The core of the upper-middle class are college-educated, employed, married couples with their children. Within this class there are fractions that live somewhat different lives from one another. These families make a spectrum with corporate managers at one end, intellectuals at the other, and professionals in the middle. Each of these groups has a distinctive approach to work, which carries over into differences in how they lives their family lives.
The college class spreads across a spectrum of occupations. It also produces a middle class layer and an upper-middle class layer. College-educated men and women tend to marry one another, and both are likely to have jobs. Husband and wife each approach their work in line with the norms of each person’s occupation. They also make a common family out of some combination of the class and occupational cultures that they join together.
Layers and Fractions of the College Class
There is a solid line of studies of professionals that distinguishes them from corporate managers and business executives. Eliot Freidson (1986) emphasizes the historical process by which professionals established a separate realm of power from merchants and manufacturers. Steven Brint (1994) follows Freidson, showing further how control of knowledge is key to what distinguishes professionals from other workers within various organizations and markets. Andrew Abbott (1988) argues that professions compete with one another, as well as with business managers, to establish their distinctive jurisdictions within a system of professions. Keith MacDonald (1995), in his overview of the sociology of professions, puts the “professionalizing project” at the core of what sociology knows about professions in relation to other occupations.
Pierre Bourdieu’s work has been most fruitful in thinking about the culture of different fractions of the same class stratum, as well as how the higher strata differ from the lower. In Distinction (1984) Bourdieu says that this high (“dominant”) class has more total capital than the classes below. Internally, though, the various fractions differ in their mix of economic capital (money) and cultural capital (knowledge or culture). The “dominant fraction of the dominant class,” the monied end of this spectrum, consist of commercial and industrial employers. The “dominated fraction of the dominant class” is exemplified by public-sector executives, engineers, private-sector executives below the top level, professions, secondary teachers, higher-education teachers, and artistic producers. Michele Lamont has made the most complex attempt to apply Bourdieu’s class fraction idea. In the monied fraction she looks for the profit-related occupations in the private sector, both among the salaried and the self-employed. In the cultured fraction she seeks cultural and social specialists within the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, and people in what she calls “profit-related occupations” in the public and non-profit sectors (Lamont 1992, 2002). Joseph Soares tested cultured versus monied class fractions in surveys of Yale and Wake Forest alumni (Soares 2007 on Yale; unpublished data on Wake Forest). He compared professionals and non-professionals among those in the top 10% of income in the two universities, then with a similarly constructed group in the National Educational Longitudinal Survey.
Previous considerations of professions, or of the fractions of the college-educated class, tend to compare just two categories, professionals and managers. Moreover, they tend to place the college educated in the middle and/or upper-middle class, without further considering the difference that might make.
The “500 Families” dataset lets us look a little more deeply into these nuances of class layer and class fraction. We can compare the middle class and upper-middle class. Moreover, we can consider not just two ends of the spectrum of class fractions, but a third position in the middle. Using Bourdieu’s categories, managers and executives are clearly at the economic capital pole of the capital-composition spectrum, while intellectuals are at the pole with more culture than money. Professionals fall in between. Professionals are those who make a business out of applying knowledge.
Upper middle class
Lower Middle Class
Service, Clerical, and Manual
Upper-Middle Class Fractions
Management: Executives and Managers (288 individuals)
Professions: Lawyers, Judges, Physicians, Architects, and Engineers (135)
Intelligentsia: Writers, Artist, Professors, Scientists, and Social Scientists (95)
Middle Class Fractions
Business Middle: Sales and Public Relations (65)
Paraprofessional: Nurses, Therapists, and Counselors (36)
Knowledge Middle: Sub-doctoral Scientists, Social Scientists, Technicians, Teachers, Librarians, and Religious Workers (133).
Lower-Middle Class Fractions:
Service, Clerical, and Manual Workers (116).
The overall study is skewed somewhat toward women, reflecting the difference between single mothers and single fathers in the sample. The Management and Intellectual fractions mirror the overall gender split. The Professions and Business Middle are significantly more male than the overall group of respondents, while the Knowledge Middle and Lower Middle groups are skewed female. The Paraprofessional group of nurses, therapists, and counselors is overwhelmingly female; there are only two men in this category.
Managers, Professionals, Intellectuals
To be well known
Contribute to knowledge
Likes the challenge
Location close to kids
For managers, the clear top motivation for work is “the money.” For intellectuals, by contrast, the overwhelming top reason for work, chosen by more than half of the respondents, is “enjoy the task.” Indeed, the intellectuals’ preference for the sheer enjoyment of their work is the strongest motive in the whole table.
Intellectuals have a passion for the specific substance of their work; managers manage people who produce goods and services. Intellectuals get their identity from doing and being the task; managers get their identity from making a profit or efficiency from any kind of task. Intellectuals get more intrinsic motivation from the substance of the work; managers get less intrinsic motivation from the substance of the work, so they get more extrinsic motivation from the rewards of the job. Business management and executive work has to pay more than intellectual work does because the work itself is less engaging.
Where, then, do we find the professionals? In between the managers and intellectuals, leaning toward the managers. The strongest motive for professional work is “the money,” chosen as very true by 40.8%. A close second, though, is “enjoy the task,” chosen by 39.5%. The core fact of the professional class culture is professionals turn knowledge into profit.
The middle class occupations are heavy on helping professions—half are nurses, therapists, counselors, teachers, librarians, or religious workers. Two thirds are mothers. It is not so surprising, therefore, that they put “helping people” as their top motivation. This is especially true of the paraprofessionals, an overwhelmingly female category. The knowledge middle fraction clearly are devoted to helping people (54.2% very true), but choose enjoyment of their task a strong second (47.5%).
The one middle-class category that has more men than women, the business middle, have the strongest commitment to money as their main motivation for work. The lower middle class works for the most utilitarian and extrinsic of reasons—the money, the benefits, and location close to the kids. 70% of the people in this category are mothers, many of them single mothers.
The Class Culture of Families
Do parents in different kinds of occupations approach family life differently?
(N = 842)
Yes – Men
50.0 (N = 1)
Yes – Women
The men overwhelmingly say no—85% or more among business, business middle, lower middle, and professional men. The men of the knowledge work column, though, stand out as different. 22.2% of knowledge middle men said yes to this question, and fully 30% of the intellectual men answered yes as well. Clearly, fathers as a whole very strongly feel they are supposed to work to support their families. But the question is a little more flexible for men in the knowledge jobs.
Women in this study are divided in half on this question of whether they had a choice to stay home with their children, with the professional women feeling most driven to work. Once again, though, the knowledge occupations stand out as more flexible when it comes to staying home with the children. It is perhaps not surprising that 69.9% of the women in the category that includes school teachers think they have a choice to stay home with their kids—greater flexibility is one of the reasons that such work has appealed strongly to women in the first place. It is more surprising, though, that 3/4ths of the intellectual women also feel they can stay home with their kids.
(N = 834)
Stay home, no pay
This table is statistically significant. Interestingly, neither table is significant controlling for sex. I think women like part-time jobs better in general. You can see that in the heavily female paraprofessionals. But staying home only seems attractive if it is for kids. Not working is not, in itself, an attractive option for the educated classes.
The working parents in this study are, not surprisingly, committed to the idea of working parents. Both men and women overwhelmingly (90%+) favor “Employers being more understanding of employees’ dual roles as employees and parents.” At the same time, they are not blind to the potential costs to kids of parents working. The upper-middle class men and women, who have invested the most in their careers, are the least likely to think there are major costs to parents working. In response to the claim that “Children who have parents working don’t learn important values from parents,” 14.2% of the lower middle class parents strongly disagree, about 23% of the middle class parents strongly disagree, but fully 31% of the upper middle class parents strongly disagree. Likewise, most parents in all classes allow that “Children who have parents working get into more trouble,” but more than 40% of the upper middles disagree.
The intellectuals and knowledge middle class seem to have more flexibility for family life. We saw this in whether they thought they could stay home with their children. We can also see this difference when we compare who thinks about family at work, and who thinks about work at home. Few parents feel bad about leaving their kids when they go to work, but the business middle women are most likely, at 27.2%, to report that the often feel guilty. Likewise, more than a quarter of the business women of the middle and upper-middle classes, as well as the professional women, feel guilty that they don’t spend more time with their families, whereas only about 9% of the knowledge working women of both classes do. And within the middle class, only about half of the business and paraprofessional workers think their families are understanding about the demands of their jobs, whereas nearly 3/4ths of the knowledge workers report such understanding.
This is a fascinating pair of tables:
(N = 803)
(N = 803)
0 (N = 31)
The paraprofessionals are the most interesting column here. That this bunch of moms is most likely to think of their families while at work is perhaps not so surprising. However, that none of them report thinking about work when with their families is surprising. Perhaps these jobs are appealing because you can leave the job at work.
The other standout fact from this table is how much the intellectuals think about work when they are at home. The more people do knowledge-oriented work, the more their work is part of their round-the-clock identity. Cultural capital shapes who you are; economic capital, by contrast, shapes what you have.
How Our Family Works
Men and women in this study differ in the expected ways on housework. The different occupations do not differ systematically in shopping, cooking, cleaning, or laundry, except that intellectual men seem to spend a little more time cooking than other men do. This may also reflect the greater flexibility of intellectuals’ jobs.
The higher classes are less likely to have their teenagers do housework, and more likely to hire help for these tasks. One kind of hiring help that does show a class fraction difference is in whether parents ever hire tutors. The great majority of parents in all categories say they never hire tutors. However, a quarter of professional parents, and 30% of the business middle class, sometimes hire tutors for their children. Perhaps the professionals and business middle want their kids to get good grades, but are less confident in their own abilities to teach their children themselves.
(N = 415)
Strongly Agree - Men
50.0 (N = 1)
In the other questions leading up to this summary evaluation, intellectuals are the most pleased with the personality characteristics and personal habits of their spouses. They are most likely to be happy about how they make decisions and resolve conflicts as a couple. And they are the happiest with how they manage their leisure and spend time together. In handling their duties are parents, intellectual men are second most satisfied, after Business Middle men (the women did not differ significantly). The paraprofessional women are most likely to agree that “I have never regretted my relationship with my partner, not even for moment,” with the intellectuals falling in the middle. Perhaps intellectuals on principle want to be open to every idea, so they are unwilling to affirm that they never for a moment had regrets about any subject.
Who Marries Whom?
One of the perennial puzzles of class and status research is figuring out the social class of a married couple. Prior to the 1970s the sociological convention was simply to treat the husband’s class markers—occupation, education, and income—as establishing the family’s social class. Since the 1970s many more women have their own occupations and income outside the home, and sociology has been more attentive to the distinctive contributions of women to all aspects of social life. Which has made it hard, indeed, to use one simple measure of a couple’s joint social class.
As a proportion of all married couples:% (N)
10 Business Middle
30 Knowledge Middle
40 Lower Middle
% Marrying same occupation
% Marrying same class
% Marrying same class or + (up% only)
The outstanding fact is that the great majority of women—2/3rds or more—in each occupational category marry their class equivalents if they are in the highest class, or marry up if they are not in the highest class. Professional women are the most class-conserving: most of them marry other professionals, and more than 4/5th marry someone within the upper-middle class. Intellectual women are not far behind. Female business executives marry a broader range of men than their professional and intellectual counterparts, but even 2/3rds of them marry within the upper-middle class.
The middle class and lower-middle class women, by contrast, married up more than they married within their own class. The paraprofessionals and knowledge middle class married up at better than three times the rate that they married within the middle class. Indeed, these heavily female jobs seem designed to be the college-educated counterparts to the careers of upper-middle class men. These jobs include nurses, therapists, and counselors among the paraprofessionals, while among the mid-level knowledge workers they include scientists, social scientists, and technicians below the Ph.D. level, as well as teachers, librarians, and religious workers.
% of women marrying men in the same occupation
% of men marrying women in the same occupation
10 Business Middle
2 of 4 (too few for%)
30 Knowledge Middle
40 Lower Middle
There are many more women than men in the paraprofessional and knowledge middle categories. As we have seen, these women tend to marry up to upper-middle-class men. There are more men than women in the professions and, to a lesser extent, the business middle categories. Professional women marry professional men to a very high extent. The remainder of professional men mostly marry class-equivalent women (61.3%), with the largest group marrying business managers. Specifically, 18.6% of professional men are married to female professionals. 34.0% are married to managers, and only 8.7% are married to intellectual women. Business middle men are also heavily married to business upper-middle women, with more than 40% of these men marrying executives.
Vertical Inequalities vs. Horizontal Distinctions
The corporate managers and executives have the most economic capital, while the intellectuals and culture producers have the most cultural capital. They make a spectrum that runs across the college-educated class in the United States today. The professions occupy a midpoint in this spectrum, leaning toward the managers. Intellectuals work with, think about, and take their identity from the specific kinds of cultural knowledge they work with. Managers try to make a profit from the efficient management of any kind of cultural knowledge. Professionals make a profit from the efficient management of a specific kind of cultural knowledge.
These differences among the three top fractions of the college-going class appear in how they approach family life. Intellectuals tend to make marriages that are more egalitarian, more flexible, invest more in their children’s education, and tend to take a more liberal view of social life. Managers tend toward the other end of the spectrum on all these points. Professionals tend to be in the middle.
Stratification studies in sociology tend to treat the college-going class as all one stratum. We focus almost exclusively on vertical inequality. Yet the horizontal distinctions within the same broad stratum are more important in shaping the actual lives of individuals and families within the college class. While the spectrum is, in principle, a fluid range of differences, sociology can fruitfully map the distinctions within the college class by focusing on the lives and families of managers, professionals, and intellectuals.
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