The middle class is shrinking. It sounds dire, doesn’t it? It sounds like the sky is falling down, like the foundation of the nation is crumbling and on its way to total collapse, swallowing up all the debt-riddled students and blue collar workers along with it.
We’re talking full-on catastrophic natural disaster movie scene here: the ground will crack open—there’s probably a river of hot magma down there—and every coverall wearing, book-toting, making-ends-meet citizen of the country is inexplicably thrust into the chasm.
But let us take a moment to consider: what does it mean for a ‘middle’ to shrink?
Since there is no chasm that could swallow up an entire social class, either the upper class is growing or the lower class is growing. One wouldn’t be so bad. The other would be personally and economically disastrous.
We’re in for good news it turns out.
While the middle class is indeed shrinking, it’s doing so because more and more people are making too much money to be considered regular ol’ middle class. They are joining the ranks of the upper middle class. In 1979 the upper middle class made up 12.9% of the US population. In 2014, when the most recent studies were conducted, the upper class made up 29.4% of the population.
Indeed, the middle class is shrinking at an alarming rate, and people from nearly all class levels are taking home more income than ever before.
How did this happen without anyone noticing?
My theory: the lifestyle of the middle class is so dramatically different from what it used to be that we hardly know what it looks like anymore.
Middle class used to mean homeownership; it used to mean a nuclear family and a 9-5 job. Today, that whole idea has been flipped on its head with middle class families and couples choosing mobility and adventure over stationary living.
Now that the US recession is fading, North Americans are emerging from hiding and starting to move once again. They are choosing to cut ties with the traditional idea of home and live on the road in RVs and campers. Mobile living isn’t just for retired couples anymore. Middle class millennials have jobs that don’t require them to go into an office every day, all they need is a hotspot or wifi to earn a paycheck. So why not travel?
Full-time RVers cite the simplicity of RV life as one of the top reasons to hit the road. In a society where materialism and debt reign supreme, and the grind is not all it’s cracked up to be, it only makes sense that the young, upcoming middle class would be inclined towards mobility and simplicity.
Of course, with growth in all the classes, more than just the middle is experiencing change. In 2014—the same year we found out that the upper middle class grew by 30%—luxury home builders saw a massive increase in business from their highest-tier clients. It used to be the billionaires who were famous for flitting around the globe from one adventure to another, now they’re the ones investing in homeownership.
You just never know.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this shift in lifestyle within the classes is a social revolution on par with the 1960s era hippies. But it’s not entirely different either. With incomes increasing steadily over the last 30 years, people are finding themselves with more freedom to do what they want to do. Those who yearn for freedom and adventure don’t need to be tied down to a job that keeps them in one place. They can just bring work and home on the road. They get to be who they want to be.
That sounds better than being a character in a natural disaster movie any day.
Author: Brooke Faulkner