America's Four Middle Classes

Jul 29, 2008

There isn't one American middle class; there are four. Each is different from the others in its attitudes, outlook and financial circumstance--sometimes in ways that defy traditional stereotypes of the middle class, according to an analysis of a recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends Project.

One middle class is doing quite well, thank you. And members of this group--predominantly male, disproportionately well-educated and financially secure--expect to do even better in the future. It's the largest of the four groups, comprising slightly more than a third of the 53% of Americans who identify themselves as "middle class" in the Pew Research Center survey. Call them the Top of the Class.

Life is considerably tougher for the Struggling Middle, a group disproportionately composed of women and minorities. In fact, many members of the Struggling Middle have more in common with the lower class than they do with those in the other three groups and actually have a lower median family income than Americans who put themselves on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. About one-in-six self-identified middle class Americans fall into the Struggling Middle.

The Satisfied Middle has everything but money; their comparatively modest incomes have not muted their sunny outlooks or overall satisfaction with their lives. This group is disproportionately old and disproportionately young; middle aged adults are relatively scarce in the Satisfied Middle. They make up a quarter of the middle class.

By the conventional yardsticks of income, education, age, employment and family status, the fourth middle class group is the most middle class of all--and the most dissatisfied and downbeat of the four groups. While they enjoy some of the economic advantages of the Top of the Class, they express many of the same bleak judgments about their lives as those in the Struggling Middle. Call them the Anxious Middle; they make up slightly less than a quarter of all middle class Americans.

These four groups are all part of the 53% majority of Americans who identified themselves as "middle class" in a Pew Research telephone survey taken from Jan 24 through Feb. 19, 2008 among a nationally representative sample of 2,413 adults. The groups were revealed by a statistical technique known as cluster analysis that searched for patterns in the way these self-identified middle class Americans answered key survey questions.

Read the full report America's Four Middle Classes on the Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends Web site.

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