Niagara Gazette

February 23, 2014

SINGER: The demise of the middle class

By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Most everyone who disserts these days on problems of the middle class — its growth, diminution, even survival — does so in purely economic terms; however, this kind of focus is too narrow. Yes, the middle class seems threatened, but not simply due to dollars and cents, or the lack thereof. One can’t simply “grow” this supposedly beneficial status via infusions of cash.

For being bourgeois (aka middle class) is really an attitude, and it’s one that people formerly yearned for and carefully cultivated. Becoming middle class was in most cases, synonymous with becoming something of a gentleman or lady, and not only dressing the part, but naturally convincing people in those sartorial choices. Not to mention in how one spoke, and in what one did with an education or manners (with only time-outs to whoop it up at New Years’ parties or don bathrobes Sunday mornings).

Now? It’s a constant dress-down Friday? You can paint a jalopy, but it remains a jalopy? That sounds strong, but at the same time, anyone who thinks grunge can simply be turned off at some point and be quickly transmogrified upward is possibly deluded.

To become authentically middle class, there has to be a certain deference from the get-go, i.e., from childhood; and that deference, fear, respect, whatever you want to call it, has diminished. Even if it’s a cliche, people who lose respect early on for authority end up more basically losing respect for themselves.

In fact, grunginess you see in large towns and small towns, too, seems a kind of how-low-can-you go critique of conventionality — and we think money alone will somehow make such people “middle class”? It ain’t going to happen. Being bourgeois is again, a feeling that most-of-the-time respectability has value. Money? No question that many want to score the dough putatively necessary for a leap into the bourgeoisie; but the discipline to clean up language, looks, deportment and the rest to go with it? Nope, it’s basically “gimme the fish, but hold the fries” in this domain, which doesn’t create true middle-class status.

To be bourgeois you don’t have to be full of yourself, and obviously complete self-esteem — that once ballyhooed concept during the Me Decade and aftermath – has never been easy to attain; but you at least have to try and respect yourself as best you can. You can’t willfully present a constant, waif-like look of anything goes, a getting-through-the-day, pajama-like, this-will-do aura. True, few will be attired anymore like Ward Cleaver and wife were, nor the father who knew best (Robert Young) and TV wife (Jane Wyatt); nor as originally poor boys like Sinatra or Dean became with the Rat Pack — Sinatra especially impeccable in suits or tux on virtually all occasions. But aiming higher does seem necessary for a leap into the middle class. And so does a certain gratitude ...

Then comes the not insignificant little matter of widespread drug use. I don’t want to delve deeply into that searing debate here, and would certainly have to bite my tongue even more in Colorado or Washington State; but this ubiquitous penchant also helps feed into widespread, come-as-you-wish dress and deportment styles, the “score it today” attitude, the pretense (i.e., no one will notice), etc.

And then maybe once in a while get spiffed up for an important function, such as a wedding? What you then get is ersatz middle class — much of that going down these days in many other realms, ersatz this, ersatz that. But it’s not the real article, it isn’t automatic or easy to attain, and the result is less and less of an authentic bourgeoisie about.

Which even includes what we used to call with a certain derision “nouveau riche” types, who born poor and maybe with immigrant parents, moved upward and outward to Amherst or Scarsdale, recent arrivals to higher status. But who still seemed convincing ...

In sum, money alone won’t cut it, yet too often, people in high positions seem to think cash is the sole answer to all societal problems. Unfortunately, it’s not. 

B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.