The middle class is essentially the heart of America. Whatever their economic situation, Americans predominantly identify themselves as middle class. According to a Pew Research study cited by Robert J. Samuelson in his opinion piece “Saving the Middle Class,” only 7% of Americans define themselves as lower class, and only 2% define themselves as upper class. In a stark contradiction of the fiscal reality, “Nine of 10 Americans locate themselves somewhere in the middle class… 15 percent in the upper middle class; 49 percent in the middle class; and 25 percent in the lower middle class.” As Samuelson points out, “People don’t define themselves out of the mainstream.”
Though this contradicts the legal definitions for what constitutes “the middle class” in America, it demonstrates a powerful mindset. Americans as a whole identify with the middle class because their beliefs about who they are stem from the middle class. Samuelson sums up these values as “personal responsibility and a strong work ethic,” and it just so happens these are exactly the values a struggling country needs to get back on its feet.
Sadly, however, many of these same hard workers can’t see the bright future ahead. Another Pew study, this one cited by Vincent Carroll in his “A Pep Talk For the Middle Class,” found that only “43 percent of those in the middle class expect that their children’s standard of living will be better than their own.” This is a sobering statistic, suggesting both the difficulties of the past several years and the lack of promise in any of the reforms we’ve tried. But Carroll reminds us that “[h]owever understandable the pessimism… odds are it’s wrong. [I]n the long run [the] incompetence [of political leaders] is unlikely to stifle the ideas, innovations and investment that always propel us forward.”
Where Carroll cites the advancement of technology as the ultimate reason for our recovery, pointing out the incredible progression of ideas and innovations that have propelled America forward since its incipiency, Samuelson cites a simpler reason for hope. He points out that 11 million American homes are worth less than their mortgages, yet “[s]till, most owners make monthly payments even though defaulting might be advantageous.” He adds, “Similarly, long-term unemployed workers send out hundreds of resumes despite repeated disappointment.” It’s this sort of resilience, he claims, that will win out in the end. It’s this sort of person, the hard working, self-sustaining American individual, that will become the hero in this struggle.
This is a tall order for Generation Y as they struggle to begin their careers and make room for themselves in an increasingly competitive world. In order to repair the economy, the next generation will need the skills to work as part of a global workforce, the education to take on the hard problems and solve them in new and innovative ways, and the networking skills to find opportunities wherever they may be. Many middle class workers may not see a bright future ahead for their children, as the Pew study cited above indicates, but today’s youth do. A Gallup study cited in Education Week by Liana Heitin states that about half of students today have hope in the future; they “believe the future will be better than the present, and that they have the power to make it so.” These students aren’t middle-class workers yet, but they have the same ideals of hard work and perseverance that their parents do. And once they’re prepared with the necessary skills, they’ll be ready to build a better future for all of us.