Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Class Test

I took an odd quiz--I believe run by PBS--the other day.  It was supposed to be an indicator where you fit into the social strata.  Class identity and all that.

The political season is abuzz, and the newest charges of class warfare are bouncing around between parties and candidates.  The whole issue of class in America is interesting to me for a few reasons--like why it exists as all.

Mind you, I'm not saying that it doesn't.  I'm not saying that there isn't inequality built into the system.  I'm saying that the way we talk about class is sort of screwy, historically speaking.  Theoretically, we're all middle class. America has never had an aristocracy--at least not a proper aristocracy.   Our country was founded by people who had to work for a living.  That fact alone disqualifies them.  Even then, however, the differences quickly became the focus.  The metrics by which we judge others are somehow ingrained in us, despite our better natures.  

Far more interesting a study for our time is how new classes have developed.  According to the quiz, I'm a "first-generation upper-middle class" member of society.  Suck on that, plebes!  Now, if only I had an actual job to support the lifestyle to which the quiz feels I should be accustomed.  If only. 

The markers of class distinction have clearly changed.  Education is really the new hallmark of the "upper" tiers of society.  And here you thought it was land ownership.  I thought we got over wanting to be landed gentry at least a hundred years ago?  If you look at the unemployment numbers for those with high-school diplomas compared to those with bachelor's degrees, the point starts to hit home.  Roughly 80% of Americans have a high-school education--which considering it's mandatory, should be considerably higher.  Only 30% of American's have a bachelor's degree, however--and that number breaks down in very compelling ways along racial lines.  

I suppose I shouldn't complain, since I get to sit at the top of the middle class because I'm educated.  What I think is the real problem in discussing class in America, is that we're too often a country of exceptions.  Young people like me bearing all the markers of upper-middle status are too often stuck without the opportunities that label traditionally affords.  How many Master's-level baristas do you know?  I can name several.  My point is not to bemoan the sorry state of the privileged, generally white, upper-middle class youth.  My point is to note that arguing about class in America is nonsense.  What we need to argue about are specifics and outcomes, because we've effectively destroyed "the norm." 

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