Over the course of the past few months, I've been called something I never expected to be called. A name that just hadn't occurred to me to worry about having attached to my freewheeling bohemian self. A phrase that I just could not imagine would apply to me.
I've been called upper middle class.
And now that the shock has worn off, I'm considering the appropriateness of this term. My instinct, of course, is to snort derisively. I can't be UMC--no fancy car, no fancy house, no fancy clothes. I know what the UMC look like--I live among them!--but that's not me! My baby will NOT be riding in a Bugaboo, thank you very much!
A bit back, I saw this (dated, but still somewhat relevant) New York Times class calculator online. So I filled in my statistics...and it gave me an average of the 71st percentile. The top 5th. Not just upper middle class, but actually ABOVE it. Huh.
Time for a reality check.
The interesting thing, I realized as I came to grips with this term actually applying to me, is not being upper middle class. It's that it is so bizarre to me to identify as such. I went to school for a million years and got a professional degree. I am partnered with someone who holds a Ph.D. I've worked for nearly the last decade towards a very comfortable income. How did I not think of these things as the upper middle class markers they are?
There are, I think, two major reasons. The first is an error of perception. I thought of upper middle class not as a measure of career/income/education, but as a measure of consumption. McMansions, low-end designer (but designer! and purchased new!) clothes every year, cars with bells and whistles, etc. What I failed to take into account is that those are consumption choices, and (particularly in the credit-fueled here and now) they don't necessarily reflect purchasing power as much as purchasing willingness. I also conveniently forgot to take into account the UMC purchasing decisions I do make--organic groceries, frequent travel, etc. The shift towards those things has happened so slowly that they've become normal, not something I think about as a marker of anything. That's pretty embarrassing. I've been paying attention to class long enough to know that assuming that my life is "normal" and anything "above" or "below" it is deviant is a big part of the problem.
The other reason I never thought of myself as UMC is a bit more complicated. I grew up working class, and though I've been aware for some time of having moved out of that class and into another one, it hadn't occurred to me that I'd shift not just by one "level" but perhaps by more than one. Like, apparently, a large number of Americans, it feels weird to me to define myself as anything other than middle class, particularly when even calling myself "comfortably middle class" seems like a departure from my roots. It's not like it happened while I wasn't paying attention--increased income and professional responsibility have been goals of mine for many years now--but I didn't necessarily realize, or didn't allow myself to notice, that the combination of achieving my education, career, and income goals was going to land me in the UMC.
These issues are all the more interesting and salient to me as I consider impending motherhood. Unless our situation changes drastically, my child will grow up in a much different class than the one I did. I have mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I am happy that (again, God willing, as long as things stay on the trajectory they are on right now) I'll be able to provide her with things like lessons and trips and maybe help pay for college. As aghast as I am about how much we're going to be paying for day care next year, I am thrilled that we'll be able to do it, and that our economic situation won't force us to be creative about our childcare. I fully realize that it has to be easier to raise a kid with money than without. As fantastic as my upbringing was, I don't have a whole lot of poverty romanticism--being poor is tough.
On the other hand, though, I worry about my kid being a snob. I worry about her turning up her nose at where I came from, or not realizing just how lucky she is, how lucky we are, to have been afforded the opportunities we have been and to have had things go our way. I worry about all the things I see happening to myself, and don't like, being things she starts out with.
It probably seems as if I am overstating my case, and I likely am--it's not like we're rolling in dough. But I think it's important to have a realistic assessment of where you stand in terms of your country and your community, if only to better empathize. As uncomfortable as it is for me, I think it is important that, if I am actually upper middle class, I realize and own that privilege, while simultaneously realizing that it may not be permanent. So that's what I am, quite imperfectly, trying to do.
Talk to me about class--is it something you think about? It's a ridiculously difficult subject to discuss, as we all bring so much baggage to the table, but I think it's worth trying.