The remaining economic component for all of our class designations isn’t income but stuff you can buy. One common synonym for rich and poor is the haves and have-nots. But consumer goods once deemed luxuries, like cellular telephones and televisions, are now common possessions. This means that even as employers held tight to the gains our productivity generated by keeping real wages at 1970s levels, we sent women into the workforce, labored longer hours, and used new debt products to indenture our way to some happiness. Thus, our stand-in to signify class status – purchasing power – papers over the fact that by income, benefits, and lifestyle standards many of us had long left behind a middle-class existence, even as we clung to the moniker.
Peering behind the once iconic picket fence surrounding a house, we see what “middle class” used to mean. The mortgage was close to paid off; the car loan settled. This feat was accomplished on a single income that came with health care plus pension and enough for domestic vacations and college.