The Psychology of Eroding Middle Classes

American-Winter-HBOpicture above: scene from the documentary ‘American Winter’ (HBO, 2013)

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton administration, professor at Berkeley and the Goldman School of Public Policy, impressed me with his informative and highly recommendable documentary titled ‘Inequality for All’ (Reich, 2013). Reich reconstructs meticulously how the decline of the American middle-class started end of the 70s with stagnating wages while general living costs such as costs for education, healthcare, housing and transport kept on rising. Families struggled to compensate with double-income earning, working overtime and ultimately getting deep into debt which led to the financial crash in 2008. Many researchers agree with Reich’s analysis. On top, fewer middle class families are prepared to cover a spell of unemployment or unexpected medical emergencies (Weller, 2008, p.50). The corporate economic gains of recent decades have bypassed middle-class families and have subsequently created painful vulnerabilities.

In addition to Reich’s economic and political perspective questions about the psychological short- and long-term effects of economic decline and their societal significance arise. To investigate effects on the majority of a population we may have to paint a more coherent picture of what can be regarded as the hallmarks of middle classes and what it subsequently means to lose them on intrinsic and extrinsic motivational level (Vallerand, 2000, p.313). Unlike working class and low-income families, middle class families have sufficient resources at their disposal for a comfortable life that is more driven by open rational choices rather than having to decide for opportunities to ensure survival. Middle-class life is defined by non-instrumentalized, open decision-making. Job stability, adequate purchasing power, options for career advancement and leisure time (such as holiday entitlements, recreational activities and hobbies) are typical middle-class privileges (Lott, 2012, p.651-653). Private property, a house or apartment complete the contextual framework of middle-class families. Benson and Jackson (2013) coined it ‘place-making and place-maintenance’, the creation of a secure physical base for intergenerational lifespan development. It becomes obvious that any society with a broad middle class creates economic growth, institutionalizes upward mobility and supports the development of democratic, egalitarian values.  In a nutshell, a thriving middle-class is a fail-safe recipe for a nation’s success. What does it mean to lose such a resource-rich life?

Self-determination Theory (SDT), which has been developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, constitutes three basic human needs (that need to be differentiated from goals or motives), which are the needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.  Autonomy in SDT is understood as self-determination, self-governance and self-directedness. Autonomy requires integration, which is “the means through which the self develops, so integration is the basis of self-determination” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.331). In eroding middle classes it is the means for self-development that erode and subsequently impair autonomy. Examples are e.g., the rising costs of higher education or companies cutting jobs under the pressure of globalization instead of increasing professional development choices for their employees. Diminished access to quality education translates into an intergenerational loss of cognitive-behavioral, emotive and cultural competence while simultaneously obstructing lifelong learning.

Cultures such as Japan, Germany or the Netherlands have done better in building an educated and competent workforce than the U.S. which has kept their middle-classes eroding to a lesser extent. While the financial sector, capital markets and the IT-industry flourish, middle-classes keep on getting poorer leading to a polarization of society. In terms of unequally distributed national wealth the U.S even fares behind countries such as Uganda, Uruguay or the Ivory Coast (Reich, 2013).

Children are affected by the decline of middle-class resources in particular: working and single mothers for example have lesser time for their children, compromising secure attachment. Children find themselves suddenly cut-off from wealthier peers who can still afford luxuries such as mobile phones, visits to the cinema, going on vacations or ordering a pizza, compromising their self-esteem as well as peer relations. With societal marginalization people’s self-esteem, the intrinsic notion of self-worth, declines. Part of the marginalization in the U.S. is, according to Reich, the loss of voice which has for example started by expelling labor unions from most businesses resulting in both blue- and white-color employees losing their leverage. More and more middle-class families around the world are facing the same conditions and predicaments as lower-income families. A good further read on effects on personal experiential level is Barbara Ehrenreich’s book ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America’ (Ehrenreich, 2001).

Not argued much in Reich’s documentary is the function of social upward mobility which is not only important for the middle-class to maintain momentum, but also for lower income classes to be included in society. The Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin coined the term ‘Social Mobility’ in his book of the same title in 1927 (Sorokin, 1927). He defined social mobility broadly as ‘any transition of an individual or social object (…) from one social position to another’ (Sorokin, 1959). Upward- and downward social mobility both describe vertical mobility. Horizontal mobility by contrast appears without change of vertical position e.g., within the same occupation, territory or family. Inter-generational mobility addresses the change of social status between generations while intra-generational mobility examines the change of social status over one’s lifetime. Research of social mobility includes individuals, groups and entire nations (Wilkinson, 2005). A high social mobility ensures a fairer distribution of life-options while it encourages intrinsic motivation and individual performance.


We can argue that on a global level (Vallerand, 2000) autonomy is being compromised by the perception of powerlessness and the locus of control shifting outside the self: middle classes have a diminishing voice in their workplace and in politics, which is now extrinsically governed by financial powers and motives. The middle-class as a whole appears to have dropped out of political representation which erodes global, societal relatedness. On a contextual level rising costs and stagnating wages lead to a practical deterioration of resources. Autonomy is compromised by replacing self-directed, long-term goal-directed behavior by instrumental, short-term goal-directed behavior for the fulfillment of human needs. In the past families could e.g., embark on long-term investment planning while they are now tied to paycheck-to-paycheck, day-to-day survival. In terms of well-being and happiness (Eudaimonia) true self-esteem is replaced by fragile self-esteem (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.326). The inevitable rise of related frustrations, worries, anxieties, anger and depression in many affected families is the logical effect of eroding autonomy, competence and relatedness. The absence of upward mobility erases furthermore hopes for improvement of the experienced societal decline, giving way to extrinsic and vertical belief-patterns and values.

Paradoxically many neo-liberal advocates who promote a free global market economy without much regard and care for society, empower exactly those political conditions that Marxist arguments thrive on and that they themselves avoid being confronted with.


Benson, M., & Jackson, E. (2013). Place-making and Place Maintenance: Performativity, Place and Belonging among the Middle Classes. Sociology, 47(4), 793-809. doi:10.1177/0038038512454350

Ehrenreich, B. (2001). Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. Metropolitan Books, USA

Lott, B. (2012). The Social Psychology of Class and Classism. American Psychologist, 67(8), 650-658.

Reich, R. & Jacob Kornbluth (2013). Inequality for All [Motion OPicture]. USA: 72 Productions

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). The darker and brighter sides of human existence: Basic psychological needs as a unifying concept. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 319-338. doi:10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_03

Sorokin, P. (1927). Social mobility. (1st ed.). Harper & Brothers Publishers

Sorokin, P. (1959). Social and Cultural Mobility. NewYork: The Free Press.

Vallerand, R. J. (2000). Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination theory: A View From the Hierarchical Model of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 312.

Weller, C. (2008). The Erosion of Middle-Class Economic Security After 2001. Challenge (05775132), 51(1), 45-68.

Wilkinson, R. (2005). The impact of inequality: how to make sick societies healthier.  London: Routledge.

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