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This is a key distinction between working class and middle class, and it's not money, say experts

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Key Points
  • 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 are holding a position that is non-managerial, non-executive level ... you would have been classified in our study as working class," one expert says.

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 going 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, 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 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 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."

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