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.