There used to be a time when Americans thought they understood class. The upper, middle and working class behaved as was expected of them, each abiding by the unwritten rule of the acceptable mode of behavior. The upper class vacationed in Europe, the middle class drove Ford Fairlanes and the working class voted Democratic and did not take cruises to the Caribbean. Today social diversity has erased many of the old markers and the contours of classes have blurred, some may even say it has disappeared.
Mobility, a change in position within the social hierarchy, and Meritocracy, individual achievement, is the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream. Today anyone may have a shot at becoming a United States Supreme Court justice or a C.E.O., and there are more and more self-made billionaires. Only 37 members of last year's Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980's. Today more American believe that it is possible to work hard, and become rich and many think their standard of living is better than their parents and that their children will do better.
A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege. But merit as it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Class system is a system by which society ranks categories of people based on both birth and individual achievement. Caste system ranks people based on ascription or birth. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children succeed, their success is seen as earned. Talking about class means different things to different people. For some it is a rank, culture and taste, an attitude and assumptions or may just mean money, and while some American barely notice it, others feel its weight in powerful ways.
The featured Immigration article on the NY Times tells the tale of two immigrants, Juan Manuel Peralta and John Zannikos. Mr Zannikos was an illiterate immigrant who came to New York years ago with nothing but $100 in his pocket and a willingness to work. Mr. Peralta arrived in New York almost 40 years after Mr. Zannikos, and the two shared a remarkably similar beginning. They came at the same age to the same section of New York City, without legal papers or more than a few words of English. Each dreamed of a better life.
Monumental changes in the economy and in attitudes toward immigrants have made it far less likely that Mr. Peralta and his children will experience the same upward mobility as Mr. Zannikos and his family. Today political scientists are divided over whether the 25 million people of Mexican ancestry in the United States represent an exception to the classic immigrant success story. Resentment and race subtly stand in their way, as does a lingering attachment to Mexico, which is so close that many immigrants do not put down deep roots here. They say they plan to stay only long enough to make some money and then go back home. Few ever do.
Mr. Zannikos thinks immigrants today have a better chance of moving up the class ladder than he did 50 years ago. "At that time, no bank would give us any money, but today they give you credit cards in the mail," he said. "New York still gives you more opportunity that any other place. If you want to do things, you will." He says he has done well, and he is content with his station in life. "I'm in the middle and I'm happy." On the other hand, Mr. Peralta cannot guess what class Mr. Zannikos belongs to. But he is certain that it is much tougher for an immigrant to get ahead today than 50 years ago. And he has no doubt about his own class."La pobreza," he says "Poverty". The difference of skin color and Caucasian features may have been a tremendous help to Mr. Zannikos, while Mr. Peralta may find it difficult to succeed.
I may not see the division of class and experience it the same way others do, but it does not mean the structure does not exist. I am a child of the mobility and meritocracy systems, and can see the negatives of caste systems. I also believe that hard work and education combined with a supportive and nurturing environment can go a long way towards success. Unfortunately, I have also seen the drive and determination that my extended family had when they first arrived slowly disappear as the later generations became absorbed in the American culture. The drive for education and being better than their parents slowly evolved into the drive for conspicuous consumerism and material things (owning things that are very visible – fancy cars, big houses, expensive jewelry, vacations, and brand name clothes). Education was put on the back burner while earning money and hanging with the “in” crowd was the thing.
I also noticed a pattern of behavior with immigrants from my country, when the parents eventually makes it to middle class, they feel compelled to pamper their children and giving them what they didn’t have. So they cater to the material needs without giving them time, attention and discipline needed to nurture a drive to succeed. Discipline is a very important ingredient to success, and eventually the culture of hard work, discipline, religion and family slowly disappears. The saying – You can only lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink - is quite true. To really drive change and foster the need to be better, a little hunger is always a good thing. Intergenerational (a change in social position occurring in a person’s lifetime) and Intragenerational social mobility (upward and downward social mobility of children in relation to their parents) seems to alternate in families where some of kids are better off than their parents, while some need their support. I have definitely experienced intergenerational social mobility, I am better off than my parents and grandparent, and hopefully my kids will all fare even better than I am.
Global reorganization of work has created an upward social mobility of educated people in the United States, but has hurt the average workers. Mostly because factory jobs have moved overseas where cheap labor can be found. So the poor and uneducated will continue to suffer as they are forced to take low-wage service work. The message here is that education is the only sure route to relative success, a rite of passage earned through hard work, discipline, and focus.
Something to think about – social class shapes family life. Lower-class or low income families are generally larger than middle-class families due to earlier marriages and less use of birth control pills; lower-class parents encourage children to conform to conventional norms and to respect authority figures.
Parents of higher social standing pass along different “cultural capital” that teaches their children to express their individuality and to use their imagination more freely. The more money a family has the more the parents develop their children’s abilities and talents. Privilege leads to privilege.
The idea is that less privileged children will have jobs that require them to follow the rules and more privileged children will have jobs that require more creativity. So foster, encourage and create an environment for education and creativity – encourage unconventional thinking and thinking outside the box for your children.