A few days ago, I was entranced by the BBC’s revelation that there are now seven entrenched social classes in the UK, rather than the usual three, and just had to write about class in America.
First, a brief history: In the beginning, America was an overwhelmingly agrarian country, sparsely populated enough that even the poor could expect to live better than their European counterparts. The upper classes were politicians, writers, scientists, and all-around dilletantes, and the US Senate was in fact created as an American version of the House of Lords. There have been at least two class restructures in America: Once after the Civil War, when the gentleman farmers and dilettantes of yore were displaced at the top by captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; and once after World War II, when the GI bill made it possible for practically any young man to go to college free.
Since the war, and especially since the 1970s, we have begun to regress to an entrenched class system; most social mobility is downward as young people comprise a smaller portion of the population and find it harder to get a foot in the door, the cost of education has skyrocketed, and real wages have failed to increase over three decades.
So where are the aristocracy? You know, transatlantic-talking, stately home-living, senate seat-occupying, Groton and Ivy League-educated luvvies like we saw on Gilmore Girls? Where’s Giles Brandreth? They’re around, but only on the East Coast. It is said that in America, class is indistinguishable from wealth, but in the age of the internet that isn’t remotely true. Class in America is just as readily defined by cultural boundaries as Britain, possibly even to a greater extent: Because it’s so geographically spread out, America has never had a cohesive upper class. a huge section of them wouldn’t remotely qualify as “elite.” They mainly live on the west coast, possibly attend USC, winter in Miami, and have shit taste in music. These are the trashy rich. These are the Kardashians.
There have been many unintended consequences to the Great Recession: Wednesday night is the big night for social activity and not having a car is no longer completely insane, but most interesting is the division of economic class into more distinct cultural classes. Hipster vs. Douchebag, Rockefeller vs. Kardashian.
My grandparents didn’t go to college, my parents went later in life. I was the first one to be a freshman at 18, but there’s little hope that I will ever be able to live as well as my parents did. I’ve been applying for hundreds of jobs as a cashier, stock boy, whatever I can find, and in five years have never been accepted for a position. Having a bachelor’s degree could change those circumstances, but to what extent? But in now, suddenly, I’m still on a higher class level because I listen to Frankie Rose, watch Mad Men, and wear a tie.
Of course that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’ll be damned if my kids don’t go to Cambridge.