“The middle classes, everywhere claimed to be victims, are doing better than the working classes”

2023-06-21 16:00:27

Women and men politicians regularly feel sorry for the fate of the middle class, which would have lost in income and social position to the benefit not only of the wealthiest but also of the poorest, privileged recipients of social transfers. The ambiguity of the definition of the middle class makes it an easy political attractor, but can we really say that it has suffered particularly in recent decades? Jad Moawad and Daniel Oesch, two researchers from the University of Lausanne, clarify this question in a recent article (« The Myth of the Middle Class Squeeze : Employment and Income by Class in Six Western Countries, 1980-2020 »).

The notion of middle class is today defined almost exclusively by income. But this definition, now used both by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and by the International Labor Organization (ILO), creates categories that are no longer rooted in the realities of the world of work, whose importance for representations and way of life. Thus, according to the ILO, any household earning per consumption unit more than 60% of the median income would today be part of the middle class, which would include, in France, a single worker working full time at the minimum wage, but probably does not correspond to its representation, nor to that of society.

How to define the middle classes?

The difficulty in measuring the transformations undergone by the middle classes is due to the impossibility of defining them satisfactorily, the latter often being so. “hollow”. They bring together very diverse social groups (employees, craftsmen, shopkeepers, small business owners, category B civil servants, school teachers, technicians, etc.) who have in common the fact that they have capital “diplomas, income, assets or housing” to which ” hang on “according to sociologist and economist Dominique Goux and Eric Maurin.

Economists willingly reason in terms of income: the OECD thus retains people whose income is between two thirds and twice the median income (1,837 euros in France, or between 1,300 and 3,500 euros). INSEE is more interested in “intermediate jobs”those that are typically “between executives and executing agents”. Sociologists use, for their part, the diploma (bac + 2 or bac + 3), which is linked to the profession and the social category. “Ideally, we should also take into account the territory where we live, and the heritage inheritedadds the sociologist Camille Peugny. A couple who earn twice 2,000 euros will be part of the middle class, unless they have inherited housing. »

Depending on the definition used, the size of the population varies greatly, and the more it pulls down, the more the downgrading phenomenon will be visible. Economist Thomas Piketty works on “40% of the middle” Population, “between the richest 10% and the poorest 50%”, in his work A brief history of equality (Threshold, 2021). With an income criterion close to that of the OECD, France Strategy, an organization which depends on Matignon, arrived, in a note from 2016, at a proportion of two thirds of the French population. Sociologist Henri Mendras spoke of a « constellation centrale » representing regarding a quarter of the working population.

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The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies takes this into account by constructing nomenclatures of socio-professional categories since 1954 on the basis of occupations but also of the training and trajectories of the persons concerned. It is in this tradition that the two authors fit into by exploiting the national scientific surveys coordinated since the 1980s in the Luxembourg Income Study to understand the evolution of the incomes of an upper class (engineers, doctors, lawyers, senior executives , etc.), a middle class (technicians, middle managers, teachers) and a working class separated into skilled and unskilled.

Be wary of dominant representations

These surveys firstly remind us of the quantitative importance of the working classes, formerly centered on blue-collar workers and now dominated by unskilled or low-skilled service professions, such as delivery men or home helps. They have lost in structuring (particularly trade unions) and in symbolic visibility, but still represent the majority of the active population, and cannot be assimilated to the middle classes, nor reduced to the marginality of “benefit recipients”.

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