People often say being the middle child is hard. Well, according to most Americans it also is getting hard to be in the middle class.
While a whopping 88% of Americans view themselves as being in the middle class, 80% say it is harder being in the middle class today than it was just 25 years ago.
“The American middle class is not weakened or weakening—it is weak,” said Patrick Inglis, assistant professor of sociology at Grinnell College. “Even the idea of it is weak. The middle class no longer can rely on the kind of job security that was available to earlier generations.”
According to a study put out by credit solution site Elevate, the concerns of the middle class likely reflect financial challenges that emerged after the “Great Recession,” such as declining household income and reduced savings. In fact, 35% of Americans across all income levels reported having financial difficulties within the last six months.
“Wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living, for one thing,” Inglis said. “Health costs are rising, too, same with education. These are necessities, not luxuries.”
Inglis said the majority of the middle class is just struggling to make ends meet with their salaries, and when that’s not enough, they borrow more money, which only compounds the problem.
“As good, decent-paying jobs with benefits and pensions disappeared, banking and finance have taken on larger roles in the economy and in people’s lives, generally,” he said.
Ken Rees, CEO of Elevate, said the challenges presented by wage stagnation and income volatility mean that today’s new middle class is characterized by more sporadic and immediate financial needs than the middle class of years past.
“Today, it is not uncommon for those at both the higher and lower ends of the spectrum to run into financial stress that can have a real impact on their ability to meet financial responsibilities,” Rees said.
Inglis points out this instability and stress comes at a cost. Many now in the middle class work more hours than before — sometimes at multiple jobs — just to bring in less money. That can’t help but hurt families and communities, he said. There are also costs within the workplace, as individuals who suffer economically cannot push back or challenge ownership, helping lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and fewer protections across the board.
“I can’t imagine it’s a good way to run a business, with fearful employees putting on a happy face,” Inglis added.
Margaret King, director of the think tank The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis, however said the debate about the shrinking middle class can be deceptive — since the middle class is not an income or even an income number.
“Although over 90% of Americans identify as middle class, their income positions vary widely, from poverty level to wealthy,” she said.
In fact, respondents to the survey agreed the middle class can have a relatively wide-range of income levels, with about three-quarters agreeing someone with a net worth over $1 million is not middle class and that someone who makes $20,000 per year or less is not middle class.
King said what the middle class grouping actually does is shift the focus from what one makes to what one expects to make in the future — driven by education, social mobility, occupation and general opportunity.
“That's a fluid situation,” she said. “When the economy is tight, earnings can decline, but aspirations remain active. You are still not at the top but not near the bottom, either. That's what ‘middle’ means as a position.”