2 min

Working Class vs Middle Class: The Key Differences

Aug 25, 2022
in a nutshell
  • When identifying socioeconomic class, income is rarely the most important factor.
  • The type of work and the meaning derived from the work is often more of an indicator of class than income, professors say.
  • “If you're holding a position that is non-managerial, non-executive level ... you'd have been classified in our study as working class,” says expert.
Image of Read more to understand the key differences between the working class vs middle class.
in a nutshell
  • When identifying socioeconomic class, income is rarely the most important factor.
  • The type of work and the meaning derived from the work is often more of an indicator of class than income, professors say.
  • “If you're holding a position that is non-managerial, non-executive level ... you'd have been classified in our study as working class,” says expert.

When defining your own class, there are many factors that might make you feel like you are in a different place on the socioeconomic spectrum than you technically are, if you go by the data. Interestingly enough, money is not always one of them.

When identifying the difference between being middle class and working class, money might be a factor but it’s not the only or even the most important one, says Heather Curl, core faculty at Antioch University who studies social mobility. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, “The ‘Culture Shock’ of Social Mobility: Complications and Costs of the American Dream.”

When she interviewed those who had shifted from the working class to the middle class, she heard from many people that cultural norms felt most defining to their class experience. “Money was actually secondary for some to the visceral experience they felt they had,” she says.

Income and consumption aren’t always dependable indicators of class

When linking class to income, you are also linking it to consumption, says Sherry Linkon, an English professor at Georgetown University and author of “Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown.”

This might seem like a sound way to define class, however, what the dollar can afford through time has changed. Take the American auto-industry worker in the 1950s and 60s, Linkon says.

“If we measure class by income, then at least a couple decades ago autoworkers were pretty well paid,” she says. “So if we were measuring by income they would be in the middle quintile. If we were measuring by consumption, we might call them middle-class, because they might be able to buy a home or a boat or take their family to Disneyland.”

You can see a difference in consumption in more recent years. Technology, like computers, used to be out of reach for working-class individuals. Now, because the price of computers has dropped, they are not.

“When I was teaching mostly working-class students in the 1990s, most couldn’t afford to have a computer,” she says. “When I was teaching mostly working-class students in 2010, most had a notebook computer.”

The working class generally ‘doesn’t have a lot of decision power’ on the job

Working class can be better defined by the type of work being done, not how much you are paid to do it, says Fenaba R. Addo, an associate professor of public policy at University of North Carolina who studies wealth inequality.

“If you are holding a position that is non-managerial, non-executive level, doesn’t have a lot of decision power, you would have been classified in our study as working class,” Addo says. And if you are self-employed but still beholden to a bigger corporation, such an Uber driver, you would still be working class.

This definition, she says, holds true throughout time and across races. “In the public space, ‘working class’ tends to be a dog whistle to ‘white working class,’” Addo says, “but if you rely on our definition, the majority of Latinx and black workers fall under the working class definition.”

Of the white labor force, 53.32% are working class, according to a 2021 study Addo co-authored called “Disparate Recoveries: Wealth, Race, and the Working Class after the Great Recession.” Of the Black and Latinx labor forces, 63.59% and 77.73% are working class, respectively.

You can belong to two classes depending on your assets, she adds. For example, if you have a working-class job but a lot of home equity, you might be both working- and middle-class. This can further confuse people on how to self-identify.

‘Real work’ is often valued

Along with the type of work, the perception of work can be a defining factor of the working class experience, Linkon says.

“You don’t have any expectation that you are going to become management, nor do you want to,” she says. “Working is not the thing working-class people settle for, it’s the thing they value. The marketing execs and the HR management, those are people who don’t do real work.”

While work is valued, it’s not where a purpose is found, Linkon adds: “For lots of working-class people, other than the desire to have a more economically stable life, they don’t want to become something else. They do their job and they want to go home and spend time with their family and be part of their community. And that’s where their meaning comes from.”

This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, accounting, legal, or tax advice. Consult your accountant, tax, or legal advisor regarding such matters.

No level of diversification or asset allocation can ensure profits or guarantee against losses.

The views expressed are generalized and may not be appropriate for all investors. The information contained in this article should not be construed as, and may not be used in connection with, an offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy or hold, an interest in any security or investment product. There is no guarantee that past performance will recur or result in a positive outcome. Carefully consider your financial situation, including investment objective, time horizon, risk tolerance, and fees prior to making any investment decisions. No level of diversification or asset allocation can ensure profits or guarantee against losses.

This material has been presented for informational and educational purposes only. The views expressed in the articles above are generalized and may not be appropriate for all investors. The information contained in this article should not be construed as, and may not be used in connection with, an offer to sell, or a solicitation of an offer to buy or hold, an interest in any security or investment product. There is no guarantee that past performance will recur or result in a positive outcome. Carefully consider your financial situation, including investment objective, time horizon, risk tolerance, and fees prior to making any investment decisions. No level of diversification or asset allocation can ensure profits or guarantee against losses. Article contributors are not affiliated with Acorns Advisers, LLC. and do not provide investment advice to Acorns’ clients. Acorns is not engaged in rendering tax, legal or accounting advice. Please consult a qualified professional for this type of service.

Aditi Shrikant

Aditi Shrikant was a lead reporter for Grow.

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