When one reads 19th century British literature, one of the constant sources of tension is as to who is “a gentleman”. As used in this context, it was a term that applied not merely to manners and honor, but to economic status. A gentleman was not “in trade”. He did not have “a job”. He might own estates which he oversaw, though if he actively worked them his case became much weaker (“gentleman farmer” was more often a term of dismissal as approbation.) He might be a clergyman or a doctor (but not a surgeon — cutting flesh and sawing bone was not manual for a “gentleman.) He might be a military officer. But generally to be a “gentleman” one was expected to live off one’s investments and devote one’s time to either society or unpaid accomplishments. Many accomplishments in fields ranging from literature to philosophy to economics to science during the time period were the work of “gentlemen” who pursued these fields as “hobbies”.
I don’t think this was necessarily a good or healthy attitude towards work, but it’s interesting to me that in the modern US we have nearly diametrically opposed social/economic prejudices. The idle rich could not be more scorned, and it is the object of everyone to claim membership in the “middle class” and ideally to claim “working class roots” as well.
So while in the society of 19th century British novels, everyone wanted to stake claim to being “a gentleman”, even if his claim was in fact pretty tenuous and he was very nearly poor, in the modern US virtually everyone wants to claim to be middle class — few want to admit to being poor, and even fewer want to admit to being rich.
Some may recall this even became in issue in the recent presidential campaign as Rick Warren included in his Saddleback Forum the question for both candidates: What is rich? How much money?
Both candidates were reluctant to name a specific figure, doubtless because there were two dangers present in doing so: Name a number that was too high, and people would accuse you of being “out of touch with America”; but name a number that was too low, and you’d end up offending all of the upper income voters who wanted to think about themselves as “middle class”.
My initial thought would be: By “middle class” most people mean the range of incomes between what they made when they were first married and what they expect to be making five years from now. Whereas by “rich” people mean an income level that they currently don’t see how they can attain to.
But really, that just serves to underline that Americans as a whole want to think of themselves as middle class. Middle class is “us” while rich is “them”.
If I wanted to take an analytical approach, I would make roughly this split looking at the census income tables for households headed by married couples. 17.1% of married families of annual incomes below 35k, so I’d put that as poor to lower-middle-class — though in a few parts of the country 30k would be a fairly comfortable family income, so even that is rather approximate. The 150-200k and 200k+ brackets each contain 6.5% of married families, so would probably draw the line for “upper class” at one of those two lines.
How would you define “middle class”, both in cultural terms and in income range? What does it say about American culture that it is “middle class” that everyone aspires to be perceived as rather than “upper class” as is the case in many more traditional societies?