The net result is the muddle class has the signifiers but not the wealth, power, capital or agency that once defined the middle class.
The first use of the phrase The Muddle Class appears to be The rise of the muddle classes (Becky Pugh, telegraph.co.uk) in January 2007. The “muddle” described the complex nature of defining “the middle class,” which includes education, class origins, accents, and many other financial, social and cultural signifiers.
Comedian Jason Manford claimed to have coined the term in June 2013: “I’ve invented a new term; ‘Muddle Class’. When you find yourself being working class AND middle class at the same time.”
I’m using the term to describe the economic class that has the social signifiers of middle class status but little to no ownership of meaningful capital or control of their own financial security. In other words, this class “muddles through” the erosion of their purchasing power and economic security, claiming the social status of “middle class” while their financial status is impoverished when compared to the security of previous generations of “middle class.”
Social status signifiers include: college diplomas, advanced degrees, overseas travel, aspirational dining and consumer goods, home ownership, etc. But where previous generations were building meaningful capital and assets that could be passed down to their offspring, the assets of the “muddle class” are either negligible or highly contingent on the speculative bubble du jour (stocks, bonds, housing).
The more meaningful economic metrics for middle class status are:
1. Household indebtedness, i.e. how much of the income is devoted to debt service, and
2. How much of the household spending is funded by debt.
- If debt overwhelms assets, this financial fragility is not “middle class.”
3. The ability of the household to set aside substantial savings / capital investment.
- If the household is unable to save enough to weather financial crises, this financial fragility is not “middle class.”
4. The security of the households’ employment.