Is a "vast upper middle class" impossible?

In this article, Michael Lind argues that conservative and liberal pundits have been misleading the American people for decades with their respective visions of a path to upper-middle-class status for nearly all – conservatives, investment in the stock market; liberals, higher education. Most people who have money invested have it in negligible amounts; as for education, the more people have it, the less it’s worth in the job market – there are only so many high-paying professional jobs available.

Is this true? Is an upper-middle-class society impossible?

I would tend to agree that it is impossible, at least at this point. There always has to be some distribution of labor based upon the needs of society, and we’re not at a point where a majority, or at least plurality, can be upper-middle class type jobs. We still need a large number of lower and working class jobs.

That’s not to say that I don’t think we’ve taken steps in that direction, with many jobs that used to be occupied by lower and working class people now occupied by machines and, thus, effectively replaced by middle and upper class workers who design, maintain, or operate these machines. However, this shift seems much more directly tied to advances in technology than investment or education.

I think he correctly points out the paradox of our current education system, of encouraging youth to get a higher education that is expensive, in both direct cost and lost time in job experience, which saturates the market and ultimately reduces the value of that education.

So, I think it may be possible, but I think the best way to encourage it is through advancements and additional applications of technology to create those jobs to create opportunities for these individuals, otherwise, all we’re doing is increasing supply with a relatively steady demand.

It depends on what is meant by “upper middle class”? If it means people in a particular percentile of wealth, then no, it’s not possible. There will always be a distribution of wealth in any approximately free society.

If it means a particular absolute standard of living, then it is definitely possible. Less wealthy people of today have a much higher standard of living than wealthy people of a century ago. Air-conditioned homes, fresh fruits and vegetables during all seasons, instant communication and fast travel are all easily available today, compared to more or less impossible at that time.

In a way it is, because the goal posts move. We HAVE a ‘vast upper middle class’ right now…compared to the economic and social structure in the US a century ago. Or compared to many 3rd world countries. The trouble is, the goal posts have shifted, and what was (or is in other countries) ‘rich’ is now considered ‘upper middle class’, while ‘rich’ now means something completely different.

So, yeah…it’s impossible, unless you define exactly what ‘upper middle class’ is and then leave the bar there, unmoving. If you are having to constantly shift it around then the term itself is meaningless.

BTW, I would say that both liberals and conservatives are correct…higher education coupled with wise investment (not directly in the stock market unless you know what you are doing, but in 401K’s, IRA’s, mutual funds, T-Bills and bonds…i.e. in a diverse mix of investments, maybe even some real estate), as well as discipline in spending, will certainly make one wealthy, or at least ‘upper middle class’. Hell, discipline in spending alone and careful investment will make even a lower class (whatever that is) blue collar type wealthy in the long run.


Impossible unless everyone changes (equalizes) their preferences for services or goods that require unequal talent and effort. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a Power Law or bell curve distribution.


If you are one of the 80 million Mexicans dreaming of crossing the Arizona desert, or a Chinese immigrant stuffed into a shipping container, or a starving African looking at Baywatch billboards in Nairobi, we have a vast UPPER class that they can only dream about.

I think what is impossible is that idea that everyone has, should have, deserves, or will get upward mobility. Or that you can/should buy the appearance of it - which is good enough.

One of his first arguments is that we’ve been convinced we shouldn’t live in “houses we can afford” - but many, many Americans do. Not everyone is spending themselves into faux affluence. THAT may be the bill of goods we’ve been sold - that what you HAVE is an indication of what you are WORTH.

Obviously, as has been pointed out, you can’t have an “upper middle class” society by income statistics. Or you can - if you include the rest of the world, in which case - again as has been pointed out - you already have one.

What sense would it make for government or business to create such a huge cohort of financially independent individuals? They would be very difficult to influence or control.

Well . . . It is debatable (and this is as good a place as any to debate it) whether it is materially possible for a majority of the world’s people to enjoy what we in the industrialized countries think of as an upper-middle-class standard of living, given the limits of Earth’s environment and resources. (Lind himself has argued that question in the affirmative.)

I agree … I am more than a little pissed off, because mrAru and I live in a house we could afford [we spent $99 000, the jackass realtor kept trying to shove us into $200 000 + houses … on a Navy income. We successfully resisted and got something we could afford] and have never missed a payment on it - and all the jackasses that went for the overpriced houses they couldn’t afford get to have bailouts now. So much for living on one’s income. We don’t have credit cards - if it isn’t in the bank, we don’t buy whatever. Our cars are paid for, so no debt there either.

Not that I dislike our life, but I would love to actually have a little luxury in our life =(

That is a good question, but is significantly different from the original post’s question.

I think that the world as a whole could reach the current standard of living as the US. The current standard of living will become cheaper (in the absolute sense of requiring fewer resources per person) in the near term and the world population will be smaller in the long term, thus requiring few resources in total.

And the way to achieve that is through greater education and sound personal and state finances. We need smart people with sufficient education to improve everything. And we need to spend our wealth wisely (note that “spending wealth” and “consuming resources” are equivalent).

The OP-quote’s “high wages and adequate social insurance” is a consequence of good policies, not policies in themselves. We as a society cannot in the long run set high wages and adequate social insurance without sufficient resources to cover them. Wealth is generated by people and education is the best means for people to improve their capabilities to generate resources. And sound finances means using them.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On rereading the OP-quote, I think I would dispute:

Maybe my family was different, but we made good use of our educations, saved adequately, and bought homes within our means. We are certainly not rich, and some have had financial hard times, but that is a consequence of the unpredictability of life and not lack of prudence.

For my spouse and myself, we avoided buying a home during the bubble because we knew the prices were unsustainably high. Once the prices dropped, we bought a home with a mortgage that one of our incomes could cover, to avoid the two-income trap.

It doesn’t take a smart person to foresee the obvious possible results of one’s financial. But maybe that makes us the exceptions rather than the “most Americans”. I’d like to think better of my country.

Can anyone define “upper middle class” ?

Here’s one stab at it. From Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell:


In the last chapter, Fussell identifies a tenth class, a “Class X” of declassed intellectuals and bohemians.

BrainGlutton, that excerpt was way too long. I shortened it to the begin and the paragraphs you bolded. Please don’t quote any more than you need to from copyrighted sources.

Are you kidding. a century ago was the time of the robber barons, Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockerfeller, and others were amassing incredible fortunes and built palatial mansions, sometimes several of them. It was the guilded age.

Upper middle class affluence and status should be viewed as a personal achievement, rather than an entitlement, or something that the government can provide for most Americans.

In order to achieve that one probably needs a professional degree from a fairly exclusive university.

If that is not an option, one should think about going to a trade school. What one needs are marketable job skills.

I have read that two thirds of colleges and universities accept everyone who applies with a high school degree and tuition money. A degree from one of those places in the humanities or social sciences is not very useful. One who is interested in the humanities and social sciences, as I am, should study them one one’s own.

FWIW, I think this is a very interesting OP.

Is it possible, given something approaching a standard distro of talent, motivation, etc, combined with a fixed number of resources, to actually have that vast middle class? The only way I could see it working, at the country level, is to do what Kuwait does (or maybe did…) and use their oil wealth to import bigtime numbers of indentured servants and near-slaves from other countries to support the natives.

In other words, I guess I’m saying that for there to be an upper/middle class, there needs to be lower classes to do the grunt work and/or get exploited, depending on your POV. I guess the US could (and does?) use Mexicans for that role.

The Germans used Turks, and the second and third generation Turks now want to be upper class Germans. After all, they grew up in Germany, speak German, went to German schools and deserve the same opportunities as ethnic Germans.

In the U.S. in certain places it causing a cultural issue - some immigrant populations really value their kids educations - so (gross generalizations ahead) the Chinese and Indians who originally showed up on H1-B visas now have U.S. citizen kids - and frankly there are a lot of “ethnic Americans” who don’t value education. So guess who is going to end up being the underclass to whom? (second disclaimer: I personally don’t think this is a bad thing, but I’ve listened to my coworkers resentment over it - yeah - Li’s son spent six hours a day studying and playing the violin while she stood over him making sure he did it, while yours knows every episode of The Simpson’s by heart…don’t blame her and her kid.

The average affluence of North Americans has increased dramatically over the last century. Obviously, we can never have a “vast upper middle class” if it is a comparative definition, any more than we can have all our children be above average … but we certainly can increase the average, and in terms of material wealth, we have.

Where I agree with the article is this: that our expectations have increased even more than the actual increase in prosperity. Just look at the sorts of material goods the “average” person thinks they cannot live without; it takes considerable income to afford all that stuff. Also, look at the level of luxury that is routinely depicted in the background of TV commercials, sitcoms and the like. People seeing that to a certain degree absorb the notion that this is how the average person lives.

I’m a lawyer who works in a big firm and thus I guess I’m “upper middle class” myself; I find it difficult to afford a car (together with insurance etc.), a modest 3 bedroom house, various electronic devices like a new computer, child expenses, vacations, etc. all while saving for retirement, investment and education. I don’t consider any of that particularly luxurious. How on earth can the “average” person in my city afford all that stuff, when I find it tough?

Depends on what you care about. Do you care about people’s absolute level of well-being? Or are you only concerned about relative status?