Finding Our Place In The Class Stratification

I’m not really sure what I want to be when I grow up. For that matter, I’m not really sure where I want to fit in socioeconomically. I also understand that, by simply having all choices available, I’m already predisposed to certain social alignments. I’m not a sociologist. In fact, I’ve never formally studied sociology. However, I’ve traveled enough to observe the perils and benefits of extreme class differentiation and, by no effort of my own, I’ve been exposed to the most astounding poverty and wealth imaginable.

classesIt is a strange proposition to step back and determine the way we want to define our family socially. Most likely, we simply take our cues from our parents and strive to meet their expectations. Our peer groups, school choices, career paths, and financial decisions are all heavily influenced by our home environment and exposures to unique experiences. It is funny, but most of my peers and family members would strive to be part of the “Middle Class.” But really, its more like the highest echelons of middle class or maybe even the suburban upper class. But certainly, at minimum, everyone is striving to be in the Global 1% Club. Where do you fit in? Did you choose your societal class? It is based on your family, your income, or your choices? Are you comfortable where you are?

I suppose, for the next few months, you will see plenty of exploratory posts similar to this one. A vague contemplation of the impending future and the trajectory defining decisions our family will face in the coming year.

Do we choose our class?
My fascination with social class can be directly attributed to my travel throughout India and the time I spent living in the Philippines. Being an ‘outsider’, it actually made it easier to observe the sociological differences and archaic systems that are still in existence today. In fact, my three best international friends were split equality amongst the three tiers of casts. I learned so much about myself by having unique conversations with each.slums-poverty-india

Worldwide, having a choice of class is modern and unique. I certainly understand the unspoken rules, cues, and habits of the wealthy class. I have braces-straightened teeth, plenty of income earning potential, and the ability to speak in a formal register. I’ve lived as an extreme 1%er in a foreign country and I’ve been through periods with very little cash flow. However, in reality, I find myself strangely an outlier (and inlier) in almost every possible class. I find myself attracted to aspects of many different ones. I love the relationship based focus at the bottom end of the scale. I like the DIY ethos of the lower middle class. I’ve spent plenty of time in the upper middle suburbs, and I certainly have experienced the travel habits and educational opportunities of a wealthy class. Is it possible to be in several different social classes?

In her book, A Framework For Understanding Poverty, Ruby Payne points out a lot of hidden rules that delineate our societies into class stratification. While certainly these are generalizations, the chart below is quite fascinating:

hidden rules for social classCan’t we all just be Middle Class?
In economic theory, we should all desire to be in the great and widely defined middle class of society. In fact, if you ask most people where they want to end up they would simply say “Middle”. But that may actually be a bit disingenuous. If we are honest (For SE readers), our basic views of middle class are probably skewed higher than average and we are way off the charts on a global scale. We primarily compare ourselves to our peer group instead of looking beyond the local blinders to the world at large. Even lower middle class in America is insanely luxurious.

I believe the neighborhood where we choose to live can often have a huge impact on the way we perceive ourselves and our surroundings. For better or worse, we are often a combination of the social expectations of our immediate peers. Does this factor into where you choose to locate? Do you value mixed socioeconomic neighbors or do you prefer homogenous grouping of poor/middle/wealth? In fact, we have been debating this very concept in our contemplation of what type of home we want to buy.

I think my internal fear arises from the idea that my currently held ideals will be shaped and molded from the peer pressures of the people that I surround myself with. One of the greatest joys of writing this blog is knowing that I have a snapshot of my mental thoughts during specific moments in time. Will I change? Evolve? I’m not sure, but I’ll certainly have a written record of how my thoughts have progressed. And I’ll be sure to mentally note the peer influences that positively and negatively affect the evolution.

To Join The Country Club?
If you are a U.S. doctor with a huge income, must you actively seek middle class? Or do you automatically get swept into the pros and cons of an upper class lifestyle. How much of our social class is determined by our income? If mastersyou lose your job and your income troubles you for years on end, does it preclude you from being middle class? What happens when you have the asset base to choose where you want to be? Does that already place you somewhere?

I could certainly put a long term plan into place for moving into the upper stratifications of the American class system. But I’m not fully sure I want to. Graduating into the elite upper class means no longer relying on people, but instead, relying on money for transactional situations that arise. Think of moving, babysitting, lawn care, taxes, growing food, home renovation or fixing anything as examples of activities that can be displaced with money instead of relationships (& Self-Sufficiency). Almost the exact opposite of the Renaissance Man of Financial Freedom. Our tendency is to replace relationships with money as our incomes ride. Extreme specialization certainly has its pros and cons.

Acceptance and Dating
I think there is something strangely seductive about inclusion into exclusive events/organizations/clubs/socialites. We are all striving for acceptance and it can be a difficult balance when choosing our peer influences. There is certainly pressure on the outside of any group looking in. The subtle desire to have a slightly nicer house, or car, or job, blog, or income that impresses your closest friends. Contentment is elusive. Across all different socioeconomic classes. No matter where we decide to land, we must remain aware there will always pressure to conform.

Dating across class. It can be very strange to be in a relationship with someone who brings in vastly different expectations. Little things like going to college, what college, paying for services that could be done in house, expectations of travel, literacy, school systems, wedding expenses, or the role of braces and engagement rings are all discussions waiting to happen. It can be eye opening and involve interesting conversations long after the initial chemistry of the relationship fades. Sure, it can work, but I’d be curious to see the adaptations people make for it to be successful.

Our Choice
So maybe my goal will be to maintain the value and benefits of all different types of each social class. I want to be able to enjoy people of all walks of life. I want to learn and take the benefits of all societal stratification. Maybe I’ll take the MMM approach of creating a great income and complete financial stability then choose the types of interactions that are most encouraging at the time. I’ll try to make decisions based on efficiency instead of peer pressure and I’ll try to carefully construct the type of positive influence I have in my life.

I want to continue to prioritize time over money. I want to continue to prioritize my family over a “successful career”. I want to be available to my friends and family and I want to rely on them as well. I want to be in a position to influence others by living an efficient and healthy lifestyle. I want to maintain the core aspects of my being but also feel accepted by the people I spend the most time with. Finding that balance is the key to feeling comfortable in any class we choose.

So, where will our family end up? I’m not really sure. I would say the middle but that would certainly be too cliche. I suppose a better example would be floating around with on foot in each of the various stratifications. I fundamentally enjoy the ability to choose, but I’ll probably start with shades of upper middle with lots of outlier activities mixed in. I value maintaining my self sufficiency and I would be bilious if spending to “fit in” felt like complete waste. We’ll define success in our on way and enjoy the relationships that make life worth living. Overall, I’m excited about all the possibilities.

One thought on “Finding Our Place In The Class Stratification

  1. Very thought provoking and perspective. I had not given much thought to class structure before or the underlying assumptions and rules that govern most peoples behavior at different levels. I have looked through the summary of the hidden rules a couple times here and found it very helpful in understanding my conflict points with the different classes as my personal values and drivers hit on elements from all of them. I value self-sufficiency as a means to conserve and invest my money to enable a future that allows significantly more time with people 🙂