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What Is a Middle-Class Job?

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Friday, Nov 4, 2011
Is a middle-class job one whose work marks the employee with a certain class status, or is it one whose income affords the employee a certain lifestyle?

I started reading this essay, “What If Middle-Class Jobs Disappear?” by economist Arnold Kling, in which he argues his case for structural unemployment and the jobless recovery as a reflection of the economy’s need to “recalculate” how best to use its resources. He writes, “The economy is in a state of transition, in which the middle-class jobs that emerged after World War II have begun to decline.”


But what constitutes a “middle-class job”? How you frame the answer to that will dictate whether or not you would bother to care whether they disappear. (I suspect Peter Frase probably wouldn’t mind.) The question becomes more pertinent when you consider how much political rhetoric and policy revolves around helping the “struggling middle class” and when, as Kling suggests, the sorts of skills associated with the established middle classes are being increasingly automated. Some pundits argue that if certain “middle-class” skills are automated, new ones will become valuable, or at least valued in the market. Someone recently—I can’t find the link; damn you, new Google Reader!—was imagining we will in the future hire plumbers on the basis of how well they know philosophy. Matt Yglesias often makes this point too that increased productivity should lead to people developing ever more recondite and self-actualizing marketable skills: fewer cashiers, more cognitarians; that sort of thing.

  
But is a middle-class job one whose work marks the employee with a certain class status, or is it one whose income affords the employee a certain lifestyle?


Is a middle-class job one which guarantees one an income that places one in the middle class statistically? Do we expect everyone to belong to the middle class (at which point it would no longer be in the “middle” of anything—“class” would disappear for real into something like the 99 percent vs. 1 percent construct)? Or do we expect middle-class jobs to serve as a marker of class distinction that preserves the status hierarchy, and the sense that some workers, some people, are more significant to society than others. That is, should middle-class job betoken the professional class, or the creative class, or some other euphemism?


Another way of framing this question is: What are jobs for? The obvious answer from the point of view of the worker is to get money, but there is obviously a lot more bound up with employment status and who is allowed to do what sort of work and what sort of credentials are required and how one qualifies to be credentialed. Sorting jobs into low and middle and high-class is not simply about pay, but about habitus. So are jobs a system that justifies the unequal distribution of shares of the social surplus? Are they a way to allow society to be sorted into winners and losers while still seeming fair and/or just? There is obviously often a discrepancy between skills and wages, between working hard and earning a lot. Middle-class job is often another way of saying, white collar, which was a semipolite way of saying “not working class,” for whom the arduousness of the labor has nothing to do with the expected rewards and work discipline (the threat of firing, of being yelled out, etc.) is the chief incentive. 


“Middle-class job,” it seems to me, implies certain prerogatives more than a certain wage. You will be spared the drudge work; your work will be socially respected such that you will be granted some autonomy in performing it. You will not be bullied because you have been vetted and proved a reliable self-starter. You will discipline yourself and will feel sufficiently guilty about stealing time, or your stealing time will actually constitute productive work, virtuosic in Virno’s sense. Are these jobs disappearing? That is, is capital increasingly having to eschew its neoliberal “you’re a creative free agent entrepreneur” shtick and bully and threaten workers to continue to make its profits?

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