PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Culture

What Is a Middle-Class Job?

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?

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.