One of my greatest personal battles as of late has been over the idea of social class. Where I fit in to the hierarchy, where I’ve been before as a child in my parent’s household, where I’d like to be, and where others my age are. My class consciousness was first raised in college as I imagine it is in with many people. I distinctly remember having a profound sense of good fortune around this time – I was constantly reminding myself of how lucky I was to have been born into my particular family, given all the security and support, financial and otherwise, that entailed. Spending some time in India also expanded my idea of class, both through my observations of the caste system and my deepened understanding of the depths of poverty and inequality outside of the United States.
Though I thought I was highly cognizant of how class functioned in my own life, it wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized I still have much to consider on the subject. Becoming independent of my parents and leading a low- to lower-middle class existence with my husband, working as a social worker in poverty-stricken Baltimore, and taking graduate level sociology courses have all given me cause to reconsider what I thought I knew about social class and how it pertains to me. Though my thoughts on this matter are still far from conclusive, I’ve been coming to terms with some difficult realities that are hard to ignore.
One of the notions that my coursework on the construction of inequality, in particular class inequality, comes back to again and again is that our American idea of class is very much based in consumerism. A much larger proportion of Americans classify themselves as middle- or working-class than truly belong within this designation. Though the absolute definition of and current hierarchical construction of class are hard to pinpoint, there is this pervasive idea that the middle class carries the weight of this country, represents the utmost of our national ideals, and protects our most prized values and myths.
Consumerism is so deeply tied to notions of middle class life that the two are inextricably linked. I’ve witnessed in my own life, work-wise and personally, people buying their way into a middle-class existence. We think that if we have the right things, we can nudge our way into the class in which we’d like to exist. I see myself doing it every weekend. I think of thousands of infinitesimal improvements which can be made to my home, all of which cost money. And I kid myself into thinking that each purchase will be the last one, that final adjustment necessary to make my home complete and myself happy. I have this elusive ideal of what a home should look like that is wound up in notions of middle class security and consumer power. I consider myself a fairly socially conscious person, one who is especially wary of the role of money in our culture. But still I subscribe to this idea that I need to buy things in order to make my home, and by extension myself, look and feel a certain way. My motivations for transforming my home into something better and more cozy are driven by the desire to have a secure middle class life, to mirror the kind of settings I find on television and in films that happy middle class families call home.
I’m overwhelmed by the number of things I think I need to buy in order to be happy and disappointed in my obsession with ownership. Why do I need to own an entire set of garden tools when I use them just a couple of times a year and my neighbor has a perfectly functional collection of shovels and rakes that she uses just as often? Why should we all shell out the cash for appliances that we only use on an occasional basis when we know others who own them already? Why do frivolous items bring us so much joy at checkout but then find their way into the trash so quickly? We confuse our wants with our needs. The high value we place on personal property and ownership is grossly distorted and we rarely pause to think about what we buy.
I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from all of this musing. That I am securely below the class into which I was born is an undeniable fact. It doesn’t bother me to be poor, but it takes a bit of readjusting, some getting used to when I realize what I would need to sacrifice in order to spend money the way my parents did bringing me up. That I am sadly buying into the drive to buy things is also hard to ignore, and I work as hard as I can to curb this desire. But why does it feel so good to buy things? Why is shopping an impulse that can be so overpowering? Does it have to do with the satisfaction of earning money, of exchanging the income wrought by hard work for things that make life more beautiful, easy or joyful? Or is it more because we’re bored, because we have hours of free time and dollars of disposable income that we are unable to keep up with? I hate to admit it but I think the later is probably the most common and the most accurate explanation for it all.
So what are we to do? Waste our hours composing blog posts on the issue, posts that will never be read far and wide? Indulging our every whim in other areas, like food or entertainment? Shoring up our reserves of self-restraint and exercising our will power to resist the desire to buy? I’d like to think that the answer is something more essential than all that, although maybe not so simple. When we’re bombarded with images of goods and the houses in which they belong, with images of purchases and the people to whom they belong, we can’t help but be impacted by the messages sent alongside those advertisements for the goods themselves. Our conception of the middle class and our high value placed on that ideal is not uniformly bad, but I would argue that its association with certain ways of thinking is. When we blindly buy into the culture we are fed, the culture which rests upon Walmart, credit cards, shopping complexes, and malls, we also buy into the conception that middle class happiness is for sale. The values that middleclassness should be about seem to have fallen by the wayside.
What all this thought on class consciousness seems to boil down to, for me, is the connection between class and values. Middleclass life was originally packaged and sold to Americans as an emblem for a set of values, which have quickly been surpassed by a set of spending habits. That is not to say that the values of low or upper class people are wrong, but rather, that the class which we all so long to belong to, that has been relentlessly marketed to the American people, is founded upon something that appears to have been lost. And the danger inherent in the misplacement of those values is the true cause for concern – not that we are being thoughtless and wasteful in our consumption habits, not that we are driving ourselves into deeper and deeper debt, not that we cure our boredom with credit cards and armloads of shopping bags. It is the disease of our changing values which causes these symptoms, not the symptoms themselves, that is essential to cure first.