We live in a class-stratified society, and we don't seem to understand it.
Not to disagree with the overall point, because you're totally right that social class in American society is hugely complex, but I do think it's weird when people act like someone who makes $192,000 per year, or even $500,000 a year, is upper class. My take on it is that if you have to work for a living -- if you're not independently wealthy; if your material standard of living would significantly change if you could no longer work -- then you're not wealthy, period, even if your income is very very good. Having to work for a living is inherently precarious in that it can be dependent on circumstances mostly or completely beyond your control. Like if a high-income lawyer becomes seriously disabled to the point he can't practice law anymore, then in the absence of genuine, independent wealth, his standard of living is probably going to decline a great deal.
That's not to say that high-income professionals are necessarily in the same social class as your average K-12 teacher, but I do think it's fair to say that they're not in the same social class as Jeff Bezos, either. I really don't think most people who point to Jeff Bezos and say, "I'm not like him" are being disingenuous. You can lead a *very* comfortable life with a nice house and nice things and European vacations and still imagine not-farfetched circumstances that could ruin you. And as long as you can imagine not-farfetched circumstances that could ruin you, I think it's much easier to identify with people for whom economic precariousness is a part of life than with people forever insulated from that kind of pressure.
In other words, I think a big part of social class isn't just what you have or what you make, but who your interests align with. For the vast majority of us, that isn't the ultra-rich, and that's one reason I think it's useful to make a distinction between workers with high incomes and the truly wealthy.
Great post. I'd add two things. First, there's no class solidarity here in the US. Instead, we have racial solidarity. Second, I think a set of habits and values define the middle class. My friends and family are all rich--incomes healthy multiples of the median household income, seven figure portfolios--but we all still work hard (even in retirement), invest carefully, save in-order-to-pay-cash, live monogamously and soberly, and eschew buying trophy cars and such.
The lowest ranked bart train operators make $72-85K a year, not counting extremely generous benefits and overtime pay. The median household income in SF is only 87k a year, and the national median household income is 68k. The BART conductor is not, in any meaningful sense, working class. He has a government job with extensive benefits, ironclad job security, and extremely high pay for his level of education.
The blindness to the immense privileges they dollop out to government workers is one of the more irritating features of the modern left, and one that actively prevents the good government their vision of the future requires.
In the past year I think we've seen that there's a sharp distinction between people who can work remotely and those who can't. It definitely seems weird when software engineers try to relate to blue collar workers when we're not the same in many ways. (But only as a career. Certainly we can relate in other ways)
It'd be great to get a Japanese person's take on social class in Japan. For instance, what might the effect on social class be due to the population shrinking, or due to the way women are generally treated in Japanese society (particularly after they have children and are incentivized to leave the workforce)?
In general, it's an ethnically homogenous society with a stronger social safety net and much higher population density than the USA, so all those things will be factors: if people bump into each other on the street and subways and their kids go to school together, highlighting one's class differences in a society that values the group over the individual would be scandalous and potentially isolating. There is also a rural-urban divide, and a lot of factory work is done by non-Japanese immigrants who sometimes live in great poverty.
Anyways, yes, class in the USA is fascinating, and I'm always glad to read thoughtful pieces about it. Honestly, the superstar coastal metropolitan areas (NYC, the Bay Area, Seattle) are their own cosmos of class hierarchies.
There's also the generational wealth gap, and the implications that ensue. If a young family is making $500k in SF and trying to buy some ramshackle $2mm ranch home built in the 1950s but comes from parents who have nothing, and another family is making $200k in SF but has parents sitting on a couple houses and paying effectively no property taxes due to California Prop 13, how should we reason about their respective social classes? What really is implicit in social class in America, I wonder? Current family wealth, earning potential, connections to other people in social classes, couth.
You also make a great point about how race also greatly complicates categorizations of class.
The bubble doesn't understand it because the bubble is afraid to acknowledge the mess they're in charge of. There's nothing flattering about the state of America these days and discourse is in a state of deep freeze to keep the trash pit from off gassing.
The clearest proof of the class divide is how invisible the lower class is and how shameful they feel when given attention from the sorts of people they don't usually get attention from. For anyone with even a scrap of empathy it's not the most fun kind of interaction to go through; to know the world is leaving people in the dust and you're the world incarnate doing it to them once more.
I've heard family friends give goodbyes that imply some very strange and deep rifts, "I just want you to know your brother is a really good guy." He chose to speak his final words, almost like forgiveness at his end whence he'll fade into the annals of time because my brother was off to his career overseas and that was his only anchor to the life up here.
I went to community college for some years and this feeling constantly hounds me; we're all people capable of aspiring and working with our minds but the world is interested in smothering us into the kinds of jobs it prefers us to have. The city I live in is a warehouse hub for a megalopolis. This is a city of servitude to the modern corporate beast. Amazon is putting up massive complexes all the time and there it was in the news, "Amazon explicitly curates a culture of pumping and dumping underpaid and overworked labor. They don't want long term and costly employees."
We're being raped and pillaged. Those are the words this situation deserves. If you want to know why stratification is occurring all you have to look to is the fortune 500. In such a complex system as this the only force that wins out is the sociopath driven reward system of corporate wealth extraction and all the people who take employment in their mercenary armies to keep their families fed.
As someone from 'Old England' living in SF, this whole subject is fascinating. Working in tech here I feel the same dissonance around class as I felt working in the back office of a bank in London. (The higher echelons of finance were a different world of course.) We were paid well, but there was more class diversity there than there was at the various Labour Party associated events I attended. Interns were always paid in the finance and consulting companies I worked at while the media / think tanks / political interns were paid poorly if at all so tended to be children of the well off or those who's parents had bought houses in London while it was still possible to do so on a normal salary.
The (charity fundraisers or 'chuggers' I met handing out flyers for a mayoral campaign in central London were much more similar in background to those I worked at in the bank back office than those I met at the political policy events. Mostly graduates, many immigrants. (The leafleting was organised by a union who were all much more representative than the politcal policy people.)
In San Francisco us technicians get paid an awful lot more. As a software engineer for one of the big Silicon Valley companies, our team around 40% immigrants, 30% non-white, 20% not graduates, and 10% women. Perhaps we should be part of the same class as crane operators in New York or harbor pilots in the SF Bay taking home similar mid six figure salaries. I'd probably look down on the boat dealer though, seems rather vulgar.
Why use a picture of my beautiful home town - Edinburgh, Scotland for a piece on America's social classes? Is it because we are one of the parents? :D
Why is there a photo of Edinburgh, Scotland in this article?
I'm just going to quibble with the phrase "unionized semi-skilled auto workers" -- operating efficiently on an auto assembly line is actually a pretty dang skilled trade. Even auto repair requires quite a bit of training, at least if you want to do more than the odd oil change. It's certainly something a smart college-educated person can teach themselves -- my spouse is a hobbyist auto nerd (and has a Master's in MechE from MIT). But I think we really need to get away from the idea that blue-collar trade work requires any less skill or training than high-skill "symbolic analyst" stuff.
Personally I'm tech support for Tesla industrial batteries. I know quite a bit about electrical systems. I was involved in the rollout of PowerWall, and I had a hand in sketching out the designs for my own personal PowerWall system. I'm legally an "electrically qualified person", and I have the training to be allowed to go muck around inside our battery cabinets. (Basically I have the stamp of approval that says I know how to not kill myself working around AC connections up to 13 kV, and our 900 VDC batteries.) And yet I still will hire an electrician to do any electrical work that is going to take more than maybe half an hour -- a real electrician has the skill to do stuff faster, and more neatly / efficiently, than what I'd do. Even if they just got trained at a community college, or through a union apprenticeship or something.
Two things: a huge division, one many would say is the second-biggest after race, is capitalist in the literal sense vs. worker in the literal sense. That is, a business owner vs. someone who has to earn labor income because they don't own businesses.
This matters for social perception, for behavior, and *hugely* for politics. And since politics is where we have to go to change anything related to social stratification, well. Not that the sheer amount of filthy lucre we each take in somehow *doesn't* matter, but yeah, Marx was right about that proletariat vs. petty bourgeoisie thing. The view of society is just different. The owners of Hobby Lobby might or might not have college degrees (and therefore one kind of status) but they literally have power over other people's reproduction that the SCOTUS gave them. I'm a BA holder, but I will never have that kind of power (God willing). This white petty bourgeoisie is where the real power in the US is. Bill Gates/Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerburg are three ridiculously wealthy white guys. The white petty bourgeoisie is tens of millions.
The second thing that goes along with this is that the US system(s) of social stratification are *so* complex that more than one view of them is entirely possible, and again, politics matters here. The right-wing can and did call a head surgeon at a major regional hospital "working class" because he was a white male from western Pennsylvania. Right-wing whites routinely say things such as "I don't consider teachers to be actual workers; they get government checks."
It is hard, for me as a white left-liberal, to have any fellow-feeling for that sort of person. The practical implication, furthermore, is that one broad political coalition is at least sort of trying to make things a bit more equal. The other likes this stratification unreservedly.
Is it very hard for a white BA-holder to really *see* and be in solidarity with POC working-class people? Yes. Is a liberal/left white BA-holder more likely to at least *try* to do so in the US than a white petty bougie? I would say also yes.
If you're interested/able, I'd be curious to see you elaborate more on this bit:
"But when you see top college graduates marry construction workers and food service workers show up to dinner parties with private equity people, you start to realize that the world doesn’t have to be the way it was in the place and time in which you grew up."
I don't know anything about class in Japan but that indeed sounds like a very different reality than the one I'm living in the US. Are there any books / studies / cultural writing you'd recommend that talk about e.g. how/if class stratification has changed in the US over time, or how class works in Japaan?
If you haven't done so already, Noah, I heartily recommend Paul Fussell's Class. Pushing nearly forty years old, specifics certainly will not have aged well, but the man himself makes for delightfully entertaining company. I'm going to dig up my copy this weekend...
Three additional class attributes to consider:
1. religion: Evangelical is a lower class thing.
2. fitness: Being physically fit in a America is now yet another dimension of social class.
3. smoking: Does smoking make one lower class regardless of all else? I think it does if over 25.
Japan has some of the lowest wealth inequality in the developed world by some metrics. In 2019, according to Credit Suisse in 2019, the richest 1% of Japanese people controlled 17.9% of private wealth.
Sci-fi rec: “The City & The City” by China Miéville. the people we walk past every day are in a different city in some metaphorical sense, but this is a book where it’s literally true. this isn’t magic or parallel worlds or whatever, just enforced by legal and social norms that keep the cities separate.