Working your way into the middle class

A new study says that the most important ticket to the middle class is a secure job.

Kai Ryssdal: Being middle class in this country has a fairly broad, if well understood, definition: Making a certain amount of money. Owning a house. Getting a college education, maybe.

Today, though, in a sign of just how much things are changing, the Pew Research Center is out with a study of what people think it takes to be middle class: The main requirement is just having a steady job.

Marketplace's Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: What does it take to be middle class? Most people — nearly 90 percent — say a steady job, according to Pew. Owing a home? A college education? Investments? Much less important.

Wendy Wang wrote the study. She says 12 percent of people who describe themselves as middle class have lost a job or been laid off in the past year.

Wendy Wang: So it’s not something only happen to people who are poor. That’s why job security is something they have on their mind.

But here’s what’s really changed. Thirty years ago, 70 percent of people in a Time/CNN survey said owning a home was key to a middle class lifestyle. In the Pew study, just 45 percent say home ownership is essential. Wang says after the housing bust, a home may even be seen as a burden.

Dennis Gilbert studies the middle class as a professor at Hamilton College. He says people’s priorities have changed.

Dennis Gilbert: They just recognize that you’re not going to be able to have a home, and a college education and some of these other things if you don’t have money to do it. And getting money to do it has become much more dicey than it was in the past.

And that’s shaken people’s confidence, which on its own can be damaging. Timothy Smeeding directs the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Timothy Smeeding: The idea of safety and security is really called into question.

If a good job is the ticket to the middle class, it's getting harder to come by. A new study from the National Employment Law Project says most of the jobs lost during the recession were mid-wage jobs. Most of those added in the recovery pay much less.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: On that theme -- jobs -- I saw something this week that grabbed me. A study that found millennials -- that is, 18- to 30-year-olds -- change jobs about every two years.

So we did a little crowd-sourcing on our Facebook page. We asked you to tell us how long you worked at your last job, and why you left. Listen to the answers in the audio above.

Tell us your stories, just go to our Facebook page.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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