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Reimagining the Middle Class



At the Baffler website, Ann Neumann interviews Alissa Quart, author of the new book Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America. While Quart’s book focuses on the US, its analyses and prescriptions are useful anywhere inequality is growing and all the but the upper classes feel increasingly precarious. In the interview, Quart discusses how declining salaries and benefits for educated workers are leading to widespread feelings of shame and failure, as people’s lives don’t live up to what they imagined was possible. Quart argues that we need to fundamentally “reimagine” what it means to live a middle-class life in these precarious new conditions. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

AN: … You also coin terms that give us a way to think about worker’s plights. You just mentioned the forever clock but there’s also the middle precariat.

AQ: I was trying to explain the shift in the middle class as an imaginative category. The middle class used to equal solid, fixed, stable. Temporally it was about gratification later, but your life wasn’t miserable while you were waiting for it. It wasn’t like OK, total slog, but you’re going to get that pension. We have to now think of it as a shaken category, an unstable category, and that’s a big shift. When we visualize the middle class, we’re visualizing the white picket fence, like the blue sky on the cover of the book. But it’s really this truck being squeezed between two houses.

It’s an unsettled identity, and you can fall out of it, you can barely get into it, you certainly can’t rise above it very easily. Guy Standing coined the term precariat in 2011 to describe the proletariat, which is a Marxist way of understanding the working class, crossed with precariousness. And people get that. Every time they ride an Uber or they have a gig economy Task Rabbit person come to their house they’re like, OK, that’s the precariat. But I was seeing the same thing among paralegals or those who have law degrees but were still doing temporary work.

AN: Getting a law degree can be like selling your soul to the banks.

AQ: All these people are in debt. Some of it is because they went to for-profit colleges and those colleges were really expensive and they didn’t have a good rate of placement. Which can be traced to for-profit colleges and grad schools that have very little oversight—and are sometimes indeed federally funded. It can also be traced to fewer law jobs overall and too many people imagining that law is a secure profession. This is about reimagining. Once you can reimagine a profession, even if you choose to do it—you choose to be a journalist, you choose be a lawyer—we should understand that we’re choosing something unstable. Awareness is a huge part of survival and I guess part of what I want with this book is to increase awareness. This is your self-help: Don’t blame yourself. We have to come alive to this recognition. You can still do what you love, so long as you know what it can mean.

Image of Alissa Quart via PS Mag.