Mrs Micah asked what’s wrong with being middle class focusing on not working enjoyable but not too stressful jobs and still having the time and money to live comfortably. Lazyman talked about the upper limit of trading time for money and made some comments about the poor choice of working overtime just to buy unsatisfying techno gadgets which I could definitely relate too (I bought a 120MB hard disk around 1991 for $1200+).
The reason I won’t join the middle class is that I value freedom and independence much higher than comfort. When I think of freedom I always picture Mel Gibson shouting “FREEEEDOM!” while stretched out on a medieval rack (Ugh, perish the image! 😛 ), but I digress. In economic/freedom terms, being middle class is a close approximation to slavery. In fact, today it is possible to get a job done by a middle class worker at a lower cost and at a lower risk than it would have been to keep indentured slaves a hundred+ years ago. It is of course true that today’s middle class materially lives much better than the king’s of the past. But slavery is in the eye of the beholder and it is partially (some would say solely) a question about character. For instance, many home owners insist that they own their house, which is legally true, even though it is at the mercy of the bank who owns the mortgage on the house. Technicalities aside, I interpret it as the bank owning the house! Analogously, people are legally allowed to quit their job. However, practically, the middle class must hold some kind of job lest they run out of the money they need for food, bills, or lose “their” mortgaged home. This is not freedom. I interpret this as the upper class owning the services of the middle class which is effectively the same as owning them outright(**). Actually not quite. The middle class could rebel and the upper class knows this. This is why it throws them bones in the form of social security, gadgets, …, and comfort.
This pursuit of comfort leads many people to pursue as much wage income as they can which leads to time-consuming jobs with little time to enjoy the granite countertops of the labor (yeah, you may have a granite counter top but can you actually cook?). These are sometimes referred to as upper-class, but I still think of them as middle-class. We can compromise and call them upper-middle class. These comprise doctors, lawyers, engineers, …, and UPS truck drivers 🙂
Here’s how I make the division between upper and middle class.
I work in research which tends to come with the demands of a high-income job but without the income. Research is typically considered a calling (like nursing) and it is something one does because it is interesting in a self-actualizing way. I would humbly submit that I am pretty good at doing research and solving hard problems. However, in research, career advancement partially hinges on how well one promotes oneself at conferences and integrates oneself with the modern team/collaboration-based incremental way of doing research. There is little room for the lone pursuit of the “holy grail”. This is sad, because originally I wanted to be a researcher so I could solve the great outstanding problems of the universe [that the brochures mentioned]; not so that I could attend workshops on how to pick winning phrases for writing proposals, how to pick the right font for presentations, or which names I should try to collaborate with to “get my own name out there”. Or dealing with the new breed of students. For some this may come naturally. Not for me though. If I am to play that game, I want to be paid a lot better (industry wages if you please!). So I don’t and thus I’m slowly killing my career; at least so I’m told.
Therefore I am glad I did not accept the comfortable shackles of the middle class life style. When my colleagues talk about how they don’t even have the money to max their 401k — I say “even”, because I maxed the limit more than twice over at a point when we were a single income household — , how they worry about losing their job or how they are underwater with their real estate or shiny cars, I feel sorry for them. Yet I’m in a funny position of being unable to empathize or even sympathize with the act of balancing credit and wages, being worried about saying the rights things at the right times, or spending my spare time working for bonus points, because I know that this lifestyle was a choice.
Forsooth, one can choose matching laundry dryer machines, two door refrigerators, a new car every other year, jetskis, a $100/month clothing budget, eating out, private school educations, and charter vacations. Or one can choose the ability to say “no” as an financially free person. And this is why I won’t join the middle class.