A Class on Class

I recently graded 32 final projects from my course on working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  The assignment had invited students to use whatever forms of writing or other media would allow them to express what they had been learning in the course and how it applied to their lives.  These projects were (mostly) a pleasure to read, but they also offered insights into the perplexing question of what my students think about “class” and how that may or may not resemble what I think I have been teaching about it.

For instance, family history projects often included stories of hard work and sacrifice paying off for future generations, leading to claims about core working-class values.   “The Struggle from Pain to Pride” was one title, “Working Class Has Class” another.  Some of the workplace narratives, on the other hand, demonstrated powerlessness and exploitation on the job: “Accident at the Mill” and “Late Shift,” for example.  Some of the cultural analysis essays treated class as a matter of “lifestyle,” unrelated to work and readily changeable by choice or circumstance.   In one or two papers, students described class as a system that in fact works: societies need hierarchies and class ranking provides the incentive for upward mobility.

In many projects, there was quite a bit of slippage in students’ use of the concepts “working class” and “middle class.”  This is hardly surprising given that 24 of the 32 students identify as middle class, according to a survey I gave early in the term, on which their choices were poor, middle class, rich, working class, or other.  The 8 who did not check “middle class” nuanced their responses as follows: 4 as “working middle class,” 2 as “poor working class,” and one each for “upper middle” and “99%.”  No-one checked “rich.”

The class terminology I have deployed in my courses draws on Michael Zweig’s analysis in The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, the second edition of which was published in January 2012.   Looking at occupations and the economic, political, and cultural power, or powerlessness, of the people who perform them, Zweig identifies three major classes: a US working-class majority of around 63%; a middle class of professionals, managers, and small business owners making up about 35%; and a capitalist class of 2%.  In Zweig’s updated analysis, the working class now includes a large number of nurses and teachers, whose labor has been substantially deskilled through corporate management practices.

Of course, class is much more than a position within a structure of inequality.  It is also an experience lived out within a specific set of relationships, as E.P. Thompson explained in his introduction to The Making of the English Working Class:

[Class is] an historical phenomenon. . . something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.  And class happens when some [people], as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other [people] whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which [people] are born — or enter involuntarily.

The linked ideas that class relations are necessarily antagonistic — based on opposing interests and feelings — and that people are implicated in class experience “involuntarily” are often resisted by my students.  And their sense of being largely middle class may have a lot to do with this resistance.

For even in a course on “working-class literature,” they are likely to share the belief we find everywhere else in the culture: that if there was a working class it is now largely “history,” having been replaced by a vast middle class, with a small sector of the rich above and the poor below.  This is serious distortion of the actuality Zweig describes.  But, as Jack Metzgar has pointed out in his important article “Politics and the American Class Vernacular,” the myth of the broad middle class has massive appeal and impressive staying power. As he explains, “The egalitarian ethos inherent in this notion of middleness has been seen as peculiarly ‘American’ and essential to democracy by political sociologists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Alan Wolfe.”

It appears again, for instance, in Time magazine’s July 2, 2012 issue, which features a lead article by Jon Meacham on “The History of the American Dream.”  In it Meacham recycles the claim that 90% of Americans self-identify as middle class.   This claim is likely based — Time does not cite its sources — on a finding published in the mid-1990s by democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg.  According to Metzgar, the notion of a 90% middle class was thoroughly debunked by S.M Miller in his 1995 article “Class Dismissed,” in which he pointed out that surveys do not usually offer “working class” as a possible self-identification.  Metzgar notes that, when given that option, in surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 46% of respondents identify as working class and 46% as middle class, with 5% “lower” and 3% “upper” class.

The American class vernacular is routinely re-inscribed in popular consciousness during election seasons, as we are seeing again this year.   I just received another fundraising appeal from Barack Obama, urging me to join him in reclaiming “the basic bargain that built the middle class and the most prosperous nation on earth.”  In fact, according to the Legatum Institute’s 2011 index, Norway is the world’s most prosperous nation, if prosperity is defined to include both wealth and wellbeing.   By this accounting the US comes 10th, behind Canada and all the Scandinavian countries.   Whatever the facts, it is clear that the nationalistic concern with being the greatest nation on earth – as if geopolitics is a sport and what matters most is our standing in the league tables – is deeply linked to the myth of the inclusive middle class, and that this class is assumed to have a right, as Americans, to expect increasing prosperity.

As Zweig, Metzgar, and others have pointed out, the trouble with the myth of the vast inclusive middle class within our national imaginary is the resulting disappearance from public view of the actually existing and vastly diverse American working-class majority.   This is in fact the population that has been so battered by the Great Recession and by the neoliberal political and economic tide that fostered it.   These are the “folks” Obama tells me he hears from every day “who are out of work, have lost their home, are struggling to pay their bills, are burdened with debt, are underemployed or worried about retirement.”

In a typically mis-titled article in the November 2011 Atlantic,Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”  Don Peck points out that from 2007 through 2009 employment levels for the professional middle class remained essentially unchanged, whereas 1 in 12 non-managerial (i.e. working-class) white collar jobs disappeared, along with 1 in 6 blue collar jobs.  Meantime, according to Peck, “from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two” dollars — and this effect has only accelerated since then.  On this evidence, it is the working class that needs to be saved, or to save itself.

And yet, in her important new book The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke UP, 2011) Kathi Weeks draws this discouraging conclusion about the radical potential of a political critique founded on the concept of the working class:

The problem is that while the oppositional class category of the industrial period—the “working class”— may accurately describe most people’s relation to waged labor even in a post-industrial economy, it is increasingly less likely to match their self-descriptions.  The category of the middle class has absorbed so many of our subjective investments that it is difficult to see how the working class can serve as a viable rallying point in the United States today.

Given that we always have this uphill battle to establish the salience of the term working class, I’ve been wondering lately whether it is worth the effort we expend, in our scholarship and teaching, in repeatedly pushing the boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll down again.  What’s at stake for us in posing an analysis based upon a more accurate accounting of US class structures and relations?   How viable is such an analysis as a resource for political critique and action in the present moment?  And how useful is it for teaching students about their place in the world and the prospects for their interventions in it — starting with, but not limited to this November’s elections?

Next month, I’ll take up these questions in light of the challenges to class analysis posed by Weeks and others.   In the meantime, commentary from readers would be most welcome.

Nick Coles

56UP: Class Structure Half a Century On

The Seven Up series on British TV is now 49 years old, and the latest, 56UP, aired earlier in the summer.  The series has followed the same set of children from different class backgrounds since 1964, when they were seven. The first film, initiallya one-off special of a general documentary programme World in Action, tested the proposition attributed to Francis Xavier (1506-1552), co-founder of the Jesuit order: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” The program’s idea has been copied in various parts of the world, including the USA, but nowhere has it been as successful or long-lasting as here in Britain. Since 1964, every seven years a camera crew has followed up on the group of four girls and ten boys.  Some of the group have declined to continue, while others have dropped out and then reappeared. The participants were, and are, asked to reflect on various aspects of their lives. In earlier shows, the director, Michael Apted, asked the children to project their lives forward into adulthood. In mirror images now, he invites them to ponder their pasts. In its own modest way, the series is both gripping and profound in the way it explores the lived reality of the British class system. Each new set of programs adds a new layer of complexity in the way we see people mature and the impact class has on their lives.

The original premise of Seven Up was heavily focused around class.  The director wanted in part to show that the class trajectories of those involved had largely been decided before the point of active citizenship, or even prior to birth. On the whole this thesis has proved to be correct, with the working-class kids largely getting working-class jobs, and their middle-class counterparts enjoying upward mobility.

All the middle-class members of the Seven Up group have done pretty well with the exception of one who has suffered mental health problems since his twenties.  All the others have experienced a predictable, safe, and stable rise in living standards.  For the working-class members of the group, the story is somewhat different.  One has moved up in class status as she has risen through the ranks of university administration. Interestingly, she recognizes that chance has played a part in her career, seeing her life chances and those of her family as contingent on wider social forces as well as considerable personal effort and talent. One of the working-class boys has found social mobility as an academic, working in the USA. Here, too, success is underpinned by state-funded schooling,  especially at the university level.

While other members of the cohort do enjoy some sense of stability, as they get older the program has lighted upon the role aging and especially ill health plays in people’s classed experience. What seems largely a non-issue for the middle-class group is far harder felt with those for whom the working class is home.  Ill health plays out in a variety of ways, limiting life chances here just a bit or seriously compromising the ability to work at others.  One participant, Jackie, for example, developed health issues in her early fifties, so that she cannot work consistently and is forced onto the benefits system. While claiming benefits is not a great option at the best of times, the current government ‘crack-down on the benefits culture,’ in part driven by the financial crisis, means that her claim is under regular scrutiny and sustained threat of being taken away. This situation is compounded by the fact that she lives in social housing in Glasgow and is divorced with three adult sons. The power of these films is in the way they pose so many ‘what ifs?’  Jackie was originally from London.  Had she stayed there, had she not got divorced, or had she not developed health problems, her life may well have been radically different.  Recent statistics show that life expectancy in the UK is heavily driven by class position, and Jackie has found herself in the worst location, statistically, for life expectancy. Men in Glasgow City live to 71.6 years compared to 85.1 years for those in wealthy parts of London. Jackie, as a woman, is slightly better off — the figures for females are 78 and 89.8 respectively.

If stories like Jackie’s emphasize the power of class, others in the group argue that class does not matter.  In 56Up, possibly the most privileged member of the cohort absolutely denies the salience of class. In the original program, John had predicted with chilling accuracy his life course through fee paying school, elite university, then a career in the law. In each respect, the seven-year-old got it spot on, but in the most recent film, John disputes, with some anger, the idea that class has anything to do with the process or the eventual outcome of his life.  As evidence, he notes the way his life had been disrupted by the early death of his father when John was nine years old.  He points out that his mother had to undergo considerable sacrifice in order to maintain his education, although he acknowledges he benefited from fee waivers and charitable support from his elite school to help him on his way. I was struck at the vehemence with which John insisted that class had nothing to do with his current status and lifelong privileges. Indeed, he not only denied that class played any part in his own success but stressed that class no longer mattered much to anyone. He suggested that the whole series, dating back to 1964, had been obsessed with class and that it had been pretty irrelevant even then.

This has been a pattern in the programs between the 1964 original and the current edition, with the more privileged members insisting that class has no effect on their lives.  Through their claims, 56Up captures and implicitly critiques wider assumptions about class in modern Britain amongst elite groups and many of the political class. While middle-class success is seen as the product of individual effort, working-class failure is seen as both a collective and individual cultural failing. There seems to be a complete blind spot when it comes to issues of social structure such as the education system, the ability to access more benign sectors of the labour market, or even to have jobs where age matters less in terms of the physical effort one has to expend to earn a living. By contrast, 56Up records the effects of class on all those involved. One of the obvious but largely unaddressed issues in 56Up is the way the ladders of social mobility enjoyed by the working-class members of the cohort are gradually being pulled up or taken away altogether, meaning that future generations will find their lives tougher still.

So what do we draw from this most recent dip into the UK class system? We can see that class still matters enormously as it structures and underpins life chances and opportunities.  While nearly half a century has elapsed between the original black and white show and its less grainy contemporary counterpart, class privilege continues to play out through subsequent generations. While the working-class members of the panel are content, wistful, regretful, and/or resigned, some of their middle- and upper-class counterparts are angry. This anger is not necessarily the result of the actuality of their lives but seems directed at the production crew for framing their privilege in the language of class. Perhaps it is time for those of us who care about working-class issues to get angry, too. We should get angry at the growing evidence of class disparity in terms of life chances. But we should also reserve some of that anger for those who dispute that class is an issue.

Tim Strangleman

Is Marriage Becoming a Marker of Class?

A lot of people have been talking about marriage recently, from across the political spectrum.  In the ongoing struggle over same-sex marriage, North Carolina passed an amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in early May, and President Obama voiced his support of marriage equality the very next day.  We’re also hearing about the “end of men” or, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession, the “mancession,” which paints pictures of female ascendancy and male decline, and how that role reversal will affect marriages.  And then there’s the firestorm sparked by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in which Murray uses falling marriage rates and rising divorce rates (along with honesty, industriousness, and religiosity) to support his claim that the white working class is in moral decline.

Suffice to say that we are in the midst of a period when journalists and academics are heavily scrutinizing the institution of marriage, offering interpretations of the demographic shifts documented by the 2010 Census and recent think-tank reports, but more importantly, predicting what will become of it in the future, why and how it will continue to change, and how society will be affected by those changes.

What intrigues me most in all of these ongoing threads about marriage is the way marriage is increasingly being discussed as a marker of class. While he wasn’t the first to make the link, Murray grabbed the spotlight by highlighting the connection between class and marriage, and critics’ efforts to rebut his claims kept the issue alive.

Both Murray and his critics agree that marriage patterns differ markedly by class.  Because marriage rates among the middle and upper classes have not declined over the past two decades, and their divorce rates are low, and because marriage rates have plummeted for white working-class and working-poor people, and their divorce rates have stayed high, marital status is, increasingly, a pretty good sign of what class someone belongs to.  Murray finds a 35 percentage point difference in the rates of married couples in the middle/upper class and working-class communities on which he based his study (83% v. 48%).  He ties the difference to the radically lower rate of divorce in the middle/upper class community and the significantly higher number of never-married people in the working-class community he studies.  He says that the increase in this number since 1960 is “driven mostly by the retreat of men from the marriage market.”

Critics of Murray accept his basic claim but disagree about the cause of these shifts.    Where Murray sees moral decline, his critics point to declining incomes and employment instability among working-class people.  Adding fuel to the economic argument is compelling research showing that while the rates of marriage and divorce differ, the stated values around marriage are remarkably consistent across classes. Working-class and working-poor people marry at lower rates, but not because they don’t believe in marriage.  Across the class spectrum, people consistently report that marriage should be delayed until they are in a stable, supportive, and loving relationship, of course, but also until they have economic stability. Perhaps the best explanation for the difference in marriage rates lies in the relative ease with which one group achieves economic stability while the other struggles to do so.

We can’t fully understand how economic factors contribute to marriage becoming a marker of class unless we throw gender into the mix.  As someone involved in both Working-Class Studies and Women’s Studies, I am deeply interested in the gendered dimensions of economic change, including how the ongoing economic crisis is shaping the institution of marriage within working class and working poor communities.   Working-class men, as individuals, have been hit harder by the economic shifts of the last 30 years than working-class women.  Working-class men’s employment and wages have been undermined in ways that make being a breadwinner increasingly difficult.  And the breadwinner role is still important to large numbers of working-class men, even as women now make up half the workforce, and single-earner families are increasingly rare.  Economic crises cause identity crises that undeniably shape working-class men’s self-image, but they also influence working-class women’s choices about whether and when to marry them.

And what of working-class women?  Here’s where things get interesting and complicated.  As individuals, working-class women have made some gains.  While working-class families used to be more likely to use their limited resources to send their sons rather than their daughters to college, this trend has reversed.  Today, working-class women of all races attend and graduate from college in substantially higher numbers than working-class men.  The employment picture looks better as well.  Working-class women have greater employment stability than men, and they are more likely to work in fields that are predicted to experience the greatest growth over the next decade.

But are these real gains, or do they just look like gains relative to working-class men’s losses? Do we really want to measure working-class women’s gains separately from the losses of working-class men, especially when those losses seem to be so dramatically affecting marriage rates?

Murray uses marriage and divorce statistics to make a bold claim about the decline of morality among the white working class, and plenty of people have rebutted him, but no one has really stepped forward with an insider’s view.  In all of this talk about marriage in the wake of Murray’s book, I find myself wishing for the voices of working-class people.  Hearing directly from working-class couples, whether married or cohabiting, might shed some light on whether and how improved economic circumstances would result in a rebounding of marriage rates among the working class.

It is not a foregone conclusion that marriage will henceforth be a marker of class.  After all, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time that academics and journalists have interpreted marriage statistics in ways that turned out to be dead wrong.  But while I think that predictions of the demise of marriage in the working classes are premature, I am willing to step out on a limb and predict that gender roles among working-class couples are in the midst of a transformation that will have lasting effects for decades to come.

Christie Launius

Christie Launius directs the Women’s Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and is helping plan the 2013 Working-Class Studies Association conference, to be held in Madison, WI.