Defining the middle class

The economist Robert Solow noted that “there is no shortage of talk about the middle class”—and that was 10 years ago. Concern about the fate of the middle class is now almost universal. But there is nothing approaching a universal definition. There is a kaleidoscopic range of definitions of the middle class, from a wholly subjective set of aspirations to a highly specific measure of household income, and everything in between.

Disagreements over who counts as middle class are not merely scholarly quibbles. It is difficult to describe the condition and challenges of the middle class without some clarity about who comprises the group in question. The crucial questions we need to answer are: why are we analyzing the middle class and its shifting fortunes, what are the main challenges they face, and how can the quality of life of the middle class be improved? All of this requires a reasonably clear idea of who we are talking about.

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