Monday, December 14, 2009

Lemming Tracks: Lower Middle Class and Loving It

Actually, this household is probably below lower middle class - economically. Yep, looks like we're part of "the masses" - and no wonder. We even shop at Walmart. That's when we can't find what we need at rummage sales.

Researching another post ("Holiday Spirit Made to Order, at $95 an Hour" (December 14, 2009)), I ran into: No surprises in the article. It seems to be a fairly well-compiled and referenced accumulation of conventional wisdom and assumptions about the socioeconomics of American culture.

I hate letting good research go to waste, so I'm using that article as a jumping off point for a bit of semi-organized reminiscences. If you've got something more interesting to do, like sorting your socks, feel free to get that out of the way now.

Still here? Okay:

A few excerpts from that Wikipedia article about the American Middle Class:
  1. "...Constituting roughly one third of households is the lower middle class consisting mostly of semi-professionals, skilled craftsmen and lower level management...."
  2. "...It is ... possible for a large, dual-earner, lower middle class household to out-earn a small, one-earner, upper middle class household...."
  3. "...The lower middle class has lower educational attainment, considerably less workplace autonomy, and lower incomes than the upper middle class...."
  4. "...The lower middle class also commonly needs two income earners in order to sustain a comfortable standard of living...."
  5. "...Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey estimate an income range of roughly $35,000 to $75,000 for the lower middle class..."
    ("American middle class," Wikipedia)
I haven't tracked down all the source material, but my guess is that the studies used urban America as the norm. If my household lived in lower Manhattan, with my income, for example, I don't think we'd be rummaging in dumpsters: we'd be living in one.

The American Dream? Sounds Good: But Consider Your Options

I've earned, a few times, as much as what Thompson and Hickey define as the lower limit of "Lower Middle Class" income. I'm the only wage-earner in the household, so we're obviously well toward the bottom end of "the American dream." That, I can live with.

About four decades back, give or take, I ran into a definition of an American: Someone who buys things he doesn't need, with money he doesn't have, to impress people he doesn't like.

That's a bit unfair, but I spent my teens in the sixties: and had ample opportunities to contemplate the merits of the conventional 'success track.' There's all too much truth in that dreadful description of the money-crazed, status-happy guy, whose optional spending has stretched his credit to the breaking point. Sometimes it's a "her," of course.

Well, scraping together piles of money, for the sake of having big tail fins to impress some status-conscious twit didn't appeal to me. And none of the traditional careers made sense, as something I'd want to dedicate my life to, through high school and college.

Since then, I've been a radio disk jockey, computer operator, beet chopper, researcher/writer for a regional history publication, bookstore sales clerk, employment interviewer, flower delivery guy, general office clerk, telephone sales worker (yeah, one of those), advertising copywriter and direct-mail list manager. Maybe a dozen others - they merge together after a while. Some lasted only a few weeks, I held the last two (just) over 10 years each. Right now, I'm a self-employed writer and artist: the pay isn't great, but I set my own hours and can work at home.

I've had worse jobs.

The Lower Middle Class and Me

Back to those "American Middle Class" excerpts, this time with commentary:
  1. "...Constituting roughly one third of households is the lower middle class consisting mostly of semi-professionals, skilled craftsmen and lower level management...."
    • This fits me pretty well, actually: I've been a sort of semi-professional skilled craftsman with lower level management tasks
      • Working for a small publishing firm, you get to wear lots of hats
    • I've also
      • Chauffeured plants and floral arrangements in a jeep
      • Chopped beets
      • Taken books out of crates and put them on display racks
  2. "...It is ... possible for a large, dual-earner, lower middle class household to out-earn a small, one-earner, upper middle class household...."
    • True enough: and it's possible for the kids of a single-income household of six to qualify for discounted lunches at school
    • We still get quite a bit of our clothing at rummage sales
  3. "...The lower middle class has lower educational attainment, considerably less workplace autonomy, and lower incomes than the upper middle class...."
    • These are, really, generalizations.
      • "Lower educational attainment"? Yeah, sort of. The only formal education I've got, besides elementary and secondary school, is
        • An undergraduate degree in history
        • A double undergrad English/education degree
        • Half of a four-year undergrad degree program in computer science
        • Miscellaneous credits in things like
          • Art history
          • Cinema history
          • Photography
      • "Considerably less workplace autonomy"
        • That may be true, but
          • The jobs I've had involved fixed hours
            • The rest of the time I could pursue my own interests
          • I've known people who are "skilled craftsmen," who are self-employed
            • Being the boss, if you don't have workplace autonomy, you've really got problems
      • "lower incomes than the upper middle class"
        • Of course, by definition.
        • Moving along
  4. "...The lower middle class also commonly needs two income earners in order to sustain a comfortable standard of living...."
    • Depends on
      • Where you live
        • I'd guess that the rent's higher for a one-bedroom apartment overlooking New York City's Central Park, than one in downtown Sauk Centre.
      • What you think is "comfortable"
  5. "...Sociologists William Thompson and Joseph Hickey estimate an income range of roughly $35,000 to $75,000 for the lower middle class..."
    • They could be right.

    ("American middle class," Wikipedia)

Follow the American Dream? Thank You, But No

I've earned, a few times, as much as what Thompson and Hickey define as the lower limit of "Lower Middle Class" income. I'm the only wage-earner in the household, so we're obviously well toward the bottom end of "the American dream." As I said before: that, I can live with.

"The American Dream?" No Problem!

I'm glad that there are people like Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who are interested in a specific range of things, and concentrate on that particular facet of the universe. And I don't mind that people like Bill Gates make lots and lots of money. (I've benefited by living in a world where just about anybody can write applications for the operating system I use - and quite a few have.) I don't even mind merchants making a living by arranging for stuff to be moved from where it's made, to where it's used - and offering people at the receiving end a selection of products.

I don't know if it's still fashionable for people to think there's something 'dirty' about having money. Having encountered the occasional obnoxious snob, I can sort of understand that attitude.

Me? I think that some jerks are rich, and some jerks are poor. I think the same applies to people who are gems in the display case of humanity. And I don't think having, or not having, money is that big a factor.

I'll grant that a rich jerk has more opportunities for being obnoxious, though.

About "The American Dream" and upward mobility: I'm where I am today, largely because of choices I made. And, although I'm as prone to the 'what ifs' as anybody else, I'm satisfied with the position I'm in.

But I recognize that quite a few people would have been monumentally unhappy with the sort of eclectic career/job history I accumulated: and appalled at the lack of anything approaching even a measly six-figure income. I wouldn't accept the sort of constraints which that sort of 'success track' would put on my efforts to learn as much as I can, about as many things as I can: but not everyone has my priorities.

Good thing, too, or there'd be a critical shortage of CEOs, accountants, and janitors.

Actually, being a janitor is one of the jobs I haven't (quite) had: and one I've been interested in. No kidding: there's a lot more to keeping a building in working order, than pushing a mop around. (Word of advice to young professionals? Get friendly with the janitor.)

In Conclusion (AT LAST!): Being Satisfied and Getting Real

This is nothing new, but I think more than half the trick in having a satisfying career and/or life is learning to be satisfied with the career and life you have.

I don't mean 'not being ambitious.' Ambition is fine, as long as it's guided by a well-formed conscience. Lack of ambition is fine, with the same proviso.
Are You Really That Poor?
A few decades back, I ran into, or read of, college professors who were - to hear them tell the tale - near the low end of the American pay scale.

Well, there's something to it. Then, as now, Corporate Executive Officers of major corporations tended to make more than your run-of-the-mill college professor.

On the other hand, the idea that college professors get by on a meager pittance is one that deserves examination. Earlier this month, for example, professors had to make do with a mean income of: $46,791 to $108,042 a year in Atlanta; $71,780 to $130,093 in Philadelphia. (Source: "Median Salary by City / Job: Professor, Postsecondary / Higher Education" (PayScale, updated December 9, 2009, from 2,855 individuals reporting))

Well, those are big cities, and a hundred thousand dollars a year probably doesn't go very far.

To be fair, some people in the college professor line of work could probably have clawed their way to the top and been really high-paid CEOs in some major American industry. Like making cars.

Of course, there's something to be said for job security.

I am not going to start writing about tenure.

Again, I don't think there are (with some exceptions), 'right' or 'wrong' careers. I have no problem with someone deciding to be a college professor. Or an auto mechanic. Or the guy who sweeps the sidewalk. Or, for that matter a CEO.

As long as they do their job, get paid for what they do (I've been on the edge of management - those people earn the bigger paychecks), and contribute what they can to the society they're in.

Which, in the case of some of the better-off people on the east coast, includes paying someone else to decorate their homes.

Without well-to-do folks like that, people like Andrea Hickman wouldn't have the opportunity to share their talent, and provide employment to subcontractors. (December 14, 2009)

It's getting late, and I'd better end this post. Goodnight.
Update (December 16, 2009)

I went back this afternoon, fixed a few typos, a duplicate headline, and several places where I knew what I meant - but hadn't done a good job of expressing the idea.

So, if this doesn't look like the post you read yesterday: You're right. It isn't, quite.

1 comment:

Robin said...

We should build our own capacity to do a auto repair instead of depending on auto mechanic in your department. If once it is done we can automatically do the same repeatedly.

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