In her new book On Class, Toronto writer and editor Deborah Dundas talks about showing up for a job interview at a television station overdressed. Brought up with a working-class background, she recalls that she “looked like I was pretending to be a banker,” while the people interviewing her dressed more casually, familiar with terms like “dressing down” in a way that nobody who grew up with one good set of clothes could hope to grasp.
“Oh, no, I got it wrong,” she remembers, having filed the memory with another one of bringing a briefcase to class at university: “I wanted to look as I belonged to the future I hoped for.” These are the sorts of encounters most people hopefully and anxiously ascending the ladder from lower- to middle-class share, especially in creative fields where standards and expectations are so mercurial. I have at least a dozen memories like it – those that I haven’t supressed, that is.
“I simply didn’t know how to act,” Dundas writes. “You miss the nuance of the rules and so don’t feel confident enough to interpret them – it’s tough to know when you’re doing the right thing when you haven’t had a hand in making the rules and there’s no one to guide you.”
On Class could have been titled On Poverty: as in life, the doings of the rich are mostly out of sight and insulated from our concern; the middle class occupies a much more pivotal position, though it’s mostly understood as a vague place in the social landscape, whose boundaries and features are hard to describe, and whose precise income requirements are as hard to pin down as anything governments call a “priority”.
Dundas recalls how the Trudeau government’s 2019 re-election campaign talked a lot about the middle class, and even appointed MP Mona Fortier to a newly created cabinet post as Minister of Middle Class Prosperity – a position that only Fortier ever held, as it was discontinued following the 2021 election. (One presumes that the problem of middle-class prosperity was either solved or simply slipped from the fleeting enthusiasms of the Prime Minister and his cabinet.)
When asked to define just what middle-class meant, Fortier responded it was “where people feel that they can afford their way of life. They have quality of life. And they can…send their kids to play hockey or even have different activities.” Dundas notes that she was ridiculed for her answer but that “Fortier had a point: the idea of being middle class lies partly in feeling as if you’re middle class.”
Which leaves the working class, whose ranks contain multitudes, including the working poor, the salt of the earth, the blue-collar voter, Joe Six-Pack, the tillers of the soil, the underclass, the downwardly mobile, the minimum wage slave, the hero of labour, the recent immigrant and the undeserving poor. It’s a class that contains more distinct roles and stereotypes than any other, and its needs and worries are only really palpable if you’re a member.
While what and where the middle class is sounds dynamic, even erratic, Dundas notes that there’s a statistical “stickiness” to the classes on either side, inasmuch as one is hard to fall out of, while the other can be tough to rise above. These are, of course, very different problems.
We hear a lot today about the shrinking middle class – this inspired Mona Fortier’s fleeting posting. And it’s a problem because they’re not migrating into the upper class but tumbling down (or back down) into the ranks of the working class, a place nobody apparently wants to be.
This is understood as a reversal of social trends that have been taken for granted for decades if not centuries, and even worse as a challenge to the idea that our society is successful because it’s meritocratic. Luck – a euphemism for the accidents of birth and minute geography, and of connections and opportunities that are bestowed not earned – suddenly seems to play a bigger part in economic mobility than it has in almost a century, and Dundas writes that “luck of the draw – the wealth of the family you were born into, job stability, where you lived – seems more important than ever.”
But we all knew, deep down, that simple hard work and “bootstrapping” was never the sole key to achieving and maintaining upward social mobility. The middle class might have a hard time defining precisely what it is, but it knows itself when it sees it, and this manifests itself in hundreds of clues, rituals, common references, experiences and shared assumptions that confound outsiders – like small talk about where you spent the summer, or the appropriate dress for a job interview at a TV station.
In his book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano describes trying to conform to the sedate, middle-class tone of the modern newsroom. “Over the years, I’ve tried to improve my own manner, with marginal success. Now I say things like, ‘With all due respect…’ before I tell a boss I think he’s wrong. I try not to be hostile. But I’ve got a glass head and I can’t always hide my feelings, which stage three-act plays for everyone to see. I once told an editor, ‘With all due respect, I think that’s a really bad idea.’ The man glared and was barely civil to me until he left the paper a year later.”
It doesn’t help that words like “manners,” the complex meaning of which would have been understood up to a generation or two ago, are now unfashionable. Indeed, Lubrano’s book, which is almost 20 years old, describes a world of social indicators and class paradigms that are far more stark and easy to read than the murkier, more coded one Dundas portrays in On Class.
I like to joke that I was the first journalist I’d ever met when I decided to become one, but lacking mentors or guidebooks – and believing that our society really is a meritocracy and that the quality of your work is all that matters – working class people make their own way on the journey upward, and rarely recognize fellow strivers.
Reading Dundas’ book, I was surprised to see an interview with a mutual acquaintance, a writer I’ve known for over three decades, who briefly lived with me when she sublet a room in my apartment. I had her pegged for someone who implicitly understood how the creative middle class worked and was impressed in hindsight by how much better she camouflaged herself.
The conflict would seem to be between working class interlopers unable to “read the room” and the middle-class occupying the commanding heights who create endless unwritten rules that only their children can learn. This is daunting enough until you add race and gender and the conflicts between generations to the social landscape – one that looks more like a minefield, especially when media old and new and politicians of every kind equate rage with audience share and think angry voters are motivated ones.
Dundas also wonders if the “bootstrap narrative also reinforces the idea that a person must fight to escape their lot in life: that we must be constantly striving, wherever we may find ourselves, however much we may already have, for more. Surely there’s more to heroism than that. But this belief ignores the fact that not everyone wants to be a banker or a business person and money isn’t the only way to measure merit.”
On Class is a Canadian book, written from a Canadian perspective, so it’s no surprise that it references official statistics from recognized authorities and talks about industry associations and government entities and initiatives: the OECD, EKOS, Statistics Canada, Poverty Hub, the Economic Club of Canada, the Canadian Media Producers Association, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.
As a social democracy Canada favours technocratic solutions to problems which, if they can be measured and summarized can be dealt with in laws and regulations. But you can’t legislate outcome or fairness, much as we might be living through a period intent on ignoring history and doing precisely that.
The most reasonable option is to hope that we’re still able to share the same meanings of words and start discussions about what we mean by class and why it still matters so much. “We become responsible for each other by knowing each other,” as Dundas writes. “I’ve got a foot in both worlds, and it’s important for those who can bridge both worlds to do so.”