How Class Cultures Work

Across my lifetime, I’ve lived within and between two class cultures that work together in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Broadly, middle-class professionalism emphasizes aspiration, achievement, and becoming.  Working-class culture, on the other hand, prioritizes authenticity, character, and belonging.  One culture assumes people will live within careers, the other that they will have jobs that are sharply separated from the better parts of life.  Working-class culture is more parochial and present-oriented, whereas middle-class culture is more cosmopolitan and future-oriented.  The middle class is much more individualistic and anxious about status.  The working class tends to be contemptuous of status hierarchies and more comfortable with mutual dependencies.

This is broad brush, but even in this summary description, you can see how these differences in values, dispositions, and expectations can lead each culture to misunderstand and misinterpret the other.  To take a possibly too-simple example, middle-class professionals often define their worth by pointing to their accomplishments.  To a working-class person, however, that can seem a superficial way to evaluate yourself. For them what counts is who you are and how you act day in and day out. What matters is not what you’ve done but the kind of person you are.

I describe and evaluate these two cultures and consider how they clash with and complement each other in my new book, Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society. The book sets these differences in the historical context of my own life – 30 years of extraordinarily shared economic prosperity for the working class followed by nearly 50 years of stagnation and decline for workers, of growing inequality of condition, and of isolation between the working and middle classes.

I was born in 1943 into a steelworker family in an insular Appalachian mill town and grew up during the best 30 years for any working class anywhere at any time – more so for white men than others, but also true for all colors and genders within the working class.  That period also saw the largest and fastest growth of professional jobs in our history, creating a new class of wage workers with professional credentials, salaries, and prerogatives.  I was part of that when, in 1977, I got my first professional job after spending more than a decade earnestly educating myself to become middle-class.

I and my generation were very fortunate.  During our formative years, standards of living and working conditions improved steadily and dramatically for the working class (real wages doubled, for example).  Meanwhile opportunities to get professional middle-class jobs increased 5-fold (from 5 to 25 million jobs and from 11% to 26% of the workforce by 1980). So upon graduating high school, someone like me could improve their life by getting a working-class job and gradually earning more money or by pursuing education and eventually getting a professional job.  Either way, we had a 90% chance of having an improved and improving life

That all began to change in the mid-1970s when the standards and conditions of working-class life began slowly but steadily declining while the growth of professional middle-class jobs slowed substantially. Today, a high school graduate has less than half a chance of doing better than their parents.  And two out of five college graduates will get a job that doesn’t require a college degree.  

What does all this personal and economic history have to do with class cultures?  First, despite these economic changes, there is continuity in the class cultures across this time span. The basic cultural patterns, and the differences between them, are the same now as they were in 1945.  But how the cultures are lived changes with economic circumstances.  During the shared prosperity of the 30 years after World War II, for example, both cultures were stronger in themselves and more aware of each other than they are today. Both were working on their own terms, and because there was more equality of condition, people interacted more, and the positive qualities of each culture often complemented rather than clashed with the other.

Today, the two classes have much less interaction with each other, and both cultures are more cramped and crabby than they were when both experienced prosperity and growing equality. Today, the inevitable misunderstandings between cultures are increasingly more likely to turn into hardened stereotypes that make communication, let alone cooperation, more and more difficult.  As the class that dominates the culture, we middle-class professionals tend to dismiss the working class as uninformed and ignorant. Worse, even when we’re generous, we tend to focus strictly on helping them become more like us, which they mostly don’t want to be.  Working-class folks, on the other hand, tend to see us as phonies, lacking in authenticity and integrity, not “real” or, possibly worse, not “real Americans.”

Economics does not determine culture, but it certainly shapes how cultures are lived and practiced in different conditions and how they relate to each other.  In my view, both working-class and middle-class cultures are productive and valuable, but they tend toward extreme versions of themselves in bad economic environments and when they are out of contact with one another.

As conditions deteriorate for the working class, for example, the gap between good jobs and bad ones widens, and the growing awfulness of so many working-class jobs intensifies the middle-class fear of falling, rendering life in general, and child-rearing in particular, more tense, anxious, and narrow.  In better times, when the middle-class aspiration to build life around a career was both more likely to be achieved and much less punishing if it was not, middle-class professionals had broader horizons that included the daily enjoyment of different kinds of people, unobstructed by purposeful activity.

Conversely, much in working-class culture is geared to help people endure, adjust to, and find enjoyment within difficult circumstances. In deteriorating conditions, these cultural expectations help people survive and “hold themselves together,” but they also tend to undermine a stronger sense of possibility and working-class agency.  In constantly improving conditions like those I grew up in, however, the working-class capacity for “taking it” enables people to see and pursue real possibilities for changing their circumstances – without requiring them to change classes.

In Bridging the Divide, I argue that we don’t just need to understand each other better. Rather, if we want each culture to open up and explore the best aspects of itself rather than trying desperately to hold onto what each of us already has, we need the kind of shared prosperity and growing equality of condition we once had.  To achieve that, we need to imitate what worked back in the day – strong unions, sharing the gains from productivity growth, and steeply progressive income (and wealth) taxes to fund a greatly enhanced social wage.  These are not just working-class issues, but remedies that might allow us middle-class professionals to be both more open to other ways of seeing and being and more like ourselves.  We need the kind of rough equality of condition within which these cultures of class influence each other without changing the basics of how each envisions living a life.

Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar is emeritus professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a founder and past president of the Working-Class Studies Association. Working-Class Perspectives readers can get a 30% discount on Bridging the Divide at using the code: “09FLYER”.

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Working-Class Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How Class Cultures Work

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Jack, I’m wondering whether people understand themselves let alone others.


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