- Making Sense of the Postwar Middle Class
For several decades, politicians and much of the American public have obsessed about the fate of the “middle class,” a concept so protean and elastic it has become almost meaningless. Being middle class can refer to income, net worth, or one’s material standard of living. It can mean education or having a particular kind of job or career. For most Americans, however, it also stands for something more nebulous: beliefs and values that transcend socioeconomic categories and make “middle class” a more widely embraced identity in the United States than in other advanced industrialized nations. The vast majority of Americans—roughly 90 percent in most surveys—think of themselves as middle class, making appeals to the middle class the modern equivalent of nineteenth-century appeals to “the people.”
Social scientists have long been interested in this phenomenon and have produced some notable works exploring its political and cultural implications. So, too, have historians. But our contributions have mostly focused on “middle-class formation” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a result, we know a great deal about how the eighteenth-century “middling sort” became a middle class of entrepreneurs and small proprietors, and how the emergence of a corporate economy gave rise to new professions and white-collar occupations and made the middle class more diverse. And we know much about how gender, religion, cultural practices, and political activism [End Page 168] helped such people see themselves as “middle class”—and distinguish themselves from the majority of Americans.
We know far less, however, about the middle class in the decades after World War II, the years when, thanks to the postwar economic boom and the expansion of education, the ranks of the middle class grew. And the whole process of how so many Americans, including people who, in other countries, would have proudly identified as “working class” came to see themselves as “middle class” remains quite mysterious. Thankfully, historians have begun to turn their attention to this subject, inspiring hope that we may eventually be able to explain what it meant to be middle class in the second half of the twentieth century and why being middle class remains so appealing today.
The boldest recent attempt to address the subject is Lawrence Samuel’s lively and engaging “cultural history” of the middle class. Samuel’s book is quite ambitious for so slender a work. It purports to be both a history of the postwar middle class and a history of ideas about the middle class, drawn largely from journalistic sources and notable works of social criticism. It begins after World War II and examines the growth of the middle class amid postwar prosperity. Samuel then discusses the social, cultural, and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s and their impact on middle-class Americans in particular. For Samuel, this was an important period of transition, when a variety of factors contributed to a “fragmentation” of the middle class. The second half of the book covers the last three decades of the century, when it seemed that the middle class was in “crisis.” In these chapters Samuel assesses developments that encouraged this belief.
The best sections of the book are those that cover periods when the state of the middle class was a major source of discussion: the 1950s and early 1960s, when commentators were struck by the impact of rising incomes and living standards and concerned about the spread of conformity; and the 1980s and especially the 1990s, when it became clear that political and economic trends were threatening the privileges and expectations middle-class Americans had long taken for granted...