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.

6 Responses to “How to become high-class”

  1. chris Says:

    hm. Joyce, not that I’m defending their little flash app, but don’t they also include education, income, and wealth in *addition* to occupation as 4 factors that could be used to measure class ?

    as far as the sample set of the occupations go, I don’t know if there’s a better alternative than taking from the sources they list (2000 and 2003 US Census) without having the research extend beyond the scope of a newspaper article.

    I think that class is obviously much more than just wealth.

  2. Michael Hannemann Says:

    Hi, Bill!

    The Flash thing is the first tab (“Components of Class”) at http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/national/20050515_CLASS_GRAPHIC/index_03.html . It was linked to from the long multi-day series they were doing; I went looking for it after reading Troutgirl’s post.

  3. Troutgirl Says:

    Hey Chris, of all the components of class — education, income, occupation, consumption, wealth, etc. — I think wealth is the most important. Think about the relationship between Sergey Brin and his lawyer. The lawyer doubtless has good education, makes plenty of salary, and has a much more prestigious occupation in the mind of the general public. Yet which of the two has a greater chance of having a very upper-class grandchild? Clearly Sergey. That’s an extreme example, but I think it illustrates my point clearly.

  4. Mark Jen Says:

    At least the graphs are cool to play with. I also feel generally disappointed that this is all a “newspaper of record” could come up with :S

  5. stevo Says:

    They should also have classes within the class. A millionaire household of 1-4 million is very different then 100 million to several billion.


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