It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this because, as the listener comments and pictures about the symbols of being (or not being) in the middle class have proliferated, I have thought more about how much of a big deal this was in my childhood back in the ancient 60s. As a little kid, I was constantly comparing myself with my neighbor kid pals to see who was ahead of whom in the inevitable pecking order of the American post-war economy.
We had a nice house with a driveway and a backyard and lived in the suburbs outside of Binghamton, NY. That meant middle class. But my parents never ever talked about money, and I to this day have no clue as to what my father brought home from IBM back then. I suspected he was doing all right because at the IBM Christmas party where there were tables piled high with presents for each age in a lavish country club setting where IBM families (all white) celebrated IBM’s, and I presumed our family’s prosperity each holiday season.
But there were other mystifying details. With four boys, two years apart our house looked a lot like the rundown set on the Honeymooners TV show — not the nice living room on the Dick Van Dyke show. Our neighbors all had power lawnmowers. We had the push kind (four of them). Our neighbors had station wagons, we had a VW minivan which was cool but suspiciously not middle class in the way a wood trimmed Buick wagon with skylight roof windows or a Ford Country Squire wagon were. My neighbors all had brand new five speed Sting Ray bikes. Ours were obviously cheaper and less stylish. We had this huge garden in the backyard and ate mostly from it every summer and canned tons of stuff for the winter, which seemed more depression-era than 60s middle class. Certainly nobody else in the neighborhood had a backyard “farm.”
Color TVs? We were probably the last on our block to get one and I can still smell the bitter aroma of the primitive phenolic plastic in our ancient black and white “Admiral” TV with its UHF box that we used to get the other two channels over the broadcast airwaves. I know I’m losing you with all this paleontology. Other folks in our neighborhood had cable TV as well. My parents didn’t believe in cable TV or anything enhanced about TV. Black and White, single channel Geritol commercials were just the yukky medicine-tasting quality they thought was proper for the small screen. This seemed to be more of an indicator of some religious tendency on the part of my parents rather than an indicator of membership in the middle class (the no-TV zealotry possibly explains how I got to public radio years later).
Kids are in a bubble trying to figure out where they stand in the world, or food-chain, or economic ladder. I suppose it’s a revelation for a prince to figure out that not everyone has a king for a dad, but after that you are pretty clear where you stand. Similarly, living in one room with 10 siblings and relatives along with constant hunger pangs are probably unmistakable clues you may be close to the bottom.
The vast economic and cultural middle is more of a mystery. I make far more than my father ever did but the whole scale and ladder has moved more than 50 years after UHF converters seemed an exotic as Ipods do today. For instance, the VW microbus (minivan) that cast us as the overloaded Beverly Hillbillies back in the 1960s is a clear middle class symbol for our family today — so much so that my reluctant bourgeoisie wife remarked when we got our first minivan in 1999 “at least it’s black.” Today we have a nice blue bourgeoisie Toyota Sienna. We all live together in a four room loft in Brooklyn that would have made us squatters back in the 60’s compared with our three bedroom house with driveway, garage and full basement in Vestal, NY.
The idea of a house full of personal computers as we have now would have been fantastic beyond the Jetsons back in the 60s. So much has changed since the 1960s, but our families, then and now, are clearly members of whatever middle class is left in the U.S.A. The numbers change and so do the symbols. Economists try to discern the middle class in 2010’s recessionary fog and are having difficulty. Members of the middle class seem to “know who they are” in 2010 (a huge majority of Americans claim to be in the big MC) but have the symbols of the Middle Class underplayed the economic reality of struggle so many families are going through today? Maybe the feeling of struggle is the most reliable symbol.