How to become high-class
May 29, 2005
The New York Times has just completed a week-long series on social class in America. A lot of it is pretty obvious — getting a factory job instead of going to college is not the road to security in the future — and generally the whole things shrieks “Give us a Pulitzer cause we are so socially relevant!”, but there are some cool factoids. Like apparently the measure of social class is now in services more than goods, including the services of a full-time stay at home mom — so hiring a babysitter to pick up your kids from school indicates a lower class position than having the mom pick them up herself, which indicates a lower class position than having the mom and a full-time nanny pick them up. Heh.
The most interesting thing about this series for me at least is a little Flash app they cooked up where you can input four variables — occupation, education, income, and wealth — and figure out your own class position! I chose “computer programmer” as my occupation, which apparently puts me in the 65th percentile of classy jobs as measured by an entirely unscientific process — in the lower half the of second quintile of all jobs, below grammar school teachers and “commercial drivers” whatever those are. But if I were to call myself a “computer software engineer” instead, I’d instantly shoot up to the 77th percentile of occuptional prestige. And if I said I was a DBA, apparently I’d be third best out of all occupations, beaten only by those pesky doctors and lawyers! Hand me that MySQL manual, quick!
It’s pretty awesome when the newspaper of record reveals itself to have such a shaky grasp on the concept of class that they seriously use polls of occupational prestige — basically going up to a bunch of average people and asking them to rank a bunch of job titles — to measure it. The entire week-long series barely mentioned actual wealth: its creation, its visible signs, its transmission, its loss. Instead the NYT dwelt on epiphenomena such as the fact that cruises used to be for the wealthy (at some time before living memory) but are now for the middle class. I was sort of looking forward to the series because it is such an underdiscussed topic in the media, but I’ve learned yet again that the media is hardly the place to learn about complex social topics. If this is the best they can do, I’ll take the blogs of the numerous academics who write on this topic any day.