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The Inner Life of the Middle Class
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Pantheon Books, 1989, 292 pages

In this engaging and oft-cited look at American class divisions, Barbara Ehrenreich offers an assessment of the "retreat from liberalism" by the professional middle class from the 1950s to the 1980s. She describes how this class came to see itself first as a class among others, and then as an elite above others. This class consciousness not only estranged members of the professional middle class from "ordinary" Americans, in her view, it also brought with it hedonism, self-indulgence, and a pervasive and deep-seated anxiety.

By professional middle class, she means those people whose economic and social status is predicated on education rather than the ownership of capital or property — academics, engineers, journalists, managers, scientists, and other practitioners of what was called in the 19th century "brain work." Today, she writes, "this class plays an overweening role in defining 'America': its moods, political direction, and moral tone."

Ehrenreich observes that the professional middle class is a product of the early-20th-century battle between labor and capital which gave rise to the profession of management. By introducing new methods of "scientific" management and manipulation, the early managers not only restructured the workplace but also robbed the skilled craftsmen on the shop floor of the more creative mental aspects of industrial work.

The rise of a new professional ethic had an unpleasant side-effect for the managerial class, according to Ehrenreich. Because expertise — the currency of the professional — cannot be passed on or inherited by the next generation, like wealth or property, the professional middle class lives with a constant "fear of falling" from its privileged place in society. This status anxiety has expressed itself in numerous ways during the last few decades. From the perennial middle-class fears of growing soft emerged a concern about the deleterious effects of "affluence" during the 1950s, when it was commonly assumed that the middle class, flush with postwar prosperity, included nearly everybody, save for a few "pockets of poverty" here and there. Once the poor were "discovered" in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for sociologists to characterize the poor as childishly hedonistic, untrustworthy with money, unable to "defer gratification," etc. — the very qualities the middle class worried they might contract from affluence.

Ehrenreich believes the rise of professionalism was, and remains, perhaps the greatest of all generators of middle-class insecurity. The creation of "the professions" was designed as much to keep people out as to let them in, with each generation forced to fight for admission to the club. Unlike the truly wealthy who could guarantee that their children would also be wealthy, a lawyer could not guarantee that his or her child would be a lawyer, or even wind up a member of the professional class. Through professionalization, Ehrenreich points out, the middle class sought to gain purchase in an increasingly uncertain world. But they soon learned that the barriers erected to exclude intruders from other classes also stood in the way of the youth of the middle class. The barriers ensured that only the hardworking and the self-denying would make it — and not even all of them.

The discovery of the poor was one of a series of critical "discoveries" that Ehrenreich sees as changing the consciousness of the professional middle class. The discovery of the working class — particularly in its "silent majority" incarnation — in the wake of the Vietnam protests was a pivotal development, she suggests. The working class was widely said to be imbued with traditional values, impatient with progressive ideas and countercultural impulses, and confident of America's role in the world. In this way, Ehrenreich says, the working class was, in effect, co-opted by the New Right. Using populist rhetoric, neoconservatives succeeded in convincing the working class that they shared a strong commitment to traditional American values. This tactic not only scapegoated middle-class liberals as a conspiratorial, anti-American new class, it also turned "liberalism" into a dirty word by the 1980s.

As a result, the middle class was fraught with doubts and insecurities by the late 1980s, exemplified by what Ehrenreich calls "the yuppie strategy" — the superficial and self-destructive emulation of the rich that has exacted a high price in terms of both money and self-respect to a class that once defined itself by its professional autonomy and moral integrity.

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.