Social Stratification Comparison of Working Class with Middle Class

When comparing the differences between the middle classes and working classes, there are many definitions, income categories, educational classifications, lifestyle issues and work categories. 

Income as a determinant of middle class standing:

With income, the US Census Bureau defines middle class as the 20th percentile of income for a four person family, which ranges from around  $50,000 US to $60,000 US. For a four person family, the median income of around $70,000 US is also used for a dividing line, where half of the population makes more and half make less. This makes it safe to say that a monthly income of around $4,500 US would put a person or family solidly in the middle class.

Of course, many people are single, have larger families or have smaller or multi-generational families, which might make the actual quality of life from a  middle class income vary widely. Thus, we get into more difficult to determine factors that separate Middle Class from Working Class people.

Wage earners:

Working class people are defined in Websters Dictionary as “Wage earners”. Websters has a clarification that limits the work to manual labor. In this day and age, “Wage earners” can be anything but manual laborers! As a result, more is needed than income or the type of work that is done to determine who is working class as opposed to middle class.

Blue Collar and White Collar:

There is the distinction of “blue collar” and “white collar”, a distinction that was originally based on the requirement for work clothing or uniforms as opposed to dressier attire.Blue collar workers, or laborers were considered to be less educated than their White collar counterparts. Blue collar work is associated with manual labor.

But now,  blue collar workers and laborers often have specialized training, technical skills and certifications that are actually two year college degrees. They can work outside or inside in medical, office, construction, plumbing, sales and marketing, design, electrical, maintenance, utilities and mechanical specialties, many of which have no manual labor as a job component.

Blue collar workers who have a heavy manual labor component to their work can often leave white collar workers in the dust when it comes not only to education, but to actual income. Blue collar workers can also be in temporarily assigned unionized or wildcat jobs that, can either barely pay a living wage or that can produce a full year’s income for short periods of work.  

White collar workers are expected to have jobs that are permanent, offer advancement and other benefits, and have higher educational and skill requirements, especially with clerical, accounting, technical support, sales, customer service, procurement, logistics, supply and management skills. White collar workers, like blue collar workers, can be quite impoverished due to low pay, temporary work or other factors.

Thus, both blue collar (more manual labor) and white collar (less manual labor) workers can be classified “middle class”, while also being classified as “working class” because of hourly wages and less formal education.

Hourly wage versus salary as a determination of working class or middle class:

This is not a reliable determinant, either. A high school educated person who completes the training, technical school and apprenticeship qualifications to become a journeyman electrician can be a business owner, a salaried employee of a major corporation or the government, or working in Hollywood. A person with a college degree in electrical engineering can be a business owner or a salaried employee who earns a monthly wage.

But the salaried master electrician can easily earn twice or three times the income of the engineer, strictly through overtime, bonuses, union wages and other pay bonuses because of high competition for the skills and certifications of a master electrician. The engineer is more likely to be in management, with a higher set salary, possible career advancement and set employment contract, but with no extra pay for overtime and no union representation and negotiation. Thus, a technician is likely to have a much lower annual salary, but may make much more through overtime, bonuses, job security from union contracts and other salary and employment enhancements.

Education as a determination of working class or middle class:

Working class individuals who complete 18 months to two years of technical school or post high school education do go into jobs that can be considered either as “blue collar”, “white collar” or working class. But the actual incomes can vary widely. An auto mechanic or computer specialist will have different career advancement than a nurses assistant , designer, accounting technician or a cook. All will be working much earlier and will gain much more practical early work experience than a person who continues through a four or five year college degree program.

The person with the college degree will possibly have more employment options and chances for rapid advancement to a higher annual salary and position, but may still lag behind the technician who earns overtime or premium pay for their qualifications, experience and skills. Both are likely, in a normal job market and economy to be safely in the middle class.

Lifestyle as a determination of working class or middle class:

In many families and households, whether the income, work, or other criterion are met or not, there are middle class and working class behaviors, tastes, social values and norms and other behaviors that will stay with a person regardless of the changes in financial or job standing. Middle class workers who retire or become disabled will live on a much lower and fixed income but will retain their values, beliefs, educations, socialization and norms as well as their work ethics and senses of community. 

Lifestyles for the working and middle classes easily cross the boundaries and expectations that are set by income, job title, education and life experience. 

Both white collar and blue collar individuals are well aware that working until they are in their 60s or 70s, staying in long term and stable jobs with as few changes of employer as possible, financing property and other ownership through reasonably managed debt, being insured, independently saving toward retirement and avoiding the risks of business ownership are the most reliable ways to achieve a middle class life.

The problem lies in the current economic, job market, political and social turmoil that is challenging the very existence of middle classes throughout the industrialized and developed world. There will be completely new paradigms for determining what qualifies any person as any of the traditional components of social classification, and income may not be the sole determinant of class standing any more.