I just finished reading the first in a series of articles by Anne Helen Peterson at Vox, “America’s Hollow Middle Class.”
To follow my two cents’ about it below, you’ll first need to read it at Vox.
It’s a complex social and economic reality that she describes. (Or is it? Maybe a fairer tax code, technocratic politics, and a national health care plan would go a long way.)
Personally, it may not be as complex. (Everyone has their opinion on this question. But since you may want to be free of some of the fear and anxiety described in the article, why not try on a perspective I’ll suggest here?)
I don’t say this perspective will free you of all the fear and anxiety. And I don’t say it’s an alternative to a better culture and better government. I do say it’s a complement.)
There’s a way in which many individuals unknowingly make their fear and anxiety worse. And it’s this: holding tightly to an identity.
Strongly identifying as middle class is a mistake. Just as is strongly identifying as working class, or poor, or rich. Or as male or female or black or white or brown or as American or as anything except perhaps … human being.
Almost anything about an individual can change. People change genders. They identify and disidentify racially. People give up and take on nationalities. We get fat. We get thin. We get healthy. We get sick.
Maybe you’re American this year, but you’ll move to Ireland and marry, and become Irish in the near future. You see what I mean: almost anything about you could change. And certainly socioeconomic status can change.
So it’s a mistake to strongly latch on to any of these things. To identify with any of these things. To suffer when one changes. Or to make your happiness depend on it not changing.
This isn’t new or special knowledge. It’s standard fare among respected meditation teachers, respectable self-help, and respectable psychologists.
It’s a small relief, perhaps, alongside the stress of not having enough money to cover all the expenses. Or alongside the stress of having to move out of a home. But it’s a relief all the same. No sense in making our suffering worse.
I have some experience with these issues, as a 2008 divorce I didn’t see coming pushed out of a home I’d bought at the height of the housing bubble.
The ex and I tried to keep it afloat, but eventually it was foreclosed on.
(And if you’re not attached to an identity of “success,” or “perfect credit,” then you’ll find as you follow the law and the procedures, foreclosure is not nearly as terrible as you thought. And it’s not as bad as an unnecessary identity crisis, which I was able to avoid. You can too.)
First I moved back in with my parents for a few months at the age of 40. (It was stressful, yes. But it was not more stressful than it had to be, since I didn’t identify as “a success” or as “middle class”, or as “a failure” or as “poor”.)
Shortly I moved on to a 400 square foot student apartment with thin walls in Auburn, Alabama. (A come down in status for sure, from my Arizona McMansion. But moving to a student apartment was not more stressful than it had to be, since I didn’t identify with being “successful.”
I went from being a respected elementary school teacher to an even worse-paying job: working online producing content for a consumer news publication. (But it was not a big deal, since I didn’t strongly identify as a teacher. I taught, but I didn’t wrap up my identity in a profession.)
Within a few years, I’d advanced in my new career. I was fully back on my feet financially, with a net worth solidly in the middle class. The pay wasn’t enormously more than teaching. But I was able to steadily invest in virtually sure-bet growth stocks, which anyone can find in this economy. (Amazon, Netflix, Tesla, etc.)
Here’s what I discovered, having been fortunate enough to run across Anthony de Mello, Alan Watts, Albert Ellis, etc.:
- A drop in socioeconomic status is not at first fun, but it’s not horrible. (And looked at in the right way, it is fun. An adventure. Just ask yourself, “What could be enjoyed about this?” With a 1974 Sunfish sailboat ($700), with fiberglas repairs I had to do myself, I did more leisure sailing and boating on Lake Martin, a massive rural Alabama lake, than I’d done in all my years as “middle class success” in Phoenix. You, too, will find many enjoyments if you just ask that question of yourself and listen to the answers that bubble up.)
- Anyone who can be a real friend to you doesn’t care if you’re “middle class.” Or if on the other hand you’re living in a $500 a month student apartment. You just have to be willing to be a real friend. You’re not a social climber, right? Your friendship is based on character and interests? Then you’re going to be fine.
- There’s always a way to find safe, cheap housing. Ask yourself, “How can I find cheap, safe housing if I need to?” (Because maybe you need to.) With enough looking, you will.
- Driving an old car is a relief. Anyone who could be a real friend to you doesn’t care if you’re driving a cheap, ugly car such as, ahem, my Honda Element. You’re not obsessed with making sure it’s perfect, because you’re not paying hundreds of dollars a month for that fantasy. And you’ll worry about it far less. It gets a scratch? Pffft. Want to drive a gravel road to a fishing stream? No problem. Hear a funny sound from the engine? Turn up the radio. (Or use the money you’ve been stashing away to get it fixed.)
- Financial stress is not permanent. By dropping attachment to being “Middle Class,” you can cut expenses, and instead buy investments that multiply your net worth. Purchasing Amazon stock every month was my ticket. Then it was Tesla. These investment opportunities are easy to find. They’re in plain sight. An account at Robinhood or Schwab, and sane careful decisions, are all you need.
See how easy it is. Test it. Put on some older clothes. Rent an older car. Drive around in it. Take a walk. Visit a state park. Stop seeing yourself as “Middle Class.”
Relax. This is your life. Enjoy it instead of clinging to a label by spending $1,000s more than you need to every month.
You’re not “Middle Class.”
You’re not “Working Class.”
You’re not a “Gig Worker.”
You’re not “Poor.”
You’re just you.
All of those labels can change. Why identify with a label? It causes stress. It makes you take poor decisions, such as spending more on a car each month than you’re investing in sensible stocks.
You’re not any of those labels. You’re you.
If you feel attached to an identity of “middle class,” and you’re struggling like the people in the article I mentioned (“America’s Hollow Middle Class” at Vox), then this little blog post offers you a simple, obvious perspective that can change your life.
And while it can’t immediately change your economic position, at least it can decrease the amount of anxiety and suffering you feel. That in turn, if you focus on that trail and follow it, will enable you to give up some unnecessary, stressful expenses (an expensive car is top of the list) in order to make better investments.
I want to acknowledge the obvious: An even bigger solution (which requires the cooperation of vast numbers of people, and is therefore out of your individual control at the moment) is political and social: a government and corporations who care enough to stop exploiting people.