The New Upper Middle Class

I’m reading Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart, which argues that the U.S. has become a two-culture system defined by increasing isolation of the upper middle class from the working class. I’m sure I’m going to dispute some of his policy suggestions, but I’m finding the sociology in the first half (on the new upper middle class) pretty compelling and in line with what I’ve written about in my forthcoming book The Parent App: Understanding Families and Media in a Digital Age. I have one reservation that I’ll note at the end, however.

In the first half of the book, Murray argues that as a result of the increased education among U.S. populations following WWII and the increased number of jobs in the concentrated sector of IT and related industries, we now have an elite population that has swelled. This elite population tends to segregate itself into particular places they prefer to live. The new upper middle class is concentrated in the “superzips,” or in key suburbs and urban areas around New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Think Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Georgetown, uptown Manhattan, Berkeley, Marin County, Beverly Hills, Malibu. These suburbs have been around for a while, but Murray says that the suburbs that surround them are increasingly wealthy as well, creating a “bubble” for those who live within them that can prevent them from interacting with people whose life and work experiences differ vastly from their own. Murray argues that this concentration has happened because “it is difficult to hold a nationally influential job in politics, public policy, finance, business, academia, information technology, or the media and not live in the areas surrounding New York, Washington, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.” (p. 94)

I have certainly seen evidence of this “bubble.” There are smaller manifestations of it everywhere: the private schools that serve the wealthy and a few of the lucky gifted; the country club swim pool; the high end health club. Even Whole Foods gives a bit of a feel for the bubble.

But I don’t live in a super zip. I live in a small town outside of the city of Denver. The few super zips near Denver are on the other side of the city bracketing the country club mansions of Cherry Hills. My experiences with the upper middle class aren’t nearly so exclusive as those Murray describes.

Like others in my small town who work in information, politics, finance, or education, however, I have work relationships that connect me to those in the super zips. And, I recognize some aspects of the new upper middle class culture even among friends in my small town: the emphasis on personal health, the commitment to widened opportunities and good education for children, a penchant for gourmet foods and wine, a love of HBO and offbeat comedy, a disdain for conservative religion and a commitment to rights for same sex couples and for addressing climate change.

I was thinking of these characteristics of the new upper middle class when I was chatting with mom friends over the weekend. There was the lengthy discussion about trips to Europe. The talk about the woman who gets up super early to “get a run in” before 12-hour workdays. And there’s the woman my friend calls the ubermom. She’s busy organizing the last fundraiser so that the girl scout troop she leads will be fully funded on their trip to Switzerland this summer. Conversations with these related-to-upper-middle-class friends are not always about getting our kids into the elite colleges of the northeast, although that possibility does shadow choices we’re making about high schools right now. We also talk with passion about working with social movements, about decaying schools, about housing and care for the elderly and about the inequities we see in the larger metro area.

But what’s interesting about not living in the super zip is that there are other moms whose household incomes are similar to those of my IT-related friends, but who completely disdain this group and define themselves in opposition to it. These are my friends who staunchly support the public schools and wouldn’t dream of “choicing” into a more selective school. Rather than a wine tasting, we like late nights at the unpretentious corner bar and the bowling alley. We discuss gourmet offerings that are offered at Costco but are happy to take our kids to Dairy Queen. We like it when local events are well-attended and when kids feel like they’re a part of a community.

These mom groups have a significant amount of overlap. We all work together on school-related projects and attend the same kid concerts and sports events. Most of my friends love to hike and spend time outdoors, and most ski with their families. We all talk about our kids practically nonstop. But the women in the first group are somewhat critical of the choices of the other group, and vice versa. You don’t talk about climate change with the moms whose family members work in the gas and oil industry, for example, just like you don’t talk about the ongoing volunteer needs of the local school with group whose kids travel the metro area for the educations best suited for that particular kids’ needs. The fault lines don’t show up between household incomes, or between full time and part time working moms, or between the jobs that our husbands hold. This is an interesting split that seems to have more to do with proximity to the culture of the New Upper Middle Class than with anything else.

So what’s my reservation about Murray’s thesis regarding the new upper middle class? Charles Murray unabashedly relates intelligence with the Upper Middle Class, and I am really uncomfortable with that. Following Robert Reich’s discussion of “symbolic analysts” and Richard Florida’s naming of the “creative class,” Murray says that we are in an economy that rewards sophisticated cognitive ability. He explains upward mobility in relation to cognitive giftedness: if you’re cognitively gifted, you’re more likely to get into a prestigious school and thus bring your progeny closer to the upper middle class.

Maybe. But this certainly does leave a lot unexamined. First of all, there are a limited number of cream-of-the-crop jobs in these “symbolic” fields, and they don’t always go to the smartest. In my experience working in a private university, those jobs tend to go to those who are most well-connected. It takes a LOT of luck to break into these fields if you’re not so connected.

Second, not everybody wants, or has access to, these jobs. For every “symbolic analyst,” there are probably three cashier jobs, four truck driver jobs, and five janitorial positions. And then there are the people who make professional choices based on their idealism as well as on what’s available when they happen to be looking. That sometimes means choosing a job that a person thinks makes a difference in the world, or choosing a job that enables him or her to support and spend a great deal of time with their loved ones. It means that sometimes really smart people end up in fields other than those Murray calls the elite. Sometimes, like my friends in the second group, these people harbor some resentment toward those who share their income level and their intelligence but not their commitments.

Third, there is an implicit assumption in Murray’s work that some are simply smarter than others, and thus they earn more as a result of their smarts. There is no mention of the well-documented fact that tests that measure such things are culturally biased. Nor is there mention of the fact that people can dramatically improve their test scores through such things as test preparation, elite school education, and plain old determination. But actually, that’s why we tend to consider education the “great equalizer:” because people can learn and develop their abilities.

It sounds as if in Murray’s view, the American dream is limited to those who happen to test well and who find themselves gravitating successfully toward government, education, IT, or policy. They can be born poor, in his view, but they’d better be smart if they want to succeed. But this is a limitation that seems inconsistent with my vision of the American dream. My vision suggests the need for less concentration of rewards among those who go into these select fields that culture has determined are “elite.” My vision questions how we determine what it means to be “cognitively gifted,” recognizing contributions across professions – and particularly in those that are historically underpaid. My vision includes a belief in the possibilities for each individual, in which every person is valued and every person is considered gifted in some way and every person’s intelligence is given a chance to flourish.

I think that most parents would like to believe this. They’re more likely to want to believe it if they have a child who is not “gifted” in that cognitive-symbolic-analyst way. If they have a child gifted in other ways, and in ways that the parents believe will allow that young person to make a significant contribution to society, maybe they’re more likely to rethink the assumptions that suggest that smart people should dominate economically, politically, and in every other way.

I hope that’s something that moms from both parts of my experience can get behind.

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