Thursday, August 25, 2011

Classes Aren't Just For School

I want to blame my current preoccupation with social classes on the riots in England the other week, but actually, from going back through my old Facebook statuses and even through the archives of this blog, it seems that I've historically been at least subliminally conscious of my socio-economic standing relative to those around me.  Thinking about it, though, I'm not sure if it's possible to be immune to the tangible markers of class structure, regardless of where you place yourself - or where you are placed by others.

Others - that's the key, I think, to class.  It's about how you identify yourself in regards to how you identify those around you.  (Certainly, it's also about how others identify you in regards to how they self-identify, but I'm going to leave that point for the time being.)

I vividly remember a conversation with a friend in college about class structure; it was the spring semester of sophomore year and we were paging through our orange copies of the Marx-Engels Reader.  It was one of those wonderfully vaguely delirious discussions, fueled by too many cups of coffee and an absurdly late (or early, depending on how you look at the clock) hour, that our Core Curriculum courses encouraged from its students.  My friend's family was wealthy, no matter how you sliced the loaf: they lived in an affluent Connecticut suburb, he had attended an exclusive boarding school in New England, and his father was about to be named CEO of a major American company.  Even he admitted that he was from a high echelon of society, but he noted that his parents still determinedly identified as upper-middle class.  "So many of their generation do, you know," he told me.  "It's a self-conscious thing for baby boomers who are slightly better off than their parents were.  No matter how well they've done, they're uncomfortable with being thought of as upper class if they didn't start there."  He blamed the revolutionary culture of the '60s and '70s, partially, and then I think the conversation took a hard fork to the left and we started contrasting the anti-Vietnam movement with the current anti-war movement and goodness knows where we went from there.

His point stuck with me, though.  Regardless of how socially mobile our culture is, when we move from one class to another - especially upwards - we're generally uncomfortable with our new positions.  And regardless of our society's emphasis on providing opportunities to better oneself, we all, secretly, are desperate to be considered some variant on average.

I bring this up now not just because of the recent riots and the ensuing debates here in the UK, but also because of two links that a friend sent me today in response to this status that I posted on my Facebook wall:

love love love thank-you notes and am fighting the urge to reply with a thank-you note of my own

First, she sent me to The Middle Class Handbook with its Periodic Table of the Middle Class. (I'm either an Alt.Middle or a member of the New Young Fogey Club, don't you think?)  Then she pasted this Telegraph article, pointing out especially point number six.

And so I wonder: has it come to this?  We're all so insecure about being anything other than a variation on the theme of middle-class that we've had to begin mocking ourselves in order to feel comfortable about our self-imposed identities.  I am, certainly, and I do.  (For reference, see this status, also posted on my Facebook wall the other day: Jon has pointed out that I begin too many sentences with "I don't mean to sound like an elitist, but...")

There's a Woody Allen quote that keeps tripping through my mind; he said something like, "I'd be anti-Semitic if I weren't Jewish."  Is that how we feel about our place in the socio-economic structure of our Western society?  And, if so, I have to ask - where will this limiting self-loathing take us?  I can't imagine that it will lead to a universal drive for improvement in any measure.

(So sorry for the lesson, dear readers, but I've had this bee in my bonnet for a while now and had to put pen to paper.  I'd love to know what you think of all this, if you're comfortable sharing.)


  1. The UK is also class obsessed. You can't really move into the upper class in the old-school sense unless you started off in it. Just ask Kate Middleton. ;)

    I have a theory about this - the middle-class is the the aspirational class, and therefore people are constantly questioning their standing.

    I also know plenty people from working class backgrounds who still identify as such despite living middle-class lifestyles in adulthood, and I think there is a degree of inverse snobbery at play there. (As well as actual snobbery from the other end).

    It's a fun game to play though, if you can avoid sliding into pejoratives. Based on my parents' income and profession, I grew up lower middle class.

    (It's weird how this topic keeps popping up though. I was reading only recently about how Tony Blair et al set about reinventing the Labour Party to appeal a more middle-class demographic in order to secure that '97 election victory.)

  2. Ending up overeducated and destitute after having started out middle class is much worse than being upwardly mobile, my dear. Don't let it happen to you.

    And trust you me: you're a helluva lot closer to rich than middle class. So's your boyfriend.



I love reading your thoughts and suggestions! Please do leave a comment so we can get to know each other better.