Earning

Why those who become middle class can feel 'a sense of not belonging' that has nothing to do with money

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Twenty/20
Key Points
  • For those who shift from working class to middle class, income often doesn't buy social comfort.
  • "Some working class people talked about having to restrain themselves, like become smaller. They've been told they were too loud or rough around the edges and they need to speak less direct," one expert says.

The idea of social mobility is solidly baked into the American Dream. However, the act of moving into a higher income bracket can present another set of anxieties — ones that money cannot solve.

For those who manage to make the shift from working class to middle class, income often doesn't buy social comfort, 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 moved from the working class to the middle class, she heard from many people that cultural norms were harder adopt, even when their income matched that of their new peers. "Once they had money, it was helpful because they could get this other stuff, but there was still a sense of not belonging," she says.

'It was hard not feeling ashamed' of money choices

Kendra Adachi can related to the experience of feeling at odds with her increased income. She grew up in the working class, she says: "I didn't know that we were poor, but we lived in a trailer for the first few years and my mom worked multiple jobs."

Adachi, now 40 and based in North Carolina, is the founder of the Lazy Genius Collective, a site that breaks down intimidating topics for everyday readers. She hosts a podcast and wrote a book by the same name.

Even though she is middle-class, she still hasn't quit the habits that sustained her when money was tighter. And she hasn't shaken the guilt.

"It was hard not feeling ashamed for things like hiring a house cleaner — things I am choosing to spend my money on, things I could do myself," she says. "Just because you have the ability to do something doesn't mean you have to do it."

'There was a lot of pride' in being working class

Part of the reason Adachi and others who move into a higher income brackets feel anxious about their spending habits is because they deeply value the lessons they learned while being working class, Curl says.

"There was a lot of pride in the perspective they had," she says. "They would say, 'I can see me coming from my low-income background being a better doctor to other working class people than those who came from the middle class and are rude.'"

It was hard not feeling ashamed for things like hiring a house cleaner.
Kendra Adachi
Founder of Lazy Genius Colletive

There were other cultural factors that made those who had middle class income feel like outsiders, she adds.

"Some working class people talked about having to restrain themselves, like become smaller," she says. "They've been told they were too loud or rough around the edges and they need to speak less directly. Particularly a few folks of color talked about needing to be less direct."

Topics of conversation can often feel exclusionary. "Those who hadn't traveled internationally felt anxious about that," she says. "They felt like they didn't have the knowledge they needed. Even talking about food and drink."

'Community matters' to those who change classes

One of the biggest changes those who moved from working class to middle class experienced was a loss of community, says Sherry Linkon, an English professor at Georgetown University and author of "Steeltown USA: Work and Memory in Youngstown."

"One thing that goes with the being part of working class culture is often that idea of belonging," she says. "The importance of relationships with people over individual success. The good of the community matters more than my individual needs."

Some working class people talked about having to restrain themselves, like become smaller.
Heather Curl
core faculty at Antioch University

Adachi noticed that in relation to others' generosity. "Ironically, the more money that the general person gets, often, the more we want to hold on to it and make more because we experience the benefits of what it means to have more disposable income," she says.

When you and the people around you have less money, it can feel more natural to ask your friend, for example, to use their Costco or warehouse club membership if you don't pay for one yourself, or to borrow their car. If you and the people you're near have money, though, you may be less likely exchange favors.

"There is a inherent comradery in needing to ask for help," she says. "The more money you have, the less help you have to ask for because you can just pay for it. When you don't have as much, you need to reach out to a friend."

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