wealthy people get a class boost. Thinks like chef, certain kinds of personal appearance services like cosmetologist or personal trainer, get a class boost because they mostly work with rich people.

    *One of my biggest peeves is the perception that carpenters or electricians or other highly skilled trades are less prestigious than, say software engineers. No one at LGM has ever or will ever think anything like that, but there is a miasma in the media that certain kinds of trade jobs are for dumb people. This idea is more than just contempt for plumbers but also in the idea that plumbers and carpenters and electiricians would never be interested in high culture or art, or that someone with a degree in English literature wouldn’t ever want to be an electrician. The examples I give are from building trades, but there are many other jobs that don’t require now a degree but take a lot of time and effort to learn and perform at anything like a competent level. I will undermine my own assertion here by stating I can’t find any links showing the attitude to which I have such a strong objection, but as soon as I do I will post a link.

    • Ramon A. Clef

      One of my biggest peeves is the perception that carpenters or electricians or other highly skilled trades are less prestigious than, say software engineers.

      Huzzah to that!

      Coincidentally, probably two-thirds of the software engineers I work with spend their spare time on carpentry, automechanics, or other trade-like work.

      • lunaticllama

        My brother has worked for a carpentry business that specialized in high-end custom window fixtures in the Seattle area. About half of his coworkers were hipsters. Take that for what you will.

        • los

          I think that’s approaching “artisan” type “work with their hands”

    • Cash & Cable

      I will undermine my own assertion here by stating I can’t find any links showing the attitude to which I have such a strong objection, but as soon as I do I will post a link.

      This attitude is discussed in a recent book by the excellent Katherine S. Newman, who talks about the elevation of “white collar” professions over trades and how that attitude has led to underinvestment in vocational education and training programs.

    • Murc

      One of my biggest peeves is the perception that carpenters or electricians or other highly skilled trades are less prestigious than, say software engineers.

      Right?

      Like, has anyone here ever taken a gander at the Master Electricians exam? You need to know so much math! And how to apply it. And have been a qualified journeyman for what, like five years?

      I sure as hell can’t do a complete buildout of electrical mains, or calculate properly whether those mains are going to blow out and burn down the building.

      • or calculate properly whether those mains are going to blow out and burn down the building.

        Congratulations! If you can just set your sights a bit higher, you’ve ideally qualified for a job as a Financial Master of the Universe!

      • Karen24

        In Texas the Master Electrician’s exam is a six hour math test, and before anyone takes it they have to have been a journeyman six years, so a Master’s card is about the equivalent of an MBA.

      • postmodulator

        I can actually do that math, but I almost die every time I pick up a soldering iron.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Amen. Auto mechanics is a good example. A great many Fancy Lads* haven’t a clue how to repair anything mechanical in their lives, and look down on anbyody who turns a wrench as some kind of filthy, brutal savage. They have no clue how complicated cars have become!

      * https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMuScu9OpfA

      Jiffy Lube, sure. But not the professional mechanics who really diagnose and repair.

      • Murc

        What’s annoying about this is that car repair has actually in some ways become easier for people who aren’t mechanics, thanks to the proliferation of bald men in overalls on youtube who are willing to walk you through every step.

        It used to be, you had to grab the manual, and the manual would be devoid of information like “the oil filter on this model is recessed; you will never, ever get it out without a filter gun, you can’t even get a filter wrench around it” or “that last nut you have to undo requires you to have very small hands and this precise combination of deep-socket and extensible socket wrenches or you’ll never reach it” and suchly.

        The flip side is that some manufacturers take pains to lock independent mechanics out of their computer systems. This is bullshit.

        (The right-to-repair is going to be an interesting legal battleground in the next few years; a bill to make it happen in New York recently failed, but I live in hope.)

        • BiloSagdiyev

          On some level, we also pay professional mechanics for having all of those tools (a 3 foot long 1/2″ drive extension with a 3/8″ drive on the other end, for bellhousing bolts) and… for having fingertips of steel. Merely removing some electrical connectors in some cramped place after 8 years of heat can be much harder than unbolting the transmission from the engine.

          • Murc

            If I ever have the space for it, one day I’m going to spend like 500 bucks on one of those massive chests full of every size of socket and all the extensions, drive types, etc.

            Because fuck you, bolts, and your brothers the nuts as well. I will master you.

            • Rob in CT

              Heh.

              Me, I’m gonna keep payin’ a guy (or gal, as the case may be) to handle that for me.

              To each their own, but jesus. Cars have like zero empty space under the hood at this point. I remember my ’77 Chevy Impala (with an inline 6, not a V8). You could pop the hood and look right through to the ground in multiple spots. There were places we used to hide booze… the thing was a POS but getting at stuff was actually possible.

              • Murc

                Me, I’m gonna keep payin’ a guy (or gal, as the case may be) to handle that for me.

                With me it’s sort of… my criteria is “do I need to actually jack the vehicle up and crawl underneath it?”

                If the answer is yes, then I won’t even bother. I don’t have a garage.

                If the answer is no… do I really need a mechanic to change my air filter? To put in a new battery? To replace a gasket or obviously bad connector? To replace this one sensor that costs about thirty bucks, can be replaced in half an hour with regular-person tools, and which might fix that low-idle problem I’ve been having, where there are multiple videos showing me how to do it?

                Sure, I’ll do that myself.

                Interestingly, “changing my own oil” isn’t on that list. I have a fifteen year old Saturn. Amazing car, you couldn’t kill it with a shotgun. But the oil filter on that thing is a bitch and a half to get at and I hate crawling around underneath it. So no, screw that. I can, and will, do things like clean my own spark plugs but I’m not actually willing to change my own oil.

                • BiloSagdiyev

                  Sounds to me like you need Rhino Ramps. They’re wunnerful things.

                  As for all of the sockets and extensions, I now have them ALL.

                  OK, not all. I don’t have those 3 foot long ones for going after bellhousing bolts from the comfort of the transmission tunnel, with your impact gun. Might need those soon.

                  Just getting to all the hose clamps anymore can required special tools. Things have gotten tight, I hear. (But I stick with older cars and avoid some of that.)

                • Rob in CT

                  Ah. Battery I’ll do myself, sure. Those are typically still possible to get at and remove.

                  I used to think that about headlights too, but fucking A the last time I tried that it was so much pain (and I ended up getting it in at a slight angle and had to get help anyway). There’s just no fucking space to work. And I’m small! That was my Subaru – they don’t click into place such that you can’t screw it up. They are not idiot proofed, and as a result… Goddamn that was annoying.

                  But anything w/wiring or hoses? NOPE. I do not trust myself not to fuck it up. And of course anything that requires jacking up the car.

                  I do have a vague memory of a friend teaching me how to change my own oil, which involved him having me drive the car up on some rocks and then getting under it to do the work. The shit we did that didn’t kill us amazes me sometimes.

                  My mom had one of those old Saturns (one of the first few model years, so older than yours?) and it was indeed a solid car.

                  At the end of the day, I know I pay “too much” for auto service. Hell, I mostly take my cars to the dealerships! I know this is not the most economical approach. But there is value, for me, in just having it dealt with properly, the first time ’round. And fortunately, I can afford this.

            • tsam

              But bolts have gotten pretty good about staying out of sight and out of the reach of your every day tools. But for the low price of $384.99, you can buy this special tool to remove that one bolt from that one part.

              • Linnaeus

                Payable in installments of only $19.95. Call now.

                • BiloSagdiyev

                  Oh, no need to call. The Snap On pusher prowls just outside the shop in his big white van. Goddamn, goddamn, the chrome pusher man.

        • tsam

          Those manuals were great.

          Change air filter:
          Raise the vehicle and place on jack stands
          Disconnect the negative battery cable

          • Rob in CT

            Reading modern-day manuals, clearly written in China (by a non-English speaker) and then run through google translate, is big fun too.

        • Karen24

          I used to work for the agency that regulates car dealers here in Texas. One of the more interesting features of that job was that the agency took the place of district court for most disputes between dealers and manufacturers, and even 15 years ago a lot of those disputes were about mechanic certification. I learned that there are systems on most new cars that require proprietary equipment to repair, and that using other equipment or mechanics that aren’t certified by the factor to work on that particular thing voids the warranty.

          • Murc

            This is one of the things driving the still-nascent right-to-repair movement. It’s almost all about electronic equipment (which this days means all equipment) being made deliberately impossible to service if you’re not part of the same corporate edifice.

        • searcher

          My favorite story along those lines is that I ripped out an exterior wall in my house … and then Googled “how to frame a rough opening for a door”. As long as you have some basic skills and knowledge (eg, I know how to operated a hammer and saw, and know to ask the question) and don’t mind amateur quality work (my dry-wall joints look comical), the internet lets you do some crazy things.

    • Karen24

      And just for grins, what class does a high school dropout welder who is also a successful metal sculptor belong to? I have a friend who’s day job is turning shipping containers into buildings but who also does commissioned metal sculpture and is a somewhat successful singer and guitarist here in town. His roommate is a painter who works as cook occasionally. Besides being the premise for a cliche Netflix sitcom, these guys demonstrate the difficulty of making class assignments.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        He has achieved socialism in one person.

      • bender

        I would call them artists with day jobs. In the US, professional artists (including performing artists) are a class by themselves. If the artist is making about half a living from art, the day job doesn’t count, just as a farm family who have jobs in town to make ends meet still are counted as farmers.

    • Jhoosier

      One of my biggest peeves is the perception that carpenters or electricians or other highly skilled trades are less prestigious than, say software engineers.

      I think that, or at least I used to. It’s taking some time to get rid of the prejudice. My father (whose guide to voting was, “I’ll vote for whoever taxes me lowest”) loves to repost stuff from Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, but will denigrate ‘burger flippers’ to no end.

      • Karen24

        I have a number of friends like that.

        FWIW and off-topic: I am just as irritated by my friends who work in skilled trades who argue that they shouldn’t be expected to develop their taste and intellect because they work in a blue collar job. So, you’re a genius because you can do complicated math but Shakespeare in the Park is above your grade level and I’m a snob because I like it? Right.

      • BigHank53

        Mike Rowe, the ex-professional opera singer?

      • tsam

        I have one Facebook friend that rides that “how can you dumbshit burger flippers be worth $15/hour???” hobby horse all day, every day. Of course she’s a nurse and makes a good living, but is very concerned about what a Burger King chef makes.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Yep. Folks the the rung on the ladder below them quite well, and want to stomp on the fingers of those people.

    • Pseudonym

      One of my biggest peeves is the perception that carpenters or electricians or other highly skilled trades are less prestigious than, say software engineers.

      But those jobs are less prestigious, right? Not that they don’t require as much skill or effort or experience or intelligence or education in some form, but they don’t confer the same status. Or is that not what you mean by “prestigious”?

      • Karen24

        Actually I think you’re correct and I misspoke. It is the fact that those jobs carry less prestige even though they require an equivalent level of skill. Thanks for catching that.

  • Peter VE

    John Michael Greer uses wage class and salary class as definitions. I would add rentier class.

    • Craigo

      /endorsed, though you run into problems here and there with white/blue collar divide.

  • Ramon A. Clef

    a younger cohort that are more disordered, less industrious

    I realize it’s orthogonal to the main criticism of Brooks, but this conceit of his deserves calling out, too. It makes my blood boil. I know a lot of millennials. They work their asses off, just like I did when I was their age, and was called lazy and “less industrious” by people two or three times my age who sat on their fat asses and did precious little but criticize.

    • Joseph Slater

      It’s so comical how in *every age*, going back many, many centuries, the young are always lazy and self-obsessed, yet people keep repeating this trope. One of the most comical thing about being a guy in his 50s on FB is reading rants by people in their 30s about how “kids these days” are spoiled, coddled, etc. Same as it ever was.

      • Craigo

        You’d think that, by this point in history, no one would work and laziness would have reached 100%.

        • Bill Murray

          with poor math skills that could be 150-200%

      • Indeed!

      • Ramon A. Clef

        Yup. Shortly after my wife and I married, we went to a company Xmas party where one of the execs made a speech that included this little gem:

        “We’ve had a great year, thanks to a lot of hard work. Now, you young people don’t know what that phrase means.”

        I had to leave the room, or I would have been fired for pointing out that the son-of-a-bitch was known for taking mornings off to golf, and napping in his office, while those of us making maybe ten bucks an hour often worked through lunch to meet impossible deadlines.

      • rea

        “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”–Plato

        • Joseph Slater

          Exactly.

    • junker

      Hey, at least he finally said something nice about milennials (not bigoted). In fact I’m mildly shocked that he acknowledged bigotry at all.

    • maurinsky

      I am not a millennial, but my daughter and son-in-law are, and they and all their friends work all the time, most of them with multiple jobs. The good news is that they won’t stay with employers who treat them like shit, which is seen as being shiftless by older workers but I think is terrific and I hope it will make employers be less asshole-ish.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Employers mostly just moan about the lack of loyalty. After these kids watched their parents’ employers throw them in the trash at age 52.

        • N__B

          I honestly believe that the Masters of the Universe types think everyone else is too dumb to remember what happened, say, in 2008.

          • postmodulator

            The GOP has built national election campaigns, several of them successful, around the premise that the public’s memory goes back around six months.

            • los

              You liberels think yor funny but youll be crying again when we reelect Sarah Palin again for Donnell Trump’s vise presidint again.

              “Sumday youll have brayins as me and Doneeld Trump am.”
              Ernest T. Blogger

        • Dagmar

          Exactly. Employers complain about lack of loyalty and job-switching among the younger employees, but no commensurate rewards associated with being a long-term employee, in most so-called “working class” jobs. Limited upward mobility, limited wage growth, cuts to health care benefits, and at the same time huge productivity demands. My son worked at a big name cell-phone retailer, and the commission structure changed and became more complicated every other month to make it harder to earn sales commissions.

          • postmodulator

            That’s the norm amongst all relationships where one party has leverage, part of what I keep calling the Big Chisel. I worked for a call center that took outsource clients a while back. At one point point the senior manager told all us floor supervisors that the client had raised the metric expectations in the contract.

            I thought about it and said: “Then it’s not a contract, right?”

            • But this is just where what Brooks calls “the older generation” call people like you “disordered.” You’re supposed to ignore your fancy college education that tells you you can judge your betters because you learned fancy definitions, and realize that in the setting you’re in now, “contract” indicates a set of social relations (bullshit) which everyone who fits in understands. That is the difference between “working” and “middle class,” I think (at least a first stab at a working definition).

              • postmodulator

                Possibly. My internal definition, which I probably never put into words before, is that the more time you spend facing the pointy end of the chisel, the more working class you are.

                • I’m picturing a guy laughing at the college kid who doesn’t know how to hold a chisel, but sure.

                • BiloSagdiyev

                  Yyyep. I saw my sister,a graduate of a top 10 (5?) college, babble on about the problems with unions and how there are no guaranteed, sure things anymore, and that’s when I realized that the ability to spout such horseshit is directly related to the distance between your feet and a life working on a hard concrete floor, like I was at the time.

                  20+ years later, ya know what’s a sure thing? People are still buying cars.

                • Bill Murray

                  20+ years later, ya know what’s a sure thing? People are still buying cars.

                  also People are still having sex

                • BiloSagdiyev

                  also People are still having sex

                  Hmm, UAW membership could take on an interesting new cachet.

                • Hmm, UAW membership could take on an interesting new cachet.

                  Could using the phrase “there are no guarantees” though? I hope not.

            • searcher

              When the company I was working at came under new ownership, the new owners gave a two or three day seminar on their corporate philosophies. They said the thing they value most in their employees is passion.

              Which is hilarious, because the original meaning of “passion” is “suffering”; “the Passion of the Christ” was the suffering of Jesus during crucifiction. Your passion, in turn, is that thing you’re willing to suffer for.

        • Ahuitzotl

          at age 52 36. And 42. And 50. And 56.

    • For example the movers my wife and I hired over the weekend were a pair of millennial college students, and I feel pretty sure that I have never worked in my life as hard as they did moving every piece of heavy furniture we own, as fast and as carefully as they did.

  • Joseph Slater

    Interesting question, two responses. First, I also don’t agree with the rent/own distinction. In broad swaths of the idwest, from the small town in Michigan I grew up in to the medium-sized city in Ohio I now live in, most people who were obviously working class — not just factory workers, but secretaries, janitors, etc. — owned/were paying mortgages on houses. Maybe really small houses, maybe houses in obviously non-affluent areas, but not renting. In the Midwest generally, outside bigger cities, renting isn’t much of a thing. There’s a lot of housing because there’s lots of space. On the flip side, in big cities across the country, I know folks with very high-level jobs and a six-figure incomes who are still be renting.

    Second, I’m somewhat surprised that someone coming out of the labor history tradition wouldn’t make some reference to the worker’s relationship to the means of production. Working class does mean a number of things — some related to income, some related to education and culture — but I would definitely include the old-school meaning of one’s place within the hierarchy at the job. An auto-worker pulling in $100,000 in a year (unionized job, lots of overtime) with a house and even, I think, with a college degree, is still “working class” because s/he has no control over the work process and likely simply does routine, repetitive functions (even if those functions require skills) at the orders of superiors. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a “manual labor vs. desk job” issue (although there is a correlation with that): a skilled artisan making whole products from scrap and running his/her own shop is less “working class” than my autoworker, in my view, even if the artisan is only making $60,000 a year and is renting a two-bedroom in Chicago.

    • Paul Campos

      Second, I’m somewhat surprised that someone coming out of the labor history tradition wouldn’t make some reference to the worker’s relationship to the means of production.

      I’ve noticed that confusing my posting with Erik’s is becoming a thing. I’m pretty sure Erik has far more developed thoughts on this question than I do.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Maybe the Campos and Loomis are merging into a single Loompos. ;-)

        • Crusty

          Campis

        • BiloSagdiyev

          That would give their commentary some more oomph. Or maybe Oompa.

      • Joseph Slater

        Goddammit, apologies. I mean, not that you should be insulted by being confused with Erik . . . or, er, that Erik should be insulted by confused with you. . . . um, anyway, my bad.

        But I still stick by my substantive points.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Interesting question, two responses. First, I also don’t agree with the rent/own distinction. In broad swaths of the idwest, from the small town in Michigan I grew up in to the medium-sized city in Ohio I now live in, most people who were obviously working class — not just factory workers, but secretaries, janitors, etc. — owned/were paying mortgages on houses. Maybe really small houses, maybe houses in obviously non-affluent areas, but not renting. In the Midwest generally, outside bigger cities, renting isn’t much of a thing. There’s a lot of housing because there’s lots of space. On the flip side, in big cities across the country, I know folks with very high-level jobs and a six-figure incomes who are still be renting.

      Overlooked since the crash of 2007 is that a great deal of the real estate horseshit happened in but 34 counties in this country. Thing is, national medjia (shake fist) discourse is driven by people living in those counties.

      • In defense of the national media, a large fraction of the country’s wealth is probably concentrated in those 34 counties.

    • Bill Murray

      First, I also don’t agree with the rent/own distinction. In broad swaths of the idwest, from the small town in Michigan I grew up in to the medium-sized city in Ohio I now live in, most people who were obviously working class — not just factory workers, but secretaries, janitors, etc. — owned/were paying mortgages on houses.

      This. I think of all my friends and reasonably close family (cousins, aunts & uncles, nieces and nephews — about 50 people total) that live in the mid to intermountain west and are past college age, I and my ~25 year old nephew are the only ones that have never tried to own a house

      • nixnutz

        And I’ve spent my adult life in San Francisco and New York so almost none of my friends have bought houses. Although my one friend who managed to buy in S.F., around 2002, didn’t go to college and was working as a file clerk in a law firm at the time. His wife is a librarian, which I would guess is one of the lower paying professional jobs. When his father passed away he was able to pay off his house, which has appreciated by millions of dollars, and now he’s a stay-at-home dad who paints full time. His dad had made his money by lucky real estate investment too, I’d say he’s middle class by virtue of good luck and good credit despite never having any kind of serious career.

  • junker

    To use a case close to my heart, and I’d say this blog too, how would the full time adjunct fit? Obviously highly educated, but also frequently working long hours for not much money, unlikely to own a home, etc. My understanding is that this also fits those low on the law degree job scale.

    • Interesting. I have been teaching as an adjunct for almost ten years, but as a side job because teaching and course development are things I enjoy doing. But this is not my ‘day’ job, which pays far more. I think it would be extremely difficult to maintain my current standard of living solely as a adjunct. Adjuncts are probably similar to project managers: the ‘blue collar’ workers of the professional class.

    • Crusty

      Those are good examples of jobs/people that would socially be upper class, but economically not so much. If the full time adjunct has inherited some money or perhaps has a spouse who makes a good income, the economic thing doesn’t matter so much and they’re something above working class.

      Its kind of like landed gentry families in England. Some of them squandered their fortunes, but they still were considered to have had “respectable births.”

      • Karen24

        The way we use the word “has class” to mean “has pleasant and correct manners and generally good grammar” confounds the discussion of the mechanisms of economic exploitation. The fact that certain behaviors are almost universally regarded as demonstrating high social status complicates organizing and political action as well. The Overclass uses the resentment of people who never learned Received Pronunciation against those of us who have the manners of the upper class quite effectively. See Trump, Donald as Exhibit A, Nixon, Richard and Wallace, George, as Exhibits B and C. Please feel free to add others.

      • Its kind of like landed gentry families in England. Some of them squandered their fortunes, but they still were considered to have had “respectable births.”

        Those kinds of hardened class structures don’t really exist in the U.S. because of class mobility and the lack of a formal aristocracy. However, extreme wealth concentration is severely limiting the former and may well result in the latter.

        • Crusty

          We have our own substitutes, at least in some circles. If your parents are teachers with good educations, and you get a good education yourself, you have the equivalent of respectable birth without money. If your father is a successful concrete contractor and you don’t go to college but make good money when your successful concrete contractor dad loans you money to open an auto body shop, you may have money but will not be accepted in some circles.

          • Linnaeus

            Correct – those social and cultural factors matter.

          • To some extent, yes. There are places in NYC, for example, where an owner’s association will not allow those with the wrong breeding to purchase an apartment, no matter how much their net worth.

  • NewishLawyer

    Renting and not owning is tough because there are policy reasons to encourage renting.

    I would say there are also psychological aspects. Someone I know was working class and graduated from college at 30. She always uses food service as a crutch, something she can always do.

    How about law grads who can’t get jobs and have tons of debt?

    • Cassiodorus

      Definitely. Most people I know send my age (late 20s/early 30s) rent even if they could afford to buy a house due tovl wanting more flexibility.

      • Joseph Slater

        No doubt renting correlates with age (younger = more likely to rent). But I would guess, with only anecdotal (but very consistent) evidence, that what part of the country you live in is the biggest predictor of rent vs. owning. If you live in a big, popular city, especially one on a coast, even folks with objectively high incomes often rent. But even in the mid-sized Midwest city I live in, I’m pretty sure that most folks 30+ years old are paying mortgages.

        • NewishLawyer

          Something like 70 percent of San Franciscans rent, this includes everyone from young to old, working poor to very wealthy, etc.

          I don’t even mean in terms of moving flexability. Germany generally encourages renting over owning IIRC. On the other hand, renting is so hard in Stockholm and the waitlists are so young that many people just buy.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Having embarked on our national policy of deindustrializatoin for 40 years now, agreed upon after great public debate (just kidding), it would seem we’re now demanding such labor mobility of our blue collar people that maybe they never should have bought houses in those rust belt cities, so they could more easily escape when the plug was pulled.

      I think we’re 5 or 10 years away from hearing libertarians argue in favor of shantytowns being the best way to house a properly flexilbe and dynamic workforce with perfect mobility to suit the nation’s economic needs.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Except absent a whole host of anti-libertarian laws and enforcement I am not sure how you confine the residency of workers to shanty towns and prevent them from moving and working in areas and jobs meant for “better people.” The classic model of this type of thing is South Africa under apartheid and it did not have a free market in labor as opposed to a highly regulated and government controlled one.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          Except absent a whole host of anti-libertarian laws and enforcement I am not sure how you confine the residency of workers to shanty towns and prevent them from moving and working in areas and jobs meant for “better people.”

          Lower and lower wages!

  • Mike in DC

    I currently meet criteria 2 through 4, but I went to an Ivy for undergrad and I have a law degree(and law license). Unless there’s a “slumming upper middle class” demographic I am unaware of, I suppose I am working class-ish.

    • yeah, there are so many factors that go into this it’s difficult to shoehorn everyone into two classes.

      The “early career lawyer” stage is pretty miserable, except for those making BigLaw salaries in markets with a more reasonable COL, or those lucky enough to graduate with little to no debt. I guess you’d have to factor in “where you can go from here” though. It’s unlikely anyone who would be considered “working class” in or around DC would manage to build much of a net worth &/or buy a house. that would require a super-human effort over the course of many years. But if you’ve got a JD, it’s a lot more feasible.

      the law school loan burden plays an odd role in mixing you up socially and economically when you make the leap to home ownership. when I bought my first house, it was far from a hip neighborhood… my neighbors were all blue-collar retirees living on fixed incomes, and there were no granite counter-tops or marble tiled showers with glass doors within several blocks. When they heard I was an attorney, they looked at me like I had two heads. They wouldn’t dream of earning a salary close to what I was making at any point in their lives, yet, we were neighbors! They also seemed highly suspect of me, until they saw I could keep my damn lawn mowed, hedges trimmed, and not play the TV too loud. Then they chilled out.

    • NewishLawyer

      I think “slumming upper middle class” as a demographic used to be called “genteel poverty.”

  • Murc

    a younger cohort that are more disordered, less industrious, more celebrity-obsessed, but also more tolerant and open to the world.

    Brooks can go fuck himself. He has no self-awareness at all. He is aware that the “greatest generation” he worships at the feet of said the same fucking thing about his own age cohort, right?

    • gmack

      Yes, this, though in my view it’s not just a generational thing. Brooks is simply recapitulating old efforts to insist on one’s own respectability by distinguishing oneself from “poor white trash” (or other unsavory sorts). He’s just aping the motif by which one establishes oneself as one of the good, respectable, hardworking sorts by negating one’s neighbors (or “these kids these days”) as low class, trashy, and so on.

      As for the broader question, the comment thread seems to offer two possible axes of categorization. One can categorize class in accordance with income (high, middle, or low), or one can categorize class in accordance with the activities of one’s job (manual vs. non-manual labor). I suppose the difficulty in resolving which axis to use stems in part from confusion about the purpose of the categorization. For a long time–indeed, all the way back to Plato at least–there has been the assumption that how one makes a living also determines what sort of person one is (one’s virtues, tastes, and among today’s social scientists, one’s political beliefs). I suppose it is that assumption that is driving this exercise; the question at work in many of the comments on this thread is whether income or activity has more causal weight with regard to whatever phenomena we’re interested in. I wonder, however, whether this assumption might be something we might want to push back on.

  • Chet Manly

    Can a white collar job be working class?

    I can only speak for my field, but in IT I’d definitely say most call center and data entry jobs are both white collar and working class.

    • Murc

      The term “pink collar” was invented for such work, I believe?

      • BigHank53

        Yep, back when the secretarial pool was a thing. You get to do light work in air conditioning, but you don’t earn much more than the guy in the overalls who mops the floor after you go home. Covers lots of male jobs too, of course: low level salespeople, bank tellers, insurance agents, etc.

        • bender

          You (if you were a woman) probably earned less, and had to pay for a wardrobe of office apparel which cost more and wore out faster than overalls. The floor mopper’s pay was higher on the assumption that he had a wife and kids to support and you didn’t. He may have belonged to a janitor’s union, in which case he got premium pay for working the night shift. You couldn’t work nights like him because your state prohibited women from working night shifts. As compensation, the law mandated a fainting couch in your restroom.

  • AcademicLurker

    3 and 4 seem outdated to me. Plenty of people have college degrees and office based jobs that don’t signify as “working class”, but can’t buy a home or accumulate significant savings.

    Regarding negative net worth, does student loan debt count?

    • Rob in CT

      Why wouldn’t it count?

      • AcademicLurker

        I just mean to point out that if it does count, then “negative net worth” is not a particularly useful marker for “working class”.

        • Crusty

          Right, in the sense that the Harvard Law School grad working at a big law firm and making a dent in his loans isn’t working class.

          • Rob in CT

            Maybe… negative net worth at age ___ is the way to go. 25? 30?

    • human

      Agree 100% with this, I was going to type it a lot less politely (something like, y’all think people with a college degree can’t still be working class? are you all high???)

  • Brooks isn’t attempting to characterize anything that actually exists but to nourish the Nixonian myth of some essentially political constituency of white people who don’t have enough money to pay high taxes but have some difficult-to-specify reason for voting Republican that is totally not racist, no sirree bob. Such as those values of delayed gratification and religiosity that are always on sale at Brooks’s Drugstore.

    The fact that the Trump vote doesn’t consist of such people (represented in the Brooks column by that $70K figure) was lit upon by the nevertrump conservatives, anxious to show that Trump is No True Republican, and Brooks sort of remembers that, but his ability to focus is always pretty weak and growing weaker. What makes the column confusing isn’t bizarre ideas as much as bad and inattentive writing that comes out looking like bizarre ideas in the way random toasting patterns can make a Jesus face on your pancake.

    I like J. Otto’s idea that the concept of proletarian continues to be useful, and I’d add that the important thing in deciding whether or not to use a loaded expression like “working class” ought to be in the context of whether you’re using it to refer to an economic role or a social status group or whatever, because they won’t be quite the same thing.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Brooks isn’t attempting to characterize anything that actually exists but to nourish the Nixonian myth of some essentially political constituency of white people who don’t have enough money to pay high taxes but have some difficult-to-specify reason for voting Republican that is totally not racist, no sirree bob. Such as those values of delayed gratification

      Or as Charles Pierce never tires of pointing out, Brooks feels that people in trailer parks are fucking on couches in ways and in circumstances of which Brooks does not approve.

  • Crusty

    Some of it is the mentality and education. A young person with a four year degree might have a job that pays $20K per year. He works, has somewhat low pay, but he thinks he’s going somewhere- gonna get experience, move up the chain, maybe go out on his own, get his startup off the ground and get some vc financing, or maybe build his personal brand through his social media presence and eventually just get paid for being awesome. A working class person in a job making $20K has no such illusions.

    • I don’t think those are usefully thought of as the same.

      The working class person with a bad college diploma (that didn’t get them work in what they thought was their field) who works as a bank teller or something similar, and whose family believes will inevitably be laid off but can take a blue collar job like their own, and the middle class person who works as a barista, and whose family believes they can go to law school and become comfortable like themselves, are not in the same position, in the slightest.

      • Crusty

        Yeah, that’s what I said.

        • Okay, I may have confused your post with another below. The blog commenter who claims to be working class because they’re a barista is a cliche by now.

          eta: I apologize profusely and give you the credit of course.

          • Crusty

            Thank you. Order is restored.

  • Regulust

    (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.)

    I don’t think a 4 year college degree is that much of a guarantee to be out of working class status anymore although it is usually a requirement. For example, I would consider a law school graduate working as a barista at the local coffee shop because he/she can’t find work in the field to be “working class”.

    Aside from that, I’m not surprised that someone like David Brooks would consider $70,000 a year to be “working class”. When you’re an overcompensated columnist on one of America’s foremost newspapers, everyone else looks like ants.

    • Joshua

      I don’t think it is just the David Brookses of the world that feel this. I don’t think a lot of people understand just how little most Americans are paid (just like they don’t understand just how much wealth flows to the top .1%).

  • Crusty

    “…that are more disordered, less industrious, more celebrity-obsessed, but also more tolerant and open to the world.”

    WTF is this bullshit and where does he get it from?

    • Pseudonym

      Observing people at the Applebee’s salad bar, one would assume.

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    In the US, “middle class” is the usual term, which is very amorphous.
    I consider “working class” to be anyone who works for a paycheck and does not set policy. Which would include middle management.
    I say this because middle management generally share more socio-economic concerns with hourly workers than they do with upper management. But most salaried middle management do not identify
    as working class. Which is one of the primary reasons for the salaried distinction. The other primary reason for that is to legally steal their labor.
    I have worked in situations where the hourly workers made more than their supervisors.

  • xq

    Is there a coherent definition? Sometimes the term is an attempt to categorize by income and sometimes by education. Since these traits have opposite effects on voting behavior, that creates a lot of confusion. The college-educated low-income group, non-college educated low-income group, and non-college educated high income group are all quite distinct culturally, socially and politically even if you restrict to whites.

    • JKTH

      It also might be helpful to distinguish between people expected to be temporarily working class and those who are expected to be permanent. Paul’s criteria better apply to the latter group, while the young law school graduate working as a barista is more likely temporary working class (though they could become permanent).

      • Crusty

        My sense is that if it is temporary, it isn’t working class. Waiting tables during the summer before you go back to school, not working class. Waiting tables to support self and family- working class.

        • JKTH

          Yeah, that’s why the education factor is important even though it doesn’t necessarily preclude people with four-year degrees from being part of the working class (i.e. the person waiting tables because they can’t find a job in their field for an extended period of time).

  • I’m not crazy about any of Paul’s initial list. I think the best definitions of ‘working class’ start with ‘skilled and unskilled manual labor,’ includes income level (lowest through the middle quintile), and adds a description of the person’s relationship to power/autonomy at work (is he self-directed? or does he take all work direction from a superior?).

    For example, I think service-sector middle-management is a new category of working class. Usually, it requires some post-secondary education, but the hours are long, and the pay is low, and the employee is completely beholden to senior management and the corporation.

    • Linnaeus

      For example, I think service-sector middle-management is a new category of working class. Usually, it requires some post-secondary education, but the hours are long, and the pay is low, and the employee is completely beholden to senior management and the corporation.

      Possibly, but I wonder if this is complicated by a self-identification issue. This probably varies somewhat from job to job, but I suspect that a good number of service sector middle managers identify a little more with the people above them in the company hierarchy than those below them. There’s the common expectation that middle managers will rise in rank, or at the very least will make lateral moves into other jobs but never drop “below” that. Furthermore, middle managers are still managers and do a subset of the general category of work that we typically associate with the middle classes and up, which middle managers are likely very aware of and whose awareness of this is assiduously cultivated by those above them.

      • I understand what you are saying, and I agree to some extent. But I’ve also toiled and known people who have toiled in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and I know that upward mobility becomes severely limited to impossible after one or two steps on the ladder. Meanwhile, the autonomy decreases and the scrutiny increases.

        I guess my rather anodyne point is that defining “working class” nowadays is fraught.

        • Linnaeus

          I’ve got no argument with you on that point.

  • Uh, you’re all misreading the $70K. Look at the whole section:

    They are not poor, making on average over $70,000 a year. But they perceive that their grandchildren’s world is quickly coming apart.

    This is the coupon-clipping class. Last time I looked at the data—about six or seven years ago, apparently the same time Brooks did—$72,000 was almost exactly the income level of the grandfather-aged (read: retired) elite.

    You’re crediting Brooks with being even less of an asshole than he is. Please stop.

    • He does call them working class though: old working class who obey the Brooks rules of propriety while the younger ones don’t:

      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….

  • Aaron Morrow

    defining a cohort that has an average household income of $72,000

    I’ll totally interrupt this conversation and note that Brooks thinks about two-thirds of American households are working class.

    Two-FN-thirds. *sigh*

    Given that US median household income is between $50K and $55K, I’d like to encourage people to think in terms of income rather than spending to define class. I tend to think in terms of thirds, but many economists define middle class as the middle 60% or 50%, which makes the working class the bottom 20% or 25%.

    Clearly most people do think of spending, so this doesn’t really help answer Campos’s question.

    • Cassiodorus

      Most definitions of “middle class” count everyone up to the top 2-3% of earners.

      • Aaron Morrow

        If that’s what I think it is…

        +$250,000

    • Joe Bob the III

      Income quintiles vary widely by state, but the US average for the bottom quintile is about $22K. To me, that’s a subset of working class: working poor. A family of 4 at $22K is actually below federal poverty level.

  • Crusty

    Here’s a tired old joke I hear around a courthouse from time to time-

    A lawyer notices a leak in his office. He calls a plumber. Plumber comes over, opens the wall, pokes around, does some work, and after a little while closes up the wall, turns to the lawyer and tells him its all fixed, you’re good to go now, here’s my bill.

    The lawyer looks at the bill and exclaims five hundred dollars! You were only here for an hour, five hundred dollars an hour is more than I charge, and I’m a lawyer!

    The plumber says yeah, its more than I used to charge when I was a lawyer too.

    • last time I heard that joke, it was $200/hour, and that can’t have been earlier than 2007 or so.

      • Crusty

        Different geographic markets?

        • that was in Chicago. the judge who told me the story was pretty old though.

          law school tuition was like $500/semester when he attended.

    • NewishLawyer

      I know that joke about doctors, not lawyers.

  • JohnPDarling

    I still can’t believe he gets paid to write drivel like that. Gotta give him his due, he’s a genius for figuring out how to get paid for what he’s doing.

    • Crusty

      That ain’t working, that’s the way you do it.

      • I can—barely, and with many Jesuitical reservations—understand Kissinger’s status as a sometime sex-object; but I categorically reject the idea of Brooks ever, under any circumstances, getting chicks for free.

        • Karen24

          Well, he may have a poultry farmer friend who wants to get him started with a few hens as a hobby. It’s a fashionable thing these days.

          In the sense the song meant, though, never.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        write your columns of nothing, get your clicks for free

  • advocatethis

    I would modify number 1 to having a job that doesn’t require a college graduate. When I was a letter carrier my college degree offered me no advantage and certainly didn’t help me get the job, but I was most definitely working class.

  • tsam

    (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.

    This one is tricky. Two people doing the same job can be a) a union tradesman, making a pretty good living, or b) a non-union guy working for a greedy shit, making $10.00/hour with no benefits, working Saturdays for “comp time”, and encouraged to be a manly man and forget about stupid bullshit like safety procedures and equipment.

    (3) Renting rather than owning one’s residence.

    I don’t think this makes a good factor for categorizing class, since buying a house is no longer what could be considered a “good” investment, at least in the last 10-15 years. I haven’t bought a house for a variety of reasons, and I’m right at that $72K household income level (actually above now, I think).

    • human

      This is a really important point. Having a good union contract makes such a huge difference in compensation and working conditions. You can’t use those as your only factor.

      I am an electrician apprentice. Definitely a working class job. Because we have a good contract, my working conditions are better and my compensation is better (and well on track to being A LOT better) than when I was:

      — a grad student in a Ph.D. program
      — a temp office worker/data entry clerk
      — a permanent office worker at a university
      — a bicycle courier
      — a political organizer
      — a union organizer

      Am I working class, like, instrinsically as a person? Fuck if I know. The people in my Ph.D. program treated me like I had working class cooties, but I was raised by parents in professional jobs who taught me to believe I could be and do anything, but by the time it was time for me to go to work the economy was shit and I’ve scrabbled for years to get to a place of even tentative security, and I’ll probably never own a house because I have so much student loan and medical debt that it won’t be sorted out until I’m in my 40s or 50s. Not that I even want to own a house.

      What was the point of the question, again?

  • njorl

    If you want to define “middle class” as people who make $250,000 taxable income, you have to set a pretty high level for “working class”.

  • Joe_JP

    It’s difficult or impossible to be working class if you’re a college graduate

    Really? I think you would find, without not that much difficulty, a range of people with college degrees in low paying sales jobs etc., especially older workers who were for different reasons pushed out of their white collar positions. Put aside others who might have got a degree but never did anything with it. These are not just “exceptions to the rule.”

    ETA: There is a caveat about how it is “seen” but this subset of the working class by now seems to me to be pretty familiar by this point even in that respect.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Various thoughts I had that I did not interject above:

    Younger people are disordered and not as industrious as an older man thinks they should be? Old people are bigots? Who knew?!

    Wait, I thought America’s auto assembly lines had plenty of people with 4 year degrees working them, for many years now?

    I will get on my soapbox and say that at least my generation knows how to use the “SHIFT” key to make capital letter now and again. And when to use an apostrophe. And not redesign keyboards to hide the colon and apostrophe in revolutionary new locations. (Fuck you, iOS 9!)

    I remember some stats in a Harper’s magazine many moons ago: 90% of Americans think they are middle class, and a great many of them are not. 90% of the Japanese think they are middle class – and are.

    Since we’re bringing class into again, I fume several times a week as I hear some well-off phukker as a guest on NPR flapping his or her gums about how the little people need to live without pensions or some such, and I just think all such interviews must begin with the guest being required to announce their annual income and their net worth.

    Yadda yadda gig economy!

    • iOS:

      Is the keyboard really that bad/that much wo a ? I’ve been thinking it’s the hbest making my fingers fat or something.

    • BigHank53

      how the little people need to live without pensions

      Or how much the cost of (certain) consumer goods has come down. I can’t eat a wide-screen TV, asshole, and neither my smartphone or my laptop will keep the rain off my head. Let’s talk about the price of healthcare, housing, and secondary education–three things that pretty hard to forgo unless you enjoy living out of a shopping cart–and then you can tell us how much better off the working class is.

    • Linnaeus

      “Lucky duckies”!

  • Crusty

    Remember Joe the Plumber? He unclogged a friend’s toilet before he was famous. True story.

    Anyway, he seemed to be somewhere between working and middle class and also concerned about increases to the top marginal tax rate.

    • Joseph Slater

      I live in Toledo am am thus familiar with not-Joe the not-certified-Plumber. But people like him can be explained at least in part through the Marxist lens of relations to the means of production. To the extent he (and people like him) make a living getting plumbing gigs, while it’s manual labor that doesn’t require a degree and generally doesn’t get you rich, you typically own your own tools, have authority to enter into (or decline to enter into) working relationships and can bargain terms, and you generally control how you perform the work. Indeed, “Joe” was talking about running his own business. That’s really different from a factory worker who shows up at auto plants in Toledo to rivet or do similar work.

      Of course the other issue here is that when folks talk about the “white working class,” they generally mean folks who personally identify much more with the “white” part than with the “working class” part.

    • Joe Bob the III

      Back in the heady days of 2008, the top marginal tax rate kicked in somewhere north of $350K in taxable income. I would bet you $1 Joe-not-really-a-plumber had no fucking clue what that number was…and only in his wildest dreams would it be more than a theoretical concern for him personally.

  • Vance Maverick

    Most commenters on this thread are treating “working class” like “white”, i.e. it may be controversial but we all use the category and generally know it when we see it. (Several people say of themselves or others, “most definitely working class”, without further argument.)

    But is it really such a category? Do we all label people as working class, arguing only over the boundaries?

    ETA: if being working class means hanging out with America Ferrera, sign me up.

  • MacK

    A dd to the list:

    (5) a job with no predictable hours at work or work per week (what they call in the UK Zero hours contracts)

    (6) and with no union contract so you are employed at the whim of every manager.

    • Linnaeus

      I would dispute (6). Plenty of jobs done by workers represented by unions are what most people consider to be working class jobs.

      • There was a time when unions and New Deal legislation aimed at bringing men and the families they supported into the middle class through improving the working conditions of traditionally working class jobs. This (or at least the use of the term “middle class” to describe this) was pretty much confined to the US though, and I doubt the people most closely affected ever stopped thinking of themselves as “working class.”

        • Linnaeus

          I don’t think that they did; at least none of my family did, even when they were making solidly middle class wages.

          • Yes, it’s hard to say. I worked in an accounting department one summer before PCs, and there were workers with and without college degrees, and I don’t know whether either group considered themselves “middle class” or not, though the lowest-ranked had no “skills” other than alphabetizing, maybe running an adding machine, and making a phone call. In those days, I don’t think bookkeepers even had college degrees, and the older supervisors might not have had either.

  • JustRuss

    and parts of a younger cohort that are more disordered, less industrious, more celebrity-obsessed,

    Huh, apparently all those kids swooning over Elvis and screaming at Beatles concerts were time-travelling Millennials. Who knew?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Hmmm, where was David Brooks in 1968? He was seven years old, and already not much fun.

      • AB

        Then, just in case, he went to the University of Chicago, “where fun comes to die.”

  • veleda_k

    I take issue with “It’s difficult or impossible to be working class if you’re a college graduate.” This strikes me as an artifact of a different time, with different assumptions. This is the the idea that once you graduate, a good job with benefits and room for advancement is waiting for you, as long as you stick it out. This is certainly an idea that was sold to Millenials, but it hasn’t worked out for many of us. I’ve been out of college for six years, and most of that time I bounced from retail job to retail job. I’ve just managed to score a sub-minimum wage internship in a desperate attempt to jump start my non-profit career–not a field known for its staggeringly high wages.

    My argument isn’t that I myself am working class, but that the idea that a four year degree is a magic wand of economic security is badly outdated.

    Also, the question “Can a white collar job be working class?” seems to me an easy one, given the number of admin jobs I’ve applied for that paid $20,000-$25,000 dollars.

    • Linnaeus

      I agree that some recalibration of our class boundaries may be in order, but we should also keep in mind that people tend to think of class not just in economic terms, but in social and cultural terms as well. A college degree gives one a certain amount of social and cultural capital that a person without a degree generally does not have. What’s more, even though the expectation that a college degree will get you a certain kind of job is outdated, the expectation that it should is still quite strong. So a college-educated person employed in job that’s regarded as working class is regarded as (temporarily) in the working class, but is not of it.

      • twbb

        “A college degree gives one a certain amount of social and cultural capital that a person without a degree generally does not have.”

        Nah, a certain amount of perceived social and cultural capital, which is different. A lot of the “cultural capital” attributed to degrees comes from more educated backgrounds, not college itself — they just happened to be correlated very highly in the past. Struggling your way through a low-ranked BA program doesn’t necessarily give you the social and cultural capital you want, because a lot of that is developed well before it’s time to go to college.

        To give an example, I know a guy who is fairly well self-educated, works in a professional, white collar field, and spends a lot of time in areas and with friends who have advanced degrees. No college.

        Let’s compare him to hypothetical person B, who grew up in a poor rural area, struggled his way through a not-particularly-rigorous-bachelors at directional-state-u-satellite-campus, and now has a college degree.

        You drop both of them in a networking event cocktail party, and the guy I know is going to be able to leverage cultural and social capital a lot better than BA-holder person B. He will sound more educated, he will know the right things to say, and he will better signal “I’m one of you” to people looking to hire for white collar jobs. Person B doesn’t really have a chance. The credential, by itself, doesn’t do much. There are a LOT of Person Bs. The college degree doesn’t make them middle class.

    • bender

      I will add to the observations of Linnaeus and twbb that even in the mid 1970s, a single major terminal BA from a public university was nearly worthless for getting a job, although it might be helpful for getting a promotion within the company later. I know both Boomers and people one generation younger with liberal arts Ph.Ds who have not been able to get jobs related to their fields or who have awful adjunct faculty jobs with lousy pay, few or no benefits, and no security. Better pay and working conditions than picking strawberries or being a greeter at a big box store, but not better than a skilled trade.

      The main difference in economic opportunity between liberal arts degrees from mid-tier schools in the late Seventies and later is the amount of student debt. It used to be that getting the degree was nearly a waste of time. Now people are actually worse off because they are not only entering the job market older, but dragging a ball and chain of debt.

  • etc.

    Merle Curti, et alli, devised a ranking for 19th century socioeconomic class structure. This structure was used by a number of other historians.

    There were two tracks: unskilled labor, skilled labor, artisan/proprietor; and junior professional/mercantile (like a clerk who might one day run the business), and senior professional (doctor, lawyer, owner of the dry goods store). Five classes, in all.

    I realize we are almost two centuries on from 1830 Dane county Wisconsin, but perhaps there is still merit to a similar approach.

  • Richard Gadsden

    It looks like the US is developing an idea of class that isn’t wholly connected to income. That is, one that’s actually class and not just income.

    NASCAR is a working-class thing. So is celebrity and reality TV. So is any job involving physical labour – even if it’s a well-paid job like a self-employed plumber (which could easily make you $100,000, especially if you employ a few juniors / trainees so there’s some capital income as well as the labor income).

    It’s correlated with wealth and income, of course. But it’s not the same thing.

    If you’ve just got your PhD, have giant debts and you’re working in Starbucks to barely pay your debt, you’re still middle-to-upper-middle-class. If you worked in construction until you won the lottery, you’re still working-class.

    Does income matter? Yes, of course it does! But class isn’t income, it’s the culture that comes from having certain amounts of income and wealth; and people bear that culture for a long time after their actual income and wealth change.

    So, yes, $70,000 could be working class. That’s what a Tube driver earns in London. Well, it was before the pound collapsed.

  • Aexia

    No one is going to talk about how Superstore, the America Ferrera show screencapped above, is *amazing*?

  • Thom

    Comments all day, 271 of them, including discussion of Marx, and no one mentions EP Thompson or Gramsci?

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Nope. I was thinking of Ken Shabby today.

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