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 other end of the middle class scale and the regular middle class. There is considerable debate as to how the upper middle class might be defined. According to 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. 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 but also a high degree of autonomy in their work, leading to higher job satisfaction. The main occupational tasks of upper middle class individuals tend to center on conceptualizing, consulting, and instruction.
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. In terms of income, liberals tend to be tied with pro-business conservatives. Most mass affluent households tend to be more right-leaning on fiscal issues but more left-leaning on social issues. The majority of college-educated professionals, who compose 15% of the population and 20% of the electorate, favor the Democratic Party. The majority, between 50% and 60%, of households with incomes above $50,000 overall, not all of whom are upper middle class, supported the Republican Party in the 2000, 2004 and 2006 elections. Academia and those with graduate degrees overall favor the Democratic Party. In 2005, 72% of surveyed full-time faculty members at four-year institutions, the majority of whom would be considered upper middle class, identified themselves as liberal.
Education plays a major role in determining tastes and ideologies in this class. A graduate degree, and often even more 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."
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. 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.
"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.
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. 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. Typical professions for this class include professors, accountants, architects, urban planners, engineers, economists, pharmacists, political scientists, physicians, government administrators, commissioned military officers and lawyers.
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. 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.
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.
|Data||Top third||Top quarter||Top quintile||Top 15%||Top 10%||Top 5%|
|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+)|
|Lower threshold (annual gross income)||$37,500||$47,500||$52,500||$62,500||$75,000||$100,000|
|Exact Percentage of individuals||33.55%||24.03%||19.74%||14.47%||10.29%||5.63%|