Oh Really?

Do you still call yourself middle class?

Lizzie O'Leary Jun 6, 2014

Do you still call yourself middle class?

I put that question to an online network of people willing to be interviewed on Marketplace. It’s a fascinating question to me, because it gets at both where we are five years after the recession, and to our definition of “middle class” itself. Recent research shows that while the economy as a whole is improving, more and more of us aren’t using the term “middle class” anymore.

One woman, DeeDee in San Diego, wrote that she now considered her family poor. She said her income has been declining since 2002. Here’s what being middle class would look like to DeeDee:

“I could step into the 21st century and get a cell phone; it would mean that I could spring for my children’s meal at In-N-Out Burger instead of saying, ‘If you pay for it, you may go.'”

Across the six dozen or so responses I received, most people felt that being in the middle class meant the ability to educate children, provide a home for them, and plan for a comfortable retirement. And many said they’re not sure they can get there.

Jamie from New Hampshire wrote:

“If I had kids, we’d be poor, but since I don’t, I’m somehow able to get by and have an occasional social life and such.”

I posed the question and I still want to hear from people in the form below.

A Pew poll that came out in January shows a decline in Americans who call themselves middle class. Personally, I think there’s more here than just the hangover from the recession. It’s a wariness, perhaps, about what it takes to pay for a life better than the one your parents had. It’s tangled up with the cost of college and health care. 

It’s something that we’re going to be exploring on my new show, Marketplace Weekend, both from an economic and fiscal angle, and from a psychological one. It also touches on the nature of work.

I came back to this idea again Thursday when I saw this great New York Times visualization about the industries that have suffered (and thrived) since the recession. I suspect buried in here are the keys to what a new middle class might look like. Or perhaps whatever our new term is that someday becomes both simultaneously aspirational and everywhere.



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