Social Stratification Perspective of the Middle Classes

The middle class is generally defined as those who make the median income, or who are at the middle, in between the highest and lowest of a nation or region’s income range.

But there are many ways in which people make incomes that qualify them for middle class status. Some have far more education than is needed for a middle class job. Others make far more money than their education can account for. Still others have middle class lifestyles, mindsets and behavior, but may have more or less income than their counterparts. Also, the traditional expectation of continuous careers with one employer, followed by a comfortable, pension supported retirement has now become a disappointment for many, especially those who are just starting out in the job market or who are far too young to retire.

It could be said that, in a healthy economy that supports a large middle class, most people are working for a company, an institution of government, or in a job where they report to someone else and receive a paycheck. They are educated beyond high school, with higher education that can include college, technical schools, on-the-job training and classes and special certifications. They can be represented by unions or can be in the upper non management, management and middle management jobs.

Their income is dependent upon the stability and quality of the company or institution that they work for, and they do not generally take responsibility for the most major, or board level decisions of the employing entity. Their expectations are traditionally that they will remain with the same company, contributing to their retirement on the way, then retiring comfortably in the mid to late 60s.

Today, the post retirement career, where people earn a full retirement from one long term job, then find a part or full time second job is more common. The age of full retirement is being envisioned as trending more into the late 60s and early 70s, when only a few decades ago, the norm was to retire in the mid 50s and early 60s. At these ages, people can turn hobbies into income or translate their skills into different types of work. Some go into business for themselves while others get coveted part time jobs that are turned down by others because they do not pay a subsistence living.

The bulk of the middle class are both the foundations and the innovators at a company. They not only complete the essential work processes, they teach, develop, invent and refine new work processes. As a worker moves up to their maximum level at a workplace, they hold the most essential knowledge of the culture, history and special ways of adapting to the future that apply to a particular company or institution. 

Today, there are many who do not have translatable skills and have lost their positions when jobs were shipped overseas, taking their years of work process development and innovations with them. Now, the middle class members who have lost their jobs are partially transitioning into entrepreneurial, self employed, independent contractor, post retirement, barter and trade venture work.  Many are starting their own businesses, becoming independent contractors and working on temporary assignments, where they have no bond with a particular employer and can move on if they are not satisfied.

The technically skilled, semi skilled and professionals among the middle class will have expectations of practicing their professions on a consistent, if not constant basis until retirement. Most are either so essential that their long term jobs and work opportunities are pretty well assured, or they are able to find independent work when they need it. With higher educations and experience, opportunities are broader and they can transition into similar or related work without having to undergo too much costly or extensive retraining or schools.

The middle class has traditionally had expectations of bringing up children to have higher educations and more advanced opportunities than they did. As a result, sending children to college or technical school is a major goal in life. The goals of marrying, working in stable jobs until retirement, and doing the same process for the grandchildren was expected to pass on from generation to generation with no decline in income, values, norms, opportunity or accomplishment. 

Today, however, there are differing paths to the middle class dream. There are more gay and lesbian children who are taking alternative paths to long term relationships and bringing up children. Many young adults are not functional enough to have their own homes and careers or stable marriages. There is an increase in crime, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse as well as arrested maturity and other mental disorders.

There is a serious crisis in the costs of getting higher education, especially when students graduate in debt and enter a treacherous job market. An entire generation of soldiers has been squandered, with young veterans suffering from the worst overexposure to direct and intensive combat in military history. Returning veterans are, traditionally, a major source of the more stable, work ready and disciplined middle class work force. It is not known how they will fare in the future, compared to their counterparts from previous eras.

Localized and homogeneous middle class communities, including where the races, nationalities and ethnic groups were segregated, was the tradition. Now, there are influxes of foreigners from around the world. Urban and more advanced suburban communities are becoming integrated with people from many cultures. As a result, influences are passing from one culture to another. Schools are exposing students at all levels to religions, societies, legal and economic systems, lifestyles, food and music from around the world.

As a result, the idea of an entire neighborhood in a more populated and advanced region being of one race, religion, set of values and norms or ethnicity is becoming a middle class thing of the past.

Finally, while a middle class person’s income may have reached rock bottom, they are still likely to have been born, reared and lived for most of their life as a middle class citizen and worker. As a result, looking at the middle class in more ways than income, education and skill level, or type of work will be an important factor in future research into the perspective of the middle classes.

This need to focus on other factors is because of the relatively new and current economic, political and social volatility in countries that formerly could rely upon generations of citizens who formed a large and stable middle class.