How Academics Concocted a New ‘Middle Class’

middle_class.jpgTo hear politicians tell it, the college diploma is the guaranteed gateway to middle-class life, so everybody should probably go to college. The argument seems self-evident–over a lifetime, college graduates far out-earn those without a degree ($2.1 million, supposedly), so go to college, live the American Dream. Unfortunately, as many recent college graduates have discovered, diplomas no longer guarantee success. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study, for example, reported that in 1992 some 119,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees. But by 2008 this figure had soared to 318,000. The study also found similar increases of under-employment in other low-level occupations. In 2010 the unemployment rate for college graduates was the highest since 1970.

Why does this “attend college” mania flourish despite ever more graduates struggling to find jobs worthy of a college degree? Many factors are involved, but one deserves special mention, namely how modern social science altered the definition of “middle class” so just getting the degree, it was claimed, secured the American Dream. And with this new definition in place, a government committed to economic improvement began pushing as many young people as possible into college. What an uncomplicated solution to generating wealth–just award scholarships, build more colleges, hire more faculty, and just watch as the American Dream comes to everyone.

To understand this transformation, begin by recognizing that there is no single, universally accepted definition of “middle class” other than the obvious one of a class between upper and lower. But, let me offer one definition, albeit a hazy one, that prevailed in the 1950s (and earlier) when I first encountered “middle class.”

This older understanding rested on psychological traits, and these were manifested in certain outward behaviors. The core of being middle class was a strong work ethic, self-discipline, a willingness to defer gratification, an aversion for flashy consumption, and an embrace of what might be called “respectability,” i.e., sobriety, a morality that stressed honesty, a solid family life, being law-abiding, and valuing education (though not necessarily being “intellectual”). These inner dispositions were associated with speaking clear, grammatical English, exhibiting decent table manners, never using profanity in public (and almost none in private, too), being “clean cut” in appearances, and always acting politely. Middle class members also abhorred the thought of taking government handouts. If you want to see such people in the flesh, watch popular TV programs of the 1950s: Ozzie and Harriet, the Stu Erwin Show, even I Love Lucy. A bit complicated for a definition, for sure, but you knew it when you saw it.

Yes, these “square” traits were associated with material well-being but this prosperity was a result of middle class values, not its defining elements. Nobody believed that the causal flow was reversible–home ownership could inculcate middle-class values. In principle it was possible to be lower class despite owning middle-class doodads. A well-paid entertainer may live well but could still be considered white trash if he dressed in tattered clothing, beat his wife, openly philandered, cursed and spit in public, and spent a dime for every nickel earned. By contrast, families could sustain middle-class status by sticking to these outward respectable behaviors even if their incomes certified them as “poor.” To repeat: outside of inherited money, being middle class in the psychological sense brought material success. Home ownership, for example, was only the visible sign of thrift, sobriety, and a stable marriage among multiple other conventional virtues.

Beginning in the 1960s, university-based social science research began altering this understanding. To condense a long story, empirically-based quantitative social science research needed a simple, clear-cut measure of “middle class,” and utilizing multiple, often nebulous psychological inclinations like delayed gratification was just impractical.

“Middle class” merely became a mid-point on some Socio-Economic Status (SES for short) Scale and was made concrete by boiling it down to income or education levels. Researchers (including myself) would now take these data and divide it into upper, middle, and lower class categories. More detailed measures might include occupational status. But, no matter how sliced and diced, the underlying psychology of being middle class, e.g., a strong work ethic, probity, and all the rest, was replaced by one or two easy-to-measure traits that were separate from any underlying dispositions. It was just assumed, for example, that anyone who had a college diploma also had the fortitude to get it.

With passing decades this simplified university-manufactured definition came to dominate. To appreciate the depth of this shift, imagine if a presidential candidate in 2012 announced that his anti-poverty program entailed teaching the poor old-fashioned morality, a passion for work, self-reliance, restraining one’s consumption, and saving for future purchases versus credit-card debt. That is, traditional (pre-1960s) middle-class values. He would be vilified, accused of imposing “white” values, and clobbered by a rival who instead promised instant cheap college loans as the instant pathway to the American Dream (see here).

It gets worse. Conflating outward appearance with underlying traits is typical of poorly educated Third World nations and, sad to say, America is increasingly drifting in that direction. In these societies, possessing a fancy paper saying “diploma” becomes irrefutable proof of being “educated.” “Education” may also be acquired by dressing as an educated person–glasses, a three-piece suit, a briefcase, a fountain pen and similar theatrical props. Translated into current American society, one becomes “middle class” by owning a college diploma even if the acquired learning is less than what was once gained in high school and acquiring the degree required a small army of helpers.

Today’s policies trying to build a “middle class,” absent promoting the core psychology, makes failure inevitable though a financial windfall for those supplying ersatz diplomas. Employers will quickly grasp that the “college graduates” they interview are imposters with little self-discipline who lack the tenacity for tough tasks. If forced to hire them by some Department of Justice fatwa, the employer will relocate or substitute a machine rather than deal with an employee unable to show up in time. In other words, with no effort to inculcate old-fashioned middle class values, “middle class” status is being counterfeited and the shoddiness is quickly discovered by employers.

An important message about university research lies here. What transpires in obscure corners of the academy may eventually matter, so pay attention. The re-definition of middle class is hardly unique. Books could be written about how professors labored to show that objective truth is a fiction imposed by “the patriarchy” or that any statistical disparity in wealth automatically proves discrimination. How about the wonders of diversity to make America strong? All university concocted. The social sciences are not the hard sciences, but there is one parallel worth noting. As with scientists working in germ warfare laboratories, be very careful lest something toxic escape.

13 thoughts on “How Academics Concocted a New ‘Middle Class’”

  1. This leftist idiocy of promoting the markers of the middle class, like homes, degrees, and income, rather than the traits that allow those things to be earned, like honesty, hard work, thrift, and dependability has devalued the markers, and devalued the beneficial traits that produce them. Why work hard for these things when others get them for free.
    A similar thing occurs in the K-12 emphasis on self esteem. Yes self esteem is correlated with high grades and academic achievement. But self esteem is not a precurser to achievement, it is the result of acheivement. Telling a kid they should have self esteem, when they know they have done nothing to earn it, gives them only a delusion of self esteem that will soon be shattered by events, not the real article that is acquired by studying hard and actually learning the material. And it tells the kids that are honestly working hard that they are suckers, working hard for something, praise for achievement, that is now given out for free. As the kid in The Incredibles said to his mom, saying everybody is special is saying that nobody is. Giving a kid a C that they worked hard to earn, and which other kids that did not work as hard did not get, does more for real self esteem than giving them an A they did nothing to earn.

  2. The problems of higher education are part and parcel of our nation’s problems with education in general.
    It all boils down to one simple fact that is deliberately ignored:
    You can’t teach dumb kids to be smart.
    If someone is college material, then they will benefit from higher education. If someone is not college material, he or she is incapable of achieving a college education.
    But thanks to the misapprehension of the famous phrase “all men are created equal,” entire institutions have been created to “educate” the ineducable.
    The results are as predictable as they are pathetic: Compromised academic standards. Degree programs cut from whole cloth whose sole purpose is to make busy work for the not-so-bright till graduation day. All in exchange for that precious lucre: government student loans.

  3. The question to ask is “who benefits”? With low cost student loans the student may benefit – but the school always benefits. Keeping those loans flowing always benefits the schools, and who do the employees of the schools overwhelming vote for?
    Who benefits?

  4. Another factor in the decline of the traditional middle class was entirely self-inflicted.
    For many hard-working members of the middle class without college degrees, there long has been (and continues to be) a prevalent notion that it is admirable to work themselves to the bone in order to “send my kids to college so that they won’t have to work as hard as I did.”
    While that notion comes from an admirable place, it is woefully naive, and the consequence of such pampered expectations is all around us.
    (Neither of my parents finished high school, but they managed to send me to an Ivy League university. They always insisted that I should always work just as hard as they did, just on different things. Nonetheless, the attitude I mentioned above was very common among their peers.)

  5. “a government committed to economic improvement began pushing as many young people as possible into college.”
    An accurate statement. All government can do is “push”, since it is an instrument of force.
    The whole concept of “middle class” needs to be thrown out. It is just another byproduct of the collectivist class warfare mentality that seeks to obliterate the idea of individual accomplishment coupled to individual responsibility. What was a fairly benign designation in the 1950s has festered into a cancerous disease that is now burying this country under a dung heap of learned helplessness.

  6. Speaking as someone who has the worst of both worlds – I flunked out of college my senior year (hey, physics isn’t easy, you know), a lot of employers won’t even consider you without a college degree. Unless it’s manual labor or a service industry job.

  7. Education used to be correlated with income. Education levels used to be correlated with degrees awarded by schools.
    Now people are awarded degrees without havinge learned very much. Somehow, buying a degree for a person does not increase his/her knowledge. Posession of Degrees is no longer correlated with education.
    People with degrees no longer know how to do a high paying job. Somehow buying people degrees does not enable them to perform high paying jobs. So the jobs leave the country but the people stay behind.
    Lesson: Correlation is not causation.
    Progressives proved it (again). It would make a good thesis.

  8. IMO, the GI Bill had more to do with the shifting definition of “middle class” than any tinkering by academics. At the height of WWII, the USA had about 8 million men (and women) in uniform. After the war, the vast majority of those were eligible to attend college on the GI Bill.
    And, in droves, they did. Many colleges were constructed just to serve those attending school on the GI Bill. Some of them survived afterward; some did not.
    The result was that all these men (mostly) who came from a wide variety of backgrounds received an education that they would not otherwise have been able to receive.
    And, upon learning first hand how much better their lives were than their parents, they pushed their children to get the same level of education.
    After the GI Bill ran its course, the academics tried desperately to hang on to what government largesse had built and marketed education to the next generation.
    Academia may have indeed profited from the GI Bill and tried to extend the life of what it created, but it seems unlikely they could have created from whole cloth.

  9. Semantics first
    I think the term middle class is confusing in this context. It implies a middle- say the area under the normal distribution curve that encompasses +/- 1 sd from mean.or 2 sd or whatever way we choose todefine it.
    2. So perhaps “Bourgeois” is a better term to use in the value loaded term you are using.
    assuming that middle classness involves some middleness- everyone cannot possibly be middle class or even aspire to be thus.
    college education for all/ majority is a futile nonsensical dream. At its best a liberal arts college education trains one in analytical abstract thought. It would be suitable to go back to Jean Jaques Piaget, who defined certain stages of human development.the last stage beyond concrete operations is formal operations, which is characterized by abstract thinking. Piaget recognized that large swathes of humanity never get to this formal operations/ abstract thinking stage. A college education is wasted on someone who is incapable of thinking in this abstract manner. Like pearls for the swine (poor choice of metaphor).
    while college education imparts value to the ones who are intellectually and emotionally ready for it(I am not going to even get into whether this is nature/ nurture/ both, it is a complete waste of time energy and money for the poorly prepared). So this dream of college education for all is basically selling a bill of valueless goods to the poorly prepared.
    The employer has traditionally looked at a college degree as a proxy for certain traits that he finds desirable in his employees. If, as is rapidly becoming the case, this proxy is flawed because every Tom Dick and Harry has a BA, the correlation of a college degree to middle classness will vanish.

  10. What an excellent article!
    Is there somewhere where an ongoing discussion can occur? Glenn Reynolds, hint, hint? This is too important. Thanks.

  11. The constant redefinition of words that we live with has always reminded me of “1984”. I have often wondered if the political left was somehow not informed that the book was intended as a warning, not a “how to” manual.

  12. You can visibly see the anger in the traditional middle class by the rise of new centrist third parties in America, from the Moderate Party in Rhode Island to the DuoFreedomist Party in Nevada.

  13. Beautiful article! As you point out, the middle class existed as an entity because of its virtues, but the social sciences (trying to be mathematical, and therefore “scientific”) defined it as an entity that was +homeownership, +college degree, etc. So an academic discipline that was claiming to be a real science took an object (the middle class) and defined it NOT in terms of what it really was, but in terms of what the social sciences could measure. Then this redefined entity (the middle class) was presented by government as a goal that everybody should attain or become.
    But the mischaracterization of the entity now has led to a housing bust and an advanced education bubble that will soon burst.
    Perhaps people should read about the human sciences definition of the middle class. See Deidre N. McCloskey’s, “The Bourgeois Virtues,” and “Bourgeois Dignity,” Univ. of Chicago Press. McCloskey is an economic historian who reveals the true nature of that entity called “the middle class.”

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