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How our definition of middle class has–and hasn’t–changed in 100 years

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The next time you call yourself middle class, think about what you really mean when you say that. Do you earn what might constitute a middle-class salary–somewhere between $37,000 and $147,000? Or is it more that, in lifestyle and mind-set, you feel middle class?

Class has always been about more than money, and the middle class in particular has always stood for far more than just earnings potential. The Brookings Institution attempts to define the middle-class ethos through a combination of income and economic resources, occupation and educational qualifications, as well as attitudes–more broadly, culture and mind-set.

In 2019, the prevailing feeling among the self-anointed middle class may be a lack of financial security and job stability, but also a narrowing path to upward mobility. If self-identifying as middle class is in vogue, it’s because some of the cultural markers we have long associated with the middle class–the makings of the American dream–feel increasingly out of reach for many Americans, and newer ones like higher education feel essential.

As amorphous as the American middle class seems now, that wasn’t always the case. At the turn of the last century–with the advent of technological advancements like the telephone and the expansion of electricity–came the white-collar office job. (The term itself was a nod to the uniform of choice for many office workers: a white collared shirt.) With that new class of jobs, the divide between the factory workers of yesteryear and white collar or retail workers grew. During World War I and II, as men were drafted into the military, women were recruited into the workforce to take their places, which created a larger labor force in the decades to come.

After World War II, the U.S. economy was booming, and the growing number of white-collar workers–along with wage increases–helped build a sizable........

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