Having lived abroad for more than a year now, first in Italy and now in France, I’ve had an opportunity to observe and assess the universal nature of social class. It varies little from America to Western Europe, and I would have my doubts that it is very much different in Asia or South America.
I think social class, and people’s awareness of it or lack thereof, is far more important than most of us realize. I sit here in Paris, watching Parisians and visitors go about their business. From my perch at a sidewalk cafe, I can simply look at people and make (in my opinion) a fairly accurate call as to which social class they belong to: the clothing, the grooming, the posture. All these whisper loudly.
These are visible, perhaps superficial indicators. What’s more important is how social class informs more important issues in a person’s life: their hopes, fears, preferences, desires, and needs are common things that people of a particular social class tend to share.
The lower class hopes to survive, sometimes not seeing beyond today, next week, or next month. Many are one miscalculation from the street. From their government, they seek and probably need a floor: food, shelter, basic healthcare that is there for them. They fear tough times, which for them may result in starvation, homelessness, or an routine illness that, untreated, could turn deadly. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse among this class can be catastrophic. This class looks and acts much the same in any city in the world. I’ve seen them everywhere, sadly, and it breaks my heart.
The middle class, who putter through the streets of Paris in tour groups, clad in unforgiving, and sometimes unforgivable, plaid and comfortable shoes, seek a predictable and routine life that revolves around stable work and a comforting family life. They are due safe working conditions and a fair wage and opportunities to invest their savings that will not be disastrous due to Wall Street speculation or fraud. They want to own a home, and have their children get a good education and do better (or at least as well) as they have done. They want a safe and comfortable retirement, and to leave their children an inheritance that will afford future generations opportunities and security when they are gone.
The upper middle class is populated with second generation college-educated, white-collar professionals or business owners. They may have visited Europe in high school or college. Now with a more money and some inflated status, they stroll the Marais, pause on the Pont Marie, gaze down the Seine and over the horizon, and try to be nonchalant. Just stop it. Paris can take your breath away without even trying, I want to tell them. Gawk, stare, wander, giggle at the sheer grandeur of it all. It’s okay.
Anyway, back to my analysis…the upper middle class have been exposed in family experience, education, and travel, to sophisticated and subtle concepts. They understand history, business, art and literature, and have a nuanced view of the world. If properly cultivated, they are free from the bling of the nouveau riche, moderated in their greed, and arrogant only in private. Their concerns focus on the expansion of their business interests, the elevation of their perceived social standing, the quality and scope of their life experiences, and the future of their families.
A few will inevitably seek public office out of ambition as much as duty. When their judgment as elected officials is clouded by the former at the expense of the latter, the upper class (whom will talk about in a moment) should, in the best of all possible worlds, check them on this behavior in no uncertain terms. Rarely does this happen.
It is often fear (for the middle class) that they will lose what they have worked for and accumulated, that drives much of their political decisions (“I don’t want to lose my savings or have too much change in my world.”). It is often ambition (for the upper middle class) that drives much of their political decisions (“I want a lower tax rate so I can make and keep more of my money.”) Both of these emotions are open to manipulation by those running for or holding office. The remedy is to walk a middle road, avoiding unwarranted fear and blinding ambition, which is the path to contentment and true prosperity.
The upper class are the 3rd (or more) generation of their family to be college-educated, professionally or self-employed, well-read and well-travelled, and affluent. Of all classes, they generally have the broadest perspective on life, the most options in how they choose to live their lives, and the most influence should they wish to influence the other classes in society.
They can be guardians of liberty or advocates for fascism. They have the resources to promote and persuade, directly or through intermediaries, their personal and/or political philosophy. They can elevate the overall quality of life by mentoring, sponsoring, donating to, or speaking in favor of education and schools, healthcare and hospitals, museums and parks. Or they can be myopic and spiral into a ceaseless and often pointless whirlpool of endless acquisition & total control of companies and resources, all to net-worth and profit’s never-ending end.
I see them, too, the Old Money Americans strolling the streets of this beautiful city. They are clad in navy polo shirts, wrinkled khakis and Maphisto walking shoes. They measure their pace through the cobblestone streets, chatting quietly with their children or friends who live here.
I don’t know which side they’re on, or if they are a contradictory mix of both, as humans so often are.
Probably for the best. I might throw some of them in the river.
I’ll write more on The Two Sides of Wealth in a future post.
13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Social Class”
I thought this line about the upper middle class was interesting, “They understand history, business, art and literature, and have a nuanced view of the world.” i don’t know that I agree with it, completely. A lot of the professions and well paying jobs today are in applied fields. I don’t think there is a lot of scope to have a full liberal education while pursuing an engineering degree or a commerce degree or while studying the sciences necessary to enter medical school.
On a second note, I wondered if you have been able to reflect on the differences in France and Italy between the Haute bourgeoisie and the pre republican aristocracy and how the American upper class differs from the European one by not having an aristocracy? I find that difference fascinating.
Thank you, Ikerrin. Prior to attending college, many in the upper classes travel, attend private prep schools, and have family exposure to the subjects I mentioned. A lot of college curriculum is a little too focused. You make a good point that it’s difficult to get a well-rounded education in college while digesting required classes for a specific major.
Regarding the French and the Italians, I’d say the French upper classes are a little bolder in making their position apparent. The Italians are subtler. The lack of titles or heraldry in America is completely understandable, given our history. I do think, however, that it can work if the American upper class honors the obligations that are, like it or not, thrust upon scions of Old Money families. I’m going to address this issue in an upcoming post.
Thanks again. I really enjoy and appreciate the comments. – BGT
Thanks for the reply. I’ll look forward to that future post.
Interesting observations, as always, Byron. I look forward to reading more.
“Just stop it” Ha! Not the time for playing it cool, huh? The proper response to beauty is unbridled joy.
One of my complaints with school is the narrow scope, though I understand why that’s necessary. Definitely puts you at a disadvantage without extracurricular cultural exposure.
I lived in Europe for 6 months and had the sense that class lines are pretty strictly drawn and there is a deference to class rank that is a product of a monarchical background.
Thank you, Mary. Yes, the class distinctions here are a little more pronounced, even as the consumption is much more subtle.
Interesting experience: I was recently crossing from one European country into another. The border control agent reviewed my passport, then looked me over. “Are you from a noble family?” he asked. I was very surprised, a little flattered, and didn’t know how to respond. So I just raised an eyebrow and shrugged.
He nodded knowingly, as if we now shared a secret, and then stamped my passport. “Enjoy your visit, sir.” – BGT
One lesson I still fight to incorporate into my life is to lose the sarcastic and often nihilistic outlook on people and places. This outlook really hurt my personal and professional development in University and my early 20’s. It is only in the past few years with the experience of adulthood that I have been able to learn to take joy in my surroundings and to make a genuine effort to make sure my interactions with people are positive and leave both parties happier and better for it.
Thank you, Jacob. I think we all look back on our 20’s and cringe a little. The positive aspects of business and life are the most rewarding. All we have to do is watch for them and appreciate them. Thanks again. – BGT
Well, Byron…. I see only three classes. Creditors, debtors and….. I think first two fear central banks will raise interest rates. The rest of us can continue reading books.
I haven’t read the book yet but plan to. Just curious after reading this what you categorize people who are more than the third generation of college educated but not super rich? I have heard the term gentile poverty and didn’t know what it meant exactly.
Hi Lilly, thank you for the comments. Yes, there is ‘genteel poverty’. Most of the time it happens when the money runs thin but the values are still thick as mud. It may be difficult to notice the ‘change in circumstances’ because the outward lifestyle of the Old Money people affected won’t really change–khakis, blue blazers, button-downs, penny-loafers, old cars, etc. will still be the order of the day. Travel, restaurants, etc will be trimmed. Education for the children will be the last thing to be impacted.
Enjoy the book! Look forward to hearing from you soon. – BGT
As a background, both my parents’ families fit this description. One side grandparents were Euro aristocrats who moved to US. Other just a good old southern family (pretty much all lines tracing back to Jamestown/founding fathers etc if that makes any sense. Everyone very educated for many generations but not always especially rich
Thank you, Byron! I now think it is hilarious that I spelled a totally different word than I meant to in asking my question…while at the same time claiming to be very educated. Glad you knew what I was intending and thanks for your response. Loved the book! I read it very quickly and also heard one of your interviews. My family also published newspapers in counties in East Texas. No wonder your writing is all very familiar!
You’re very welcome, Lilly. And thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Newspaper families…we have ink in our veins. – BGT