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10 thoughts on “Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class

  1. says:

    When I picked this up in the sale bin of East Ave books in Adelaide for 1 I was hoping to get insight into the surreal nightmare of the US s current state A better dollar I will never spend It was published early 1990s, which was exactly what I wanted I didn t want a hindsight constructed narrative Trump is no than a casually mentioned billionaire of a type towards the end of Ehrenreich s account of the middle class and its relationship to the other classes in the US during the course of the twentieth century She explains the rise of the new Right in the US as well as the new Left The book is highly readable whilst being dense it s both deeply and widely researched I will be reading all her books I think everybody should read this one.The story she tells in this one is painful She shows the rise of the middle class, how they made themselves a financial and politically important group based on professionalising what they did and excluding others She talks of its permanent insecurity as a consequence Even though I ve always known about it, her analysis of the exploitation of the educated youth and their university student led rebellion of the sixties and seventies when university students were actually mowed down by troops in the US was particularly illuminating and excruciatingly sad staff in universities trying to protect their status from the questioning of the kids who were expected to work at derisory rates in their young professional years Staff or less on the side of the troops None of this has changed, one might add She documents the discovery by the middle class, to its great astonishment, that there were poor people in the US and she examines the way in which the middle class then set about categorising them and determining how to relate to them She shows the fabulously patronising attitudes to those below them and the trouble it has ultimately caused.rest here

  2. says:

    I m surprised that I didn t read Fear of Falling a long time ago, but I was already familiar with many of its ideas which points to its pervasive influence since publication in 1989 Barbara Ehrenreich provides an overview of the history of America s middle class from the 1950s through the 1980s centered around the thesis that the middle class has suffered such severe setbacks to its assumed level of financial security over these decades that its members now constantly live with a fear of falling that influences their social, political, and professional choices According to Ehrenreich, the result through the end of the 80s was a swing towards conservatism that invalidates the politically charged concept of a liberal elite invested in increasing their own power and authority by promoting themselves as the saviors of society s underclasses The middle class remains in the same quandry in 2008 that Ehrenreich discussed in Fear of Falling since the educational barriers it erected at the turn of the 20th century to protect its status as a professional class now mean that membership depends on signifigant educational achievement as well as financial investment Simultaneously, as Ehrenreich predicted the American ideal of a middle class lifestyle established in the 1950s has become less and less attainable since the income divide has opened up even further between the highest paid workers and the rest of the middle class, discouraging young people further from the sacrifices required to reach the middle classes Meanwhile, due to the decades long attack on liberalism, fewer positions are now avilable in the arenas of social services, the arts, and education, traditionally the province of the middle class, and salaries for available positions have dropped in real wages It was an interesting experience for me to read this book as a relatively new member of the middle class, struggling to reconcile my own professional choices with my political and social ideas Ehrenreich s analysis made me conscious of why some of my choices seem harder than I would have expected before I got my degree, and achieved entry into the middle class I realized that presumably like many Americans the ideas I ve carried around about a middle class lifestyle coincide with a reality from the 1950s, one that our society and our politicians often points to as evidence of America s cultural superiority As a middle class American, it should be easy to afford a house, an SUV, two kids, college education for two kids, retirement, plus Red Sox tickets, a microwave, cable TV, and an ipod If I m not interested in financing all these things, I should be easily able to live where I want, travel as much as I want, even cut back on the number of hours that I work, as long as I am working as a middle class professional Although Ehrenreich is known for her work on poverty, her Bait and Switched published in 2005 about downwardly mobile professionals likewise addresses assumptions about how America s middle class lives Its educated professionals who may have suffered illness or been laid off, feel sold out by the American dream as much as steel and auto union workers in those outsourced industries According to Ehrenreich, like a union job, a college education no longer guarantees life long tenure in the middle class Corporate America leaves workers ousted from its fold to fend for themselves While this book established its thesis about the middle class fear of falling, I wish that Ehrenreich had taken time to make the point she was driving towards by the ending chapter that until members of the professional, middle class recognize how financially insecure they really are, nothing will change I would have preferred to finish the book with a clearer sense of her action plan for change.

  3. says:

    p 31 The only people to clearly act on their revulsion against mass culture were the Beats men , for the most part, who had dropped out of college or various undistinguished occupations to live in barren apartments and devote themselves to poetry, good fellowship, and the search for ecstatic insight The Beats were the true radicals of the 50s, not in any conventional political sense but for the depth of their critique of America s desperate materialism Here at last were a group of rebels who dared refuse the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least fancy new cars, everyone imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume p.36 Historian David M Potter observed with alarm that in 1951, the amount spent on advertising was 199 per American family, compared to 152 per family for public education Certainly it marks a profound social change that such vast expenditures should be directed not to the inculcation of beliefs or attitudes that are held to be of social value, but rather to the stimulation or even exploitation of materialistic drives and emulative anxieties p 83 The barriers the middle class erected to protect itself make it painfully difficult to reproduce itself It is one thing to have children, another to have children who will be disciplined enough to devote the first twenty or thirty years of their lives to scaling the educational obstacles to a middle class career Nor is there any obvious, reliable way the older generation can help All that parents can do is attempt, through careful molding and psychological pressure, to predispose each child to retrace the same long road they themselves once took Hence the perennial middle class preoccupation with the problems of childraisingchokengtitik

    titikchokeng 133 the professions took shape in the period from roughly 1870 1920chokengtitik

    titikchokeng 225 young, educated, middle class people in 70s tended to prefer products that are functional, healthy, nonpolluting, durable, repairable, recyclable or made from renewable raw materials, energy cheap, authentic, aesthetically pleasing, and made through simple technologychokengtitik

    titikchokeng 205 in 1984 a family needed an income of approx 37,000 to afford a median priced home, but in the same year the median family income was only 26,167 National Assoc of Homebuilders Middle level income no longer guaranteed such perquisites of middle class status as home ownershipchokengtitik

    titikchokeng208 while in the 80s the poor were increasingly to be avoided for safety s sake, the rich presented a different kind of threat to people in the middle bidding up the cost of real estate to astronomical values and uncomplainingly accepting college tuitions in the range of 20,000 a yearchokengtitik

    titikchokeng226 Voluntary simplicity echoes the simplicity movement of the emerging middle class in the Progressive Era Both movements sought a way to express middle class political aspirations in the form of personal behavior, or, in seventies terminology, lifestyle In the early twentieth century, middle class simplicity had meant fewer and plainer items of furniture, looser clothes, and lighter meals In the 1970s, the trend was to minimalist or high tech d cor, blue cotton work shirts, health foods, and a horror of strong drink and cigarette smoke Both movements embodied a principled rejection of the endlessly wasteful, endlessly seductive, capitalist consumer culture And both movements ended by trivializing that rejection as a new set of consumer options in the 70s natural fiber over polyester, whole grain bread over white, plain oak furniture over high gloss department store maplechokengtitik

    titikchokeng228 in the 80s the mass market disappeared and was replaced by two markets, the upscale and downscale The change reflected the growing middle class zeal to distinguish itself from the less fortunate, and at the same time it made such distinctions almost mandatory for anyone hoping to inhabit the social and occupational world of the successful and upscale P.260 Professions, as opposed to job, are understood to offer some measure of intrinsic satisfaction, some linkage of science and service, intellect and conscience, autonomy and responsibility No one has such expectations of a mere job and it is this, as much as anything, which defines the middle class advantage over the working class majority The working class must work often at uncomfortable or repetitive tasks for money, and find its pleasures elsewherechokengtitik

    titikchokeng 261 John Kenneth Galbraith observed, For some, and probably a majority, work remains a stint to be performed For others work, as it continues to be called, is an entirely different matter It is taken for granted that it will be enjoyable Work, of the special kind that it reserves to itself, is the secret hedonism of the middle class And, although we seldom think of it this way, the pleasure of work is the middle class s tacit rebuttal to capitalism, a pleasure that cannot be commodified or marketed, that need not obsolesce or wane with time.It is the pleasure of work that is most easily lost in the scramble to get ahead, or simply to stay in place in our recklessly polarizing society Galbraith s comment provides a measure of the loss that has already been incurred In 1958 he could fairly observe that a professional would be insulted and disturbed if it were thought that his principal motivation in life is the pay he receives Today, as the rewarding professions medicine, for example, and science and teaching are abandoned for lucrative careers, few would find such a motivation dishonorable Even within the rewarding professions, the traditional perquisites autonomy, creativity, and service are easily traded off in favor of greater income The we abandon the ethos of professionalism and its secret pleasure principle the we are dependent on the commodified pleasures of the market The would be regional planner turned corporate lawyer, the would be social worker turned banker, must compensate for abandoned dreams with spending The costs of heightened consumption demand still longer hours of empty labor which must, in turn, be compensated with consumption Hence the addictive frenzy of the yuppie strategy Hence, too, one source of momentum for the forces of polarization and deepening class inequality.But even for the middle class, the way out does not lie through a simple revival of professionalism The elitism of the professions with their steep and often arbitrary barriers of education and licensing hurts not only the excluded members of the lower classes, but those who are, by birth, most likely to be included This is the catch in the strategy of professionalism and the source of so much middle class anxiety the barriers erected to exclude intruders from other classes also stand in the way of the youth of the middle class The barriers ensure that only the hardworking, the self denying, will make it and not even all of them Hence the fear of hedonism, of growing soft, and ultimately, falling Hard work and self denial become our punitive values setting us against all those who have not yet made it the young, the poor and even against our own desires.But if we start with what needs to be done, we can see that the middle class s anxious sense of scarcity is in no small part self imposed There is potentially no limit to the demand for skilled, creative, and caring people, no limit to the problems to be solved, the needs to be met by human craft and agency The mentality of scarcity may be appropriate to the realm of consumer goods for the obvious reasons of fairness and ecology but it has no place in the realm of conscious, responsible, effort and achievement In an egalitarian future, there would be enough work to go around, and work pleasurable enough so that all will want it This is not a matter of lowering standards, but of opening doors removing artificial barriers and expanding educational opportunity to all comers In the process, education itself must change, abandoning its restrictive biases by race and sex as well as class , downplaying competition The long process of growing up an dpreparing for an adult occupational role need no longer be an exercise in deferring gratification Permissiveness would cease to be a threat and an excuse for class injustice For growing numbers of people from all backgrounds, the path of self indulgence would lead straight on from the pleasure of learning to the joy of chosen work At the point where education becomes the free exercise of mind, it would inevitably cease to be the mechanism of class reproduction It would be too exuberant, too playful, to remain in quiet service to social inequality Everyone would want it the barriers erected to keep out the others would tumble, and the hungry of all ages would swarm in This, very simply, should be the program of the professional middle class and the agenda it brings to any broader movement for equality and social justice to expand the class, welcoming everyone, until there remains no other class.

  4. says:

    If you ve never read Ehrenreich before Nickled and Dimed, Bait and Switch , you re in for a sociological treat In this particular work, she visits a new understanding of the class system in America, using her heydey of the 60s as part backdrop, part hammer to crack the belief systems of class deniers She describes the new invisibility of the upper classes during the 60s, when it was not considered cool to be rich, and brings about a deeper appreciation for just how privileged the face of the radical movement really was and how the relationship between stratification and invisibility reflects underlying problems in both corporate culture and in the cultural values of the people who try to live up to such ephemeral standards the middle class Neither the housing bubble nor the financial crisis can be a shock to anyone who has read this book nor can a statement made about how there is no real middle class so much as there is a group of people who are not wealthy constantly struggling to look like they are or to simply not be poor Her understanding of the problems facing the working class and how they continue to be overlooked and under served is of especial importance the problems haven t gone away since 1989 they ve multiplied and grown You bet your classicist ass this is Book 11 on my list of 100 Books You Should Read Before You Die 100BooksFTW if you re on Twitter My only criticism is that it sorely needs an update, and I hope Ehrenreich will do so before she dies.

  5. says:

    i don t normally read non fiction because it makes my brain hurt but this book, like all her others, is really easy to read it s also really fucking smart and informative and for someone raised middle class it s pretty awesome to read about yourself since middle class is always presented as so normal as to never need to be talked about and that can make you kind of myopic and crazy, espescially when you start to wonder, why the fuck am i so freaked out about money all the time

  6. says:

    Ehrenreich writes thoughtfully about the history and makeup of the American middle class, from the early part of the 20th century through the mid 1980s the book was published in 1987 or thereabouts Her conclusion, though, was unsatisfying by recommending that we rethink work so that everyone contributes in a way that is most personally satisfying ignores the many jobs that are not and will never be personally satisfying, yet still need to be done A better conclusion would have focused on making sure that those jobs are paid well enough to allow a person to make a living, while providing educational support for those who would like to do something else long term.

  7. says:

    Basically an analysis of the failure of middle class liberalism and why the suburbs shifted to the right Discusses 1 What is the middle class Where does their prosperity come from What are their interests 2 How do these translate into a politics What mythos did they have to develop to cope with these realities.3 How their policies repeatedly failed the working class, how they shifted blame onto the working class, the story they invented about the working man 4 Evolution of feminism into corporate feminism5 Where the New Right came from, and how big business courted those it exploits.

  8. says:

    The Fear of Falling is an excellent critical assessment of the cultural battles that engulf the media sphere which are ultimately the outlets by which the professional middle class PMC talks to itself It is self conscious and has constant anxiety about its own class position fuelled by guilt but also a sense of meritocratic pride as society s intelligentsia and decision makers One such example of this anxiety is that the professional middle class is in a position to enjoy its relative wealth and prosperity with the massive emergence of a host of new commodities and the consumer culture as we know it now in the post war era, but yet there is a constant fear of permissiveness that an indulgence of their state of affairs will corrupt themselves and their children into not having the discipline to go to university and carry on the middle class legacy left for them Other issues present themselves in these two forms and the anxiety of this class becomes projected on to the working class Ultimately whenever the working class is discussed in any significant manner it is done through sociological experts and poverty becomes treated as a social pathology At its worst it is ultimately akin to race science and phrenology and in less extreme forms just infantilizing Depending on the decade the ways in which they are considered caused shifts from the left to the right about how to handle poverty Liberals proposed no systemic change and could not recognize their own smugness while the conservatism was able to prey upon anti establishment resentment at liberal demagogues and channel it into support for their own political agenda All such transitions and disputes are quite well characterized in those cultural defining decades It is honestly not all that surprising that we see the same phenomenon today with liberal surprise that the confidence in the Democratic party establishment has waned shown by the recent election Yet blame always falls to the working class or the dumb masses as they are termed despite no voting demographic to support this assertion Although I suppose the omission of voting is also something they are blamed for.What is truly surprising is that after this entire indictment of middle class hypocrisy is that Ehrenrich still sees future potential in them as progressive How she comes to this conclusion is truly astonishing and ultimately disappointing considering the rest of the book is an excellent post mortem on the failures of American liberalism as a positive political force for the working class She does not realize that the fear the PMC feels is not paranoia but a very real phenomenon The middle class has always needed the accreditation and higher education systems to buffer itself Yet now each professional industry has its own process of proleterianization The out of high school coder, the non tenured guest lecturers, degree inflation, etc If anything the PMC is a historical aberration that cannot be expanded just by targeting the rich and through redistribution as it is systemic than that She does correctly point out that the division of mental and manual labour is indeed an issue with working class misery and middle class gratification but fails to pinpoint its source This call for removing all boundaries does not remove this division rather private property, wage labour, and a mode of production upon which all social and government structures are designed to mediate Revealing a structural issue is not the same as making it no one is at fault but rather that it is not a matter of consciousness and appeals to PMC fickleness but a system of social relations that cause the emergence of those beliefs Rather than redistribution the way production itself is organized is at stake And if the flip flopping of the PMC is anything to go by there will be some that fear for their class position and slide right again and those willing to be subsumed into a larger movement for something But what is not in the cards is anything that can stop the slow grind as the PMC dissolves into the two broader class distinctions.

  9. says:

    Still relevant all these years later.

  10. says:

    A discerning reporter of American social, political, and economic life, Barbara Ehrenreich has written for magazines and newspapers and penned several books Her most famous book is probably Nickle and Dimed On Not Getting By in America of 2001 A much earlier book is Fear of Falling The Inner Life of the Middle Class, which I read after a strong recommendation from a very good friend of mine One would think that a 24 year old book about the economic life of different U.S classes from the 1950s into the 1980s would have little relevance to a reader in 2013 That assumption would be wrong Ehlenreich could update her statistics a bit and add chapters on the 1990s and 2000s without changing much of the substance of the book Topics dealt with include wealth and income inequality She writes, The gap between the haves and the have nots not only between the rich and poor but between the middle class and the working class is wider than it has been at any time since the end of World War II, so that America s income distribution is now almost as perilously skewed as that of India Sound familiar Income and wealth inequality in the U.S has gotten only worse since Ehrenreich published her book in 1989 and is most recently compared to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century She gives a description of the results of the tax cuts for the rich and for large profitable corporations in the 1980s What happened to the immense largesse made available, by conservative policies, to the rich Some small part financed the visible extravagances of the eighties, aptly represented by Malcolm Forbes s capitalist cookies, Trump s helicopters, and Nancy Reagan s borrowed gowns Another smallish part was invested, if the word applies, in hoardable items such as art But most of it went to fuel the speculative binge on Wall Street the corporate takeovers, mergers and acquisitions, leveraged buyouts that have made America, as some economists put it, a casino society None of these speculative activities generates new wealth, new jobs except for legions of corporate lawyers , new products, or new technology They are games of chance, carried on in an unprecedented scale, whose only tangible result is a reshuffling of existing wealth and power among a tiny group of players Again sound familiar These few sentences aptly describe not just the 1980s but the 2000s And not much has changed in the 2010s Americans perceptions of the middle class, working class, the poor, and the wealthy the true elites in the U.S after World War II to the Reagan era are compared with the realities, the book heavily documented by 20 pages of notes The book is a good preparation for her later books and other volumes on the economics, politics, and sociology in the United States around the turn of the 21st century.

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