Middle Class Nation: The Endurance of Subjective Class Identity in the United States

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Current class schemes express theoretically important differences in economic position, but frequently have little explanatory power, in part because they are not institutionalized in the labor market. This creates a disconnect between the way that researchers view social class, and how individuals think of themselves. This study explores the meaning of class from the perspective of workers. Using public opinion surveys that cover the last 85 years, I explain patterns in subjective class identity.

Surveys consistently report that the majority of Americans identify as middle class, with little change over time, despite substantial changes in the last century to the structure of the labor market and the composition of workers. This leads to interesting speculation among researchers, including claims that: (1) there is no American class gradient; (2) class identification is meaningless; (3) individuals use limited or inconsistent criteria to assess class; and (4) there are no true remaining class tensions.

This project explores how the basis for American class identity has become more individualized over time. Specifically, I determine the most significant predictors of class identity and their changes from the 1930’s through the present day. Identity develops over the life course, often in response to significant personal events, such as moving away from parents, acquisition of first job, marriage, and unemployment, or macro-economic factors, such as rising inequality, the Great Recession and the “Welfare Queen” debates of the 1980’s.