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Does the class come out of the person after the person comes out of the class?

Does the class come out of the person after the person comes out of the class? This question asks us to think about social class inequality in a new way. It asks us to think not only of how much inequality exists in the United States, but how long inequality affects individuals. It also asks us to think of class not just as what we have — money, wealth, an occupation, an education — but also in terms of more personal characteristics — perceptions of who we are, what we want, and how to live our everyday lives. These personal characteristics are not trivial. They are judged by employers, schools, and potential friends; they can have profound effects on our opportunities.

So does the class come out of the person after the person comes out of the class? A study of individuals with working-class roots who graduate from college, enter the professional workforce, marry a spouse who has spent his or her entire life in the middle-class, and raise a family in a middle-class community indicates that the answer is no. Despite immersion in a new class, people with working-class roots still prefer different approaches to daily life than people with middle-class roots, even when they share a class position as adults. Moreover, not only are there differences, but the differences are systematic. College-educated adults with working-class roots generally prefer a laissez-faire lifestyle — one in which they can go with the flow, live in the moment, and feel free from self-imposed constraints. College-educated adults with middle-class roots, on the other hand, tend to prefer a managerial style — they prefer to organize, plan, and oversee. These differences span many aspects of individuals’ lives, including how they want to spend money, attend to paid work, allocate housework, raise their children, engage in downtime, and express emotions.

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South San Jose by Sean O’Flaherty. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

These differences are revealing. They show that to do well in America’s schools, universities, and workplaces, assimilation to middle-class norms is not required. At the same time, there are likely opportunities that working-class-origin adults miss due to their cultural differences from the middle-class. Workplaces often have unspoken norms that valorize middle-class culture, and upwardly mobile individuals with working-class roots are at risk of being penalized for not knowing or abiding by these norms. In this way, the long arm of social class socialization can even limit the opportunities of the people who embody the very idea of the American Dream.

The unlikeliness of taking the class out of the person after taking the person out of the class also sheds light on timely political debates. Commentators such as Charles Murray and David Brooks advocate stemming social class inequality by having the rich rub shoulders with the poor. They believe that if the rich preach what they practice, the poor will change their mindsets and inequality will be alleviated. The effectiveness of such programs must be questioned if four years of college, decades of professional work, and thousands of days married to a person born into another class does not take the class out of the person after taking the person out of the class. A more effective strategy may be to follow the lead of some of the middle-class spouses married to partners with working-class roots by appreciating the diversity of approaches that come from growing up in different class conditions.

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  1. […] is also true that today’s rich have received more in the way of inheritances and gifts than the middle class or poor. This relation holds by income class, by wealth class, and by level of educational […]

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