The Decline of the White Working Class and the Rise of a Mass Upper Middle Class

Alan Abramowitz and
Alan Abramowitz Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science - Emory University
Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira
Ruy Teixeira Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Center for American Progress

April 8, 2008


Dramatic shifts have taken place in the American class structure since the World War II era. Consider education levels. Incredible as it may seem today, in 1940 three-quarters of adults 25 and over were high school dropouts (or never made it as far as high school), and just 5 percent had a four-year college degree or higher. But educational credentials exploded in the postwar period. By 1960, the proportion of adults lacking a high school diploma was down to 59 percent; by 1980, it was less than a third, and by 2007, it was down to only 14 percent. Concomitantly, the proportion with a BA or higher rose steadily and reached 29 percent in 2007. Moreover, those with some college (but not a four-year degree) constituted another 25 percent of the population, making a total of 54 percent who had at least some college education. Quite a change: moving from a country where the typical adult was a high school dropout (more accurately, never even reached high school) to a country where the typical adult not only has a high school diploma, but some college as well.

Or consider the occupational structure. In 1940, only about 32 percent of employed US workers held white collar jobs (professional, managerial, clerical, sales). By 2006, that proportion had almost doubled to 60 percent, including rises from 8 to 20 percent among professionals and from 17 to 26 percent among clerical-sales. On the other end of the occupational distribution, manual workers (production, operatives, craft, laborers) declined from 36 percent to 23 percent. So we have moved from an occupational structure where there were more manual than white collar workers, to one where there are nearly three times as many white collar as manual workers.

Finally, consider income levels. In 1947, the median family income (2005 dollars) was around $22,000. By 2005, median family income was around $56,000, two and a half times as high as in 1947. Looked at another way, in 1947, 60 percent of families made under $26,000 in income. But in 2005, only 20 percent made less than that figure and 40 percent made over $68,000, a figure that was exceeded by less than 5 percent of families in 1947.

In this paper, we discuss these shifts in the class structure and analyze their political implications, primarily by focusing on the decline of the white working class. We also take a look at some other aspects of the shifting class structure, including the rise of a mass upper middle class. We then assess whether and to what extent the trends reshaping our class structure are likely to continue in the future. We conclude with a discussion of how these future changes are likely to shift the political terrain facing the parties and present new challenges for policy and governance.