Back in the 1990s, our metropolitan newspaper was doing one of those local-boy-does-well pieces, focusing on a 30-something-year-old guy who started his own IT company from scratch, and had recently sold it for something like $10 million.
The article was a loose interview with the young man, mostly centering on how he was able to accomplish what he did, particularly since he had come from an otherwise ordinary background. He provided several insights, but one stood out above the rest – at least in my eyes – and went something like this:
“We don’t realize what we can accomplish once we break free from the constraints of being middle class. Once I broke out of that, there was nothing stopping me.”
That’s kind of shocking, isn’t it? He started accomplishing great things after “break(ing) free from the constraints of being middle-class.”
But everyone wants to be middle-class, don’t they? I’ve been pondering this topic ever since I read that article some 15 years ago. Maybe many or most of us aspire to be middle-class – but is it also possible that it’s also the very thing that is holding us back???
Let’s dare to consider the possibility.
Is being middle class a bad thing?
On the surface, there’s actually nothing wrong with being middle-class. After all, it’s the socioeconomic level that most people are at, at least in theory. But I think that there are at least two problems with this assumption.
1. What exactly is middle class? For the most part, it seems very difficult to come up with objective parameters. For example, the most common definition is income. We might say that a family earning $100,000 per year is solidly middle-class. But if they spend $105,000 per year, have no savings and a boatload of debt are they truly middle-class?
We might also decide that a person who owns a detached single-family house in a comfortable suburban community is middle-class by default. But what if that family owes more on the house than it’s worth? Can we say that they’re still middle-class?
These are just two potential middle-class profiles – out of many possibilities – and alone they take in millions of households.
It seems that middle-class status is primarily subjective. Mostly, you’re middle class if you THINK you’re middle-class. And thinking that you’re middle-class comes mostly from behaving like the middle-class, and having the common trappings of people associated with middle-class.
2. Is being middle class something to aspire to? I’ve often thought that aspiring to the middle class is mostly a default setting. You don’t choose to be middle class – you expect it as a minimum socio-economic standing. And it’s an expectation that is handed down to us by our parents, the school system, and by the community that we grow up in. But is that right for everyone?
In reality, it takes a lot of time, effort and financial resources to maintain the stereo typical middle-class, suburban lifestyle. The resources that you devote to the chase can take away from other directions in your life that might not only be more productive, but might also better suit your personality and preferences. I think this is what the newly minted IT millionaire was referring to.
There’s a big heaping helping of conformity that’s part and parcel of being a member of the middle class. Since society loves conformity, it’s easy to see where that restriction plays a central role in developing our attitudes.
But what if you’re a non-conformist at heart? If that’s the case, then pursuing the middle class lifestyle could be a classic example of climbing a ladder that’s leaning against the wrong wall.
Let’s dig a little deeper…
What are the “constraints” of middle class?
The middle class is largely driven by conformity, and conformity is mostly a by-product of groupthink. This is the exact opposite of breaking free, finding yourself, and building a better mousetrap – which we can loosely think of as the mark that you leave on the world.
The millionaire computer entrepreneur didn’t elaborate on what the constraints of being middle-class might be. However, I’m going to take a stab at it here, and suggest that the following are a big part of it – or at least of the conformity and groupthink that make the middle class what it is.
- Owning a house in the suburbs. More any other factor, this is typically the most common trait associated with the middle class. It is largely considered to be a necessity.
- Living in a top school district. Even people who don’t have kids want to live in a good school district. It’s all about ZIP Code (status) and property values – and it makes the desire to own a house even more expensive.
- Keeping up with the Joneses. Being middle class involves competition with others around you, even if it‘s unspoken. You tend to do and buy what others do because that’s how you maintain your standing in the group.
- You kids MUST go to college. When I was a kid – and the world was a lot less gentrified – going to college was a choice. Today, if you’re middle class, it’s a requirement. It’s widely believed to be how middle-class kids grow up to be middle-class adults, and you‘ll spend what ever it takes to make it happen..
- Obsessing on social standing. Social standing is an integral part of conformity. That requires having a healthy number of the “right friends”, and as few of the other kind as possible.
- Following “The Rules”. Middle-class suburbia is nothing if not awash in rules – both real and implied. Rules for how to keep your yard, where to park your car, what kind of pets you can own, and even what kind of business you can run out of your house. Non-conformists often move to large cities or to remote rural areas to escape The Rules that enforce the straitjacket of conformity that dominates all of suburbia.
- Obsessing on retirement. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of being part of the financial middle, but an obsession with retirement is common. I believe that retirement has become the middle class exit strategy – akin to somewhere over the rainbow. It will be a time when people will finally be able to thumb their nose at the system, and move on to live wherever and however they want – a desire that if acted upon too early in life is yet another violation of The Rules.
- Not offending anyone. Conformity brings about a pronounced go-along-to-get-along attitude. Even when you truly believe in something, or you don’t agree with something else, you’ll bite your tongue for fear you might offend somebody. It’s all about keeping the peace – no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
- An obsession with keeping what you have. There’s a certain emotional – and even physical – practice of building walls and fences in the middle class. Walls and fences are thought to be protection from the mortal fear of losing something that might bounce you out of the middle class.
At some level, all of the above seem to make sense. They can even be seen as guideposts as to how you get by in life. Yet at the same time, the focus always seems to be on maintaining a certain standing – as if not having that standing would be something akin to death.
Many people even exhaust all resources in an attempt to maintain the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle. Rather than folding up the tent and moving on to new horizons, they dig in and defend their “stake in life“.
What’s wrong with that?
Middle class isn’t as affordable as it once was
The economic landscape in America, and across the Western world, is changing rapidly. Where once the middle-class lifestyle was easily affordable to the average household, it’s now becoming prohibitively expensive. The cost of owning a suburban house, one or two late-model cars, providing college educations for your children, all the trappings of middle-class life – and the disaster that health insurance has become – have put the middle-class lifestyle out of reach of the average person.
20 years ago a household earning $100,000 per year would have properly been considered upper-middle-class. Today, in many locations, you might even struggle on the kind of income.
We have to begin asking if the cost of the middle-class lifestyle is worth the price being paid for it. Many middle-class and formerly middle-class people are caught in a conundrum, trying simultaneously to retool into new careers or businesses, while trying to maintain the familiar middle-class lifestyle.
But sometimes in order to go forward – to rebuild your life and occupation – you first need to take a few steps back. It may be true that sustainable, forward financial progress, both for the individual and for the nation, won’t happen until people are prepared to let go of a few things.
One of them may be the middle-class lifestyle. And once that constraint is dropped, a lot of new doors can open up.
There isn’t enough stability to support being middle class anymore
The middle-class lifestyle that prevailed in America after World War II was entirely based on two assumptions: stability and predictable economic growth. Neither of those conditions exists in anywhere near the proportion that they did in previous decades.
For example, back in the 1950s and 1960s when someone took a mortgage on a house, they could be fairly confident that they would not only remain in the same industry, but most likely with the same employer, for the full term of the 30 year loan. In fact, the person could even have expected – reasonably – that they would be in the same job right up until the time they retired.
Now that that kind of stability no longer exists, how reliable is being middle-class anymore? Many people today are living in a hollowed out shell of middle-class, one that looks convincing on the outside, but provides none of the protections it once did.
Breaking free of the constraints of being middle class
I think that our millionaire IT entrepreneur realized early in the game that he was going to devote all of his time, attention and resources to building his company. That meant moving outside of the middle-class with all of its entrapments. Only when he did was he able to find the time and freedom to focus on what he needed to do in order to accomplish his desired mission.
That won’t happen for us if our “mission” in life is primarily to achieve the middle-class lifestyle. It’s entirely possible that most of us start thinking – very early in life – about acquiring the trappings of middle-class life, usually on the high-end. That has us chasing after stuff that is mostly to impress others, rather than finding our true selves, and making a unique contribution to the world that only a freethinker with few attachments could ever accomplish.
The point is you can’t move forward or bring about meaningful change in your life if you’re carrying too much baggage. That may be the biggest constraint of being middle class.
Does this even matter if you have no such aspirations beyond living a quiet, comfortable middle-class life in suburbia? It’s quite possible that it will.
Many people are going to be forced by circumstances – a long-term layoff, an industry collapse, or the next recession – into reinventing their occupations, and by extension, their whole lives. If you’re busy trying to uphold the façade of the middle class lifestyle – with all its attendant costs and constraints – you will find the journey much more difficult and maybe even impossible.
Please read my post on mobile creatives. It’s an idea hatched by Charles Hugh Smith, and the concept deals with the process of moving from traditional employee to becoming a mobile, creative, flexible, adaptive entrepreneur who is pursuing multiple income sources. That may be the only way forward in a world where so little is certain.
In order to get there, you will not only need to adopt an entirely new way of thinking, but also of how you live your life. So much of what has been common in the middle class lifestyle have now become costly anchors that serve few practical purposes, other than keeping us compliant with The Rules of the middle class.
- Do I really NEED to own a house in the suburbs? Would my life be so awful if I rented an apartment in the city so I could start a bricks-and-mortar type business?
- Do I really need a new car every five years if I work at home? Do I even need a car at all?
- Do I really need to have all of what my neighbors have? Will I become a social leper if I don’t?
- Do I have so little confidence in my kids’ chances of surviving that I insist that they go to college? Is it really so bad if they have other aspirations?
- Does my social standing really do anything for me? Does anyone even know who I really am?
- Do I really want to salt money away for retirement? Or do I want to invest instead in building my own business, doing something that I enjoy so much that I won‘t even need to retire?
When you’re middle class you don’t even want to ask these questions. Acting on them will put your middle class status at risk, and might even render you a non-conformist.
But it may also be that only by stepping outside the constraints of being middle class will you find your true self and your better purpose. And with virtually everything being so much less certain these days, that might also be your best course for financial and emotional survival.
Can you see how a deep devotion to being middle class might actually be constraining your efforts to find an even more productive and fulfilling lifes?