Cracking the Upper Middle

I make it no secret that I still want to rise in terms of my family’s socioeconomic status even though I am close to turning forty-seven years of age, and my wife has already reached that prime number.  I could make a much more compelling argument that we are on our way to becoming members of the upper middle class if we were ten or even eight years younger.

Sure, perhaps I am late to bloom or may not bloom at all, but I am trying to embrace some of the philosophies and ideals that would help my children, if not my wife and I, to reach this next level.

Obtaining a college degree is as much a part of the American Dream as anything.  True, there are many successful entrepreneurs and business owners who never did obtain a BA, but in today’s ultra-competitive world where jobs are becoming more and more scarce as technology and outsourcing are becoming more and more common, most people need at least that piece of paper to begin a journey into middle classiness.

Most, if not all, of the high school seniors at our children’s suburban high school go off to college.  Those who come from more successful, professional-level families aspire to go beyond undergraduate and obtain master’s degrees, law degrees, medical degrees, and the like.

I, myself, obtained a master’s degree back in ’98, having been pushed into graduate school by my mother, who accurately viewed my dwindling job prospects with only a bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts when I graduated into a shitty job market back in late 1992/early 1993.

After holding the kind of job where you do not need a college degree, a high school degree or perhaps even any working brain cells for nearly two years, I entered an MPA program in August of 1994, working my way through while working full-time for four years and gaining that degree in June of 1998 with my wife very pregnant with our now college sophomore son.

The point is that nearly everyone that I work with or know personally is sending their kids to obtain bachelor’s degrees.  For all the talk about the need for vocational schools to produce a job-ready workforce for manufacturers, that is still not the preferred path for those pursuing upper middle class status.

An example: there is a decidedly lower middle class family in our neighborhood whose two sons are, to say it politely, not college material.  These guys love playing around with their muscle cars, they love shooting off M-80s on the Fourth of July, they love motorcycles and they love Trump.  I know that due to the sign in their front yard during election time.

Their two sons are vocational school kids.  One may have already completed his education at the age of about twenty-one a few years ago and moved out with his baby’s mama and somehow gets by.  We do not know them well or particularly like them, mainly due to their aggressive dog that is mostly unleashed and their love of revving their motorcycles as loud as possible when we are trying to go to sleep during most warm weather nights.

The younger son is the classic live-at-home until forty kind of guy. Nobody knows exactly what he does, but he can be seen many warm summer nights consuming beer with some buddies in front of his mother’s house.  The father lives with them sporadically.  Anyhow, it is painfully obvious that this particular guy is not headed for greatness.

On the flip side, we have family friends who have sent two daughters to college on full ride scholarships, and to good private colleges. Their son is along the same path, but without the full ride.

He completed his bachelor’s degree about a year ago and is already making a six figure salary as some kind of financial guy.  I think that the term is financial engineer, as he is one of the manipulators who can make great amounts of money for himself and his employer whether the market goes up or goes down.  As long as it does not stay static.

After his full ride at George Washington U, he is now pursuing an advanced degree at the University of Chicago.  Clearly, higher education is the key for this kid, and is fully supported by his family.   The son is already on the path to the upper middle class and perhaps even higher, the key being his elite education and, I would assume, his aptitude for complex financial derivatives that could not be comprehended by you or me.

I read Dream Hoarders by Richard V. Reeves.  The author details the many ways in which members of America’s upper middle class perpetuate their class status for themselves and their children.

Reeves calls for ending a lot of benefits that he claims favor the upper middle class, like mortgage interest deductions and 529 college savings plans, and also argues for some measure of downward mobility,  I completely accept that upper middle class folks embrace the ideals that tend to lead their children toward perpetuating their upper middle class and higher status.

Would you expect two physicians or a lawyer and teacher to have their children become auto mechanics, retail clerks or truck drivers?  I do not hold anything against auto mechanics, retail clerks, or truck drivers, but those are not the types of professions that upper middle class parents aspire for their children to become.

Reeves describes the separation of the upper middle class from the rest of society, and of upper middle class children from ordinary American kids.  He writes that the inequalities are not fleeting, rather that they endure and harden across the generations.  Membership in American’s upper middle class is in fact being passed down from one generation to the next, more than in other nations and more certainly than in the past.

Image result for upper middle class family

I agree with all of the above and wish that my wife and I were in this upper stratus and could pass it down the way Reeves describes.

My wife and I are not better off than our parents were at our age.  I have not divulged my secret identity, but I will share that my father worked very hard for many years to become successful.  Nothing was given to him and he worked for everything that he accomplished.  He did ultimately become moderately successful and earned a high enough income for our family to have risen from the lower end of the middle class when I was a wee lad to what could be considered upper middle class by the time my younger brother was in college.  My mother often tells me that they made about a hundred dollars too much per year for me to join most of the black kids at my grammar school in receiving a free lunch.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have urged them to somehow lose a hundred bucks in the stock market or something in order to qualify.

My wife’s father was in sales for about four decades after having served in the Army and working his way through college via the GI Bill.  He grew up in a very working class family in Jersey City and college was out of the question for him upon his graduation from high school.

As a salesman, my father-in-law bounced around a lot and moved his family from state to state about four times before being laid off soon after being transferred to Wisconsin.

Unable to secure a comparable job, my father-in-law did back in the mid-eighties what so many have been forced to do since.  He started his own business, competing directly with his former employer, and selling the same products to the same companies that he had been transferred from California to the Midwest to do.

I guess that it was fortuitous, since he sent his and my mother-in-law’s only daughter to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I met her when I was a mere nineteen years of age and she had just turned twenty in spring of 1990.

My wife earned a BA, and her younger brother was a trade school attendee, going for a period of years and maybe never obtaining a degree.  I do not know.  What I do know is that he barely ekes out a living by doing auto repair, his wife is a nursing assistant who has lost a job due to cutbacks in the healthcare system, and the two of them never saved a dime for their son, our nephew, who also takes a class or two at a local community college from time to time and works in a fast food restaurant.

This post is not about them, but their lack of pursuing higher education will cost them at least a million bucks each over their lifetimes.  I do not need to read a study to know that.  Combined, they make about half of what I do and will most likely never make a dollar in addition to what their jobs pay them.  No dividends, no eBook sales, no pensions for them.

My younger brother is a lawyer.  He went to a highly esteemed small private college for undergraduate, double-majoring in the unlikely combination of English and neuroscience.  His knowledge of neuroscience has paid dividends a hundred times over, as he is able to cross-examine medical professionals very well at depositions and in court, being a lawyer who understands well the workings of the human body in relation to the personal injury and wrongful death cases that he handles.

He borrowed his way through law school while working as a futures trader, and has since paid it off with his high earnings.  He earns two to three times as much as what is considered an upper middle class income, and now hires paralegals and support staff to help with his two law offices.  He thinks in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity like I do, and it has paid off well for him when it comes to expanding his business and attracting clients.  If you met him, you would want him to be your lawyer and friend.

Image result for upper middle class

Our sister is an educator with an undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and a master’s degree from Stanford.  She met her husband at Northwestern and he, too, has pursued education beyond a BA.  First, he obtained a master’s degree in education around the time that my sister did.  He has more recently obtained a MBA from Tulane, just about two blocks away from their lovely home in the Uptown neighborhood in New Orleans.

My sister’s husband has been a teacher, ultimately became a principal at a charter school, and is currently an educational consultant who travels to various school districts in the south to help them recruit teachers and administrators.

The key to my brother, sister and her husband’s success being that they knew back in the day and still know now that education is the key. None of us, especially my sister’s husband, were raised in wealthy households.  He did not have a father growing up, and nobody else in his Louisiana family had gone to college.  Interestingly enough, his biological father played football for LSU and then in the NFL for a while, but I am not going to name him out of respect for my brother-in-law’s privacy.

Those lucky enough to be born to upper middle class families are likely to be raised in nice neighborhoods, attend good or great schools, participate in many enriching extracurricular activities and then graduate high school with many accolades, AP credits and fully college-ready.

Our son fit this model, having been one of the top musicians in several bands and having gained seven AP credits, getting all 4’s and 5’s on the seven tests that he took.   He scored a 32 on the ACT.  He made dean’s list each of his first two semesters at the private college that he attends.

The point is not to brag about our son’s academic prowess.  The point is that we told him that he could not attend his college, or comparable ones, without getting a substantial scholarship, which he did, lowering the $48,000 annual sticker price to about $26,000.

Also, unless one is a star musician, one must obtain at the very least a bachelor’s degree to make it in the world these days.  To really solidify yourself in the field, most musicians now must obtain master’s degrees, which we fully expect our son to do.  He may not make it rich, like our friend’s financial engineer son, but we recognize that education is the key for our son’s ability to make a middle class living in the future.  Maybe even an upper middle class living, but only time will tell.

Our daughter is on the same track, which makes me glad that we are nearing $100,000 in college savings for her as she just began her high school career last week.

For those just a little higher in the income rung than Yours Truly, the twenty percenters enjoy many advantages beyond their bank balances.  Their advantages include better homes than mine, better neighborhoods than the one that my family lives in and better control over their working lives.

Image result for upper middle class

I know many families and relatives that are in the upper middle class, and they are able to plan confidently for their futures rather than worrying about everything like I do.  They enjoy better food, drive better cars, possess better electronic gadgets and take better vacations than my family does.

I am not angry at those family members and friends who enjoy an upper middle class income and lifestyle.

I truly want to be part of their class, but for now I am just a regular old middle aged Middle Class Guy living in the Midwest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *