Top Signs You’ve Finally Achieved Middle Class Status
Are you middle class? If you’re like most Americans, you’d probably say yes. Fifty-eight percent of people Gallup surveyed in late 2016 identified themselves as middle or upper-middle class. Thirty-eight percent said they were either working class or lower class, while just 3% admitted to being upper class.
Those survey results don’t tell the whole story though. As Gallup put it, “Americans’ self-identified social class does not necessarily reflect their actual socioeconomic status.” In the Gallup survey, 36% of people earning less than $30,000 a year — well below the median income in the United States — identified themselves as middle class. Another survey conducted by CNBC found 88% of millionaires said they were either middle or upper-middle class; only 4% said they were upper class.
In other words, someone could make a lot of money — or very little money — and see themselves as middle class. And they might be right. Any sociologist could tell you class is about more than just the size of your paycheck or the numbers in your bank account.
Though Americans (and our politicians) love to talk about the middle class, there’s no simple, straightforward definition of what it means to be in this group. Your earnings definitely play a role, but they’re not the only factor. The following 10 criteria have all been used to define the middle class. Check them out, and see whether you really qualify as an average American.
1. You earn between $24,042 and $161,277 a year
Income isn’t the only marker of class, but it’s a good place to start. Pew Research defines anyone with a household income from two-thirds to double the national median as middle-income. These individuals earn anywhere from $24,042 to $161,277 a year depending on their family size, and they made up 50% of all Americans in 2015, or 120.8 million people.
Next: How safe is your “middle class” job?
2. You have a good job
When Pew Research asked people in 2015 what it meant to be middle class, one answer was more popular than any other. Nearly 90% of respondents said you couldn’t be middle class if you didn’t have a secure job.
The good news is the number of Americans seriously concerned about their job security is at a record low. Just 8% think they’re likely to be laid off in the coming year, an April 2017 Gallup poll found, the lowest share since the organization started asking people this question in 1975. In 2010, 21% of people said they thought their job was in jeopardy.
Next: But are middle-class Americans right to feel confident in their job security?
3. But your job is at risk
Feeling secure in your job is great, but some middle-class Americans should be worrying about the future. Employment in 173 different occupations is expected to decline in the next few years, and the majority of them pay a middle wage (between $13.84 and $21.13 an hour), according to CareerBuilder. Travel agents, bookkeeping clerks, and printing press operators are among the declining middle-class careers. Those who aren’t prepared for the change might find themselves slipping down the socioeconomic ladder.
“If we can’t find a way to re-skill and up-skill workers at scale, middle-wage workers will become increasingly susceptible to unemployment or will have to move into lower-paying roles that may not support them and their families,” said Matt Ferguson, CEO of CareerBuilder.
Next: Earn a respectable wage, but have no savings? Then, you might not be middle class, according to some.
4. You can save some money
After having a secure job, being able to save money was seen as one of the top qualifications for joining the middle class, the Pew survey found. Eighty-six percent of people said if you couldn’t save, you weren’t middle class, no matter how much money you earned.
By this measure, many Americans aren’t middle class. Nearly half of Americans either don’t have a savings account or have one with a $0 balance, according to GoBankingRates. Six out of 10 adults don’t have enough money set aside to cover even a basic financial emergency, Bankrate found.
Next: Does the roof over your head belong to a landlord?
5. You own a home
Once, owning a home was seen as a clear sign you’d advanced to the middle class. Today, fewer people see homeownership as a sign you’ve made it. Fifty-seven percent of people Pew talked to said you could rent and still be middle class. These respondents might be adjusting their definition of middle class to account for a reality where homeownership is increasingly unattainable for many people.
Nonetheless, 41% of people surveyed still saw home ownership as a sign someone had made it to the middle class. Millennials and people of color are especially likely to still associate owning a home with the American Dream, research by Zillow found.
Next: Own a home and a bunch of other assets? Then, you might not be middle class, some experts say.
6. Your biggest asset is your house
If the biggest asset you own is your house, chances are you’re middle class. Nearly two-thirds of middle-income households’ total wealth is in their home, an analysis by New York University Economist Edward Wolff found. In contrast, the top 20% have less than 30% of their total wealth in their home. The assets of the wealthiest families are far more diverse than those of middle-income households, and they’re more likely to have a significant share of their money in stocks, other real estate, or a business.
Next: 69% of jobs for those with bachelor’s degrees pay a middle-class wage.
7. You have a college education
If you’re hoping to make it to the middle class these days, you’d better have a college degree, say experts at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Just 36% of jobs for workers with only a high school diploma pay at least $35,000 a year, the bottom threshold for a middle-class income, according to researchers. In contrast, 69% of jobs for those with bachelor’s degrees pay a middle-class wage.
“Securing nothing more than a high school diploma will take workers on an increasingly difficult road to middle class status,” the report’s authors wrote.
Yet many Americans still believe you can achieve the American dream with just a high school education. Sixty-nine percent of people Pew surveyed said having completed college wasn’t required to be in the middle class. Those who earned more than $75,000 a year were far less likely to consider a degree a necessity than those who earned less than $30,000. Whites were also much less likely than blacks and Hispanics to see education as key to the middle class.
Next: You wanna get away, but can you afford it?
8. You can take a vacation
Forty-five percent of people Pew polled said having the time or money to take a vacation was a key part of a middle-class lifestyle. By that yardstick, millions of overworked Americans aren’t in the middle class. Thirty-four percent of us didn’t take a single off in 2016, according to travel industry website Skift. Another 18.5% took five days or fewer of PTO.
The two-week family road trip or long Caribbean cruise is increasingly out of reach for cash-strapped Americans, Marketplace reported. And it’s not just people at the lower end of the income spectrum who can’t afford a getaway. Among those earning $50,000 to $100,000 a year, just 51% had taken a weeklong vacation in the past year, a Marketplace survey found.
Next: Kids even play a factor.
9. You have just 1 or 2 kids
American women have 2.4 children on average, according to Pew Research, a number that’s been fairly stable since the late 1970s. But some women are having lots of kids, and they might not be who you expect. Although women with less education generally have bigger families, average family size has also been growing among women who have master’s degrees or Ph.D.s (in other words, women who are more likely to be in the upper class rather than the middle class). Highly educated women are now more likely to have three or more kids than to have just one.
It’s not clear why well-educated women are having more babies, but it could be that big families are now a status symbol. For some wealthy New Yorkers, have a bunch of kids is proof you’re not hurting for money, Business Insider reported. The less well-off middle class, for whom the cost of child care and education is a bigger concern, might only be able to afford one or two kids.
Next: The middle class saves for retirement, but not enough.
10. You’re saving for retirement — but not enough
Middle-class families earning between $50,000 and $69,999 a year save a little less than 10% of what they earn for retirement, including contributions to Social Security, according to NPR. That’s far more than the 2.6% those who make between $15,000 and $20,000 a year save, and it might inspire middle-class families to pat themselves on the back for being so fiscally responsible.
But they’d be wise not to get too cocky. Although middle-class families unsurprisingly do a better job of saving for retirement than the poor, they’re not doing enough. Only 52% of families in the middle income quintile have a retirement account, according to the Economic Policy Institute, compared to 88% of those in the top 20%. Average retirement savings are just $20,000 among those earning between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, a Wells Fargo survey found, much less than $500,000 people think they’ll need when they stop working.