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Upper middle class

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The upper middle class is a sociological concept referring to the social group constituted by higher-status members of the middle class. This is in contrast to the term lower middle class used for the group at the opposite end of the middle class stratum and the regular middle class. There is considerable debate as to how the upper middle class might be defined. According to sociologist Max Weber the upper middle class consists of well-educated professionals with graduate degrees and comfortable incomes.

The American upper middle class is defined similarly using income, education and occupation as main indicators.[1] In the United States, the upper middle class is defined as mostly consisting of white-collar professionals who not only have above-average personal incomes and advanced educational degrees[1] but also a high degree of autonomy in their work, leading to higher job satisfaction.[2] The main occupational tasks of upper middle class individuals tend to center on conceptualizing, consulting, and instruction.[3]


Certain professions can be deemed as "upper middle class" in nature although any such measurement remains somewhat subjective because of differing perceptions of class. Most people in the upper-middle class strata are highly educated white collar professionals such as physicians, lawyers, economists, accountants, university professors, architects, scientists, engineers, dentists, pharmacists, upper management civil servants and the intelligentsia. Generally, people in these professions have earned an advanced post-secondary education and a comfortable standard of living. In most cases household incomes can range from $150,000 to $220,000 a year. [1]


Most people encompassing this station in life have a high regard for higher education, and probably more than any other socio-economic class strive for themselves and their children to obtain graduate or at least four-year (three-year in the United Kingdom, generally speaking) undergraduate degrees.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In the U.S., the upper middle class is rather divided in terms of political ideology. Education commonly increases the chance of a person's subscribing to liberal beliefs once they have reached the college level.[4] In terms of income, liberals tend to be tied with pro-business conservatives.[5] Most mass affluent households tend to be more right-leaning on fiscal issues but more left-leaning on social issues.[6] The majority, between 50% and 60%, of households with incomes above $50,000 overall, not all of whom are upper middle class,[7] supported the Republican Party in the 2000, 2004 and 2006 elections.[8][8][9]Nevertheless, those with graduate degrees overall favor the Democratic Party.[10][9][11] In 2005, 72% of surveyed full-time faculty members at four-year institutions, the majority of whom would be considered upper middle class,[1] identified themselves as liberal.[12]

Education plays a major role in determining tastes and ideologies in this class. A graduate degree, and often even higher education, is a prerequisite to work in one of the traditional "professions" and as a result this segment of the upper middle class is generally more liberal in their political ideologies and more urbane in their tastes. Corporate members of the upper middle class, on the other hand, may have a less advanced higher education (they may have worked their way up to their current social station from an entry-level corporate position). It should be noted, however, that many business persons do have advanced post-secondary education, most notably those with MBAs. Furthermore, in some cases professionals such as chemists or economists may be employed by private businesses and have managerial duties aside from their professional research duties.

The upper middle class is often the group that shapes society and brings social movements to the forefront. Movements such as the Peace Movement, The Anti-Nuclear Movement, Environmentalism, the Anti-Smoking movement, and even in the past with Blue laws and the Temperance movement are all products of the upper middle class. Some claim this is because this is the largest class (and the lowest class) with any true political power for positive change, while others claim some of the more restrictive social movements (such as with smoking and drinking) are based upon "saving people from themselves."[3]

American upper middle class

See American Professional/Managerial middle class for a complete overview of the American middle classes.
File:Campus Spring.jpg
Advanced education is one of the most distinguishing features of the upper middle class.
File:Salinas Office.jpg
The American upper middle class consists mostly of salaried white collar professionals.

In the United States the term middle class and its subdivisions are an extremely vague concept as neither economists nor sociologists have precisely defined the term.[13] There are several perceptions of the upper middle class and what the term means. In academic models the term applies to highly educated salaried professionals whose work is largely self-directed. Many have graduate degrees with educational attainment serving as the main distinguishing feature of this class. Household incomes commonly may exceed $100,000, with some smaller one-income earners earning incomes in the high 5-figure range.[1][7]

"The upper middle class has grown...and its composition has changed. Increasingly salaried managers and professionals have replaced individual business owners and independent professionals. The key to the success of the upper middle class is the growing importance of educational certification...its lifestyles and opinions are becoming increasingly normative for the whole society. It is in fact a porous class, open to people...who earn the right credentials. "- Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998.[7]

In addition to having autonomy in their work, above-average incomes, and advanced educations, the upper middle class also tends to be influential, setting trends and largely shaping public opinion.[7][3] Overall, members of this class are also secure from economic down-turns and, unlike their counterparts in the statistical middle class, do not need to fear downsizing, corporate cost-cutting, or outsourcing -- an economic benefit largely attributable to their graduate degrees and comfortable incomes, likely in the top income quintile or top third.[1] Typical professions for this class include professors, accountants, architects, urban planners, engineers, economists, physicians, political scientists, lawyers, pharmacists and civilian contractors.[3][14]


Further information: Affluence in the United States,  Household income in the United States, and Personal income in the United States

While many Americans see income as the prime determinant of class, occupational status, educational attainment, and value systems are equally important. Income is in part determined by the scarcity of certain skill sets.[1] As a result an occupation that requires a scarce skill, the attainment of which is often achieved through an educational degree, and entrusts its occupant with a high degree of influence will usually offer high economic compensation. The high income is meant to ensure that individuals obtain the necessary skills (e.g. medical or graduate school) and complete their tasks with the necessary valor.[15] There are also differences between household and individual income. In 2005, 42% of US households (76% among the top quintile) had two or more income earners; as a result, 18% of households but only 5% of individuals had six figure incomes.[16] To illustrate, two nurses each making $55,000 per year can out-earn, in a household sense, a single attorney who makes a median of $95,000 annually.[17][18]

Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, Willam Thompson and Joseph Hickey estimate the upper middle class to constitute roughly 15% of the population. Using the 15% figure one may conclude that the American upper middle class consists, strictly in an income sense, of professionals with personal incomes in excess of $62,500, who commonly reside in households with six figure incomes.[16][19][1][7] The difference between personal and household income can be explained by considering that 76% of households with incomes exceeding $90,000 (the top 20%) had two or more income earners.[16]

Data Top third Top quarter Top quintile Top 15% Top 10% Top 5%
Household income[20]
Lower threshold (annual gross income)$65,000$80,000$91,705$100,000$118,200$166,200
Exact Percentage of households 34.72%25.60%20.00%17.80%10.00%5.00%
Personal income (age 25+)[21]
Lower threshold (annual gross income)$37,500$47,500$52,500$62,500$75,000$100,000
Exact Percentage of individuals33.55%24.03%19.74%14.47%10.29%5.63%

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, 2006[21][20]

The English upper middle class

This is a very specific class in Britain and is, in many respects, peculiar to England as its characteristics do not fit easily into the social gradations of the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

In England this class of people is less easily defined, and personal wealth is not a necessary criterion. Frequently its members are members of professions (traditionally academia, law and medicine), although merchants too were able to penetrate its ranks. However, being a member of a profession does not automatically elevate a person to this class, and it is quite common for an upper middle class person not to work in a traditional profession.

Instead, accent, language, education (usually at a good public school), family background and understatement, in both behavior and taste, are defining characteristics of the upper middles. Although not of the landowning class, its members may aspire to the characteristics of, or be described as, gentlemen.

The character of Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh's novel, Brideshead Revisited is a fine example of an early twentieth-century upper middle class Englishman. His language, accent and manners are similar to an aristocrat's, but in place of the aristocrat's self-assuredness there is an air of slight uncertainty and diffidence. A more modern day example is Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, played by Hugh Grant.

See also

United States


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus, Boston, MA: Pearson.
  2. Eichar, Douglas (1989). Occupation and Class Consciousness in America, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Ehrenreich, Barbara (1989). Fear of Falling, The inner Life of the Middle Class, New York, NY: Harper Collins.
  4. O'Bannon, B. R. (27 August, 2003). In Defense of the 'Liberal' Professor. Indianapolis Star.. URL accessed on 2007-07-02.
  5. Pew Research Center. (10 May, 2005). Beyond Red vs. Blue.. URL accessed on 2007-07-12.
  6. , R. & Saad, L. (9 December, 2004). Marketing to the Mass Affluent. Gallup Management Journal.. URL accessed on 2007-07-19.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure, New York: Wadsworth Publishing.
  8. 8.0 8.1 CNN. (2000). Exit Poll.. URL accessed on 2008-05-27.
  9. 9.0 9.1 CNN. (2004). Exit Poll.. URL accessed on 2008-05-27.
  10. [1] "Exit polls"
  11. CNN. (2006). Exit Poll.. URL accessed on 2007-07-11.
  12. Kurtz, H. (29 March, 2005). College Faculties A Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds. The Washington Post.. URL accessed on 2007-07-02.
  13. Middle class according to The Drum Major Institute for public policy. URL accessed on 2006-07-25.
  14. Professional Occupations according to the US Department of Labor. URL accessed on 2006-07-26.
  15. Levine, Rhonda (1998). Social Class and Stratification, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 US Census Bureau, income quintile and top 5% household income distribution and demographic characteristics, 2006. URL accessed on 2006-12-28.
  17. US Department of Labor, median income of registered nurses. URL accessed on 2007-01-02.
  18. Bureau of Labor statistics data published by, 20 highest paying jobs. URL accessed on 2006-12-27.
  19. US Census Bureau, distribution of personal income, 2006. URL accessed on 2006-12-09.
  20. 20.0 20.1 US Census Bureau, overall household income distribution, 2006. URL accessed on 2006-12-28.
  21. 21.0 21.1 US Census Bureau, personal income distribution, age 25+, 2006. URL accessed on 2006-12-28.

External links

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness
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