Recognising the Middle Class in Sweden and the US

Social class is a useful concept to understand society, but it’s also pretty vague in the definition of each class. In ideological training courses taught through the Swedish labour movement you may encounter the idea that there are only two classes, employers and employees. My view is I believe more common, viz that class is similar to subculture: goths and jocks etc. In this view both the owner and the employees of a small plumbing firm are working class. Meanwhile a poorly funded environmental research scientist is middle class, even though she makes far less money.

This is because the main distinction between the working and middle + upper classes in Sweden is not economic, but cultural. The main parameter is higher education, which is open to anyone: no term fees, generous study loans. In 2021, 30% of Swedes between the ages of 25 and 64 years had at least a BA degree. (Swedes are often confused by the English term “an academic”, because Sw. en akademiker means “a uni graduate”.)

As for the upper class, Sweden has a hereditary nobility whose last legal privileges were abolished only 200 years ago. Most noble families are still culturally upper class, but have long been joined there by a large number of wealthy non-noble families. Sweden’s upper class can actually usefully be distinguished on the basis of wealth. So a provisional set of descriptions might be:

  • Working class: no uni degree, possibly economically comfortable, may own a small plumbing business.*
  • Middle class: has uni degree, dominates media and cultural scene, possibly economically comfortable, may be an environmental scientist.
  • Upper class: businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, architects; wealthy.

Reading about US politics though, I realise that the class terminology there is quite different. Considerably more Americans than Swedes of working age have at least a BA: 35% in 2018. But in my reading, it seems that education does not really figure into the US definition of the middle class. As Wikipedia puts it, “With the development of capitalist societies and further inclusion of the bourgeoisie into the ruling class, middle class has been more closely identified by Marxist scholars [and mainstream US discourse] with the term petite bourgeoisie.” And the petite bourgeoisie according to Marx is “small shopkeepers and self-employed artisans … they typically work alongside their employees, unlike the haute bourgeoisie.” In the US a plumbing business owner is middle class. (You rarely see the term upper class used at all in US writing.)

The US definition of the middle class, then, has a solid Marxist foundation. But Marx didn’t foresee the rise of a culturally dominant but not particularly affluent class of university graduates. They don’t own a lot of stock and so cannot be said to control the means of production. They are almost entirely employees, not business owners. In their mental and material culture they are sharply distinct both from the comfortable petite bourgeoisie and the wealthy upper class. And in their political leanings, they have increasingly become the supporting pillar of the Swedish Left, as a large proportion of the working class voters has turned to right-wing populism. The small-business-owning petite bourgeoisie has long voted Conservative. Karl Marx would be extremely confused if he took a look at social class in Sweden of 2022.

* Side note: From a gender and class perspective, something pretty strange is happening to the current generation of the Swedish working class. About half of the men have begun to vote far-Right, while the women still largely vote Centre-Left. And nursing school has been extended to become a degree in higher ed. So in many Swedish marriages right now, there is a growing gap across the breakfast table both politically and in terms of class aspiration. Mothers with degrees encourage their children to study.

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Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

8 thoughts on “Recognising the Middle Class in Sweden and the US”

  1. There are a number of dividing lines. In the US, one big dividing line is between the working class and the business class. One big dividing line, since at least the 1890s, is that working class people are paid hourly but business class people are paid a salary. This was put into employment law in the 1930s with the confusing distinction of whether you are exempt or non-exempt from certain rules. If you are paid a salary, you are exempt from laws about overtime though you are likely to be better paid and have perks like sick leave. If you are paid by the hour, you are non-exempt from such laws meaning that you should get a higher wage for hours beyond forty a week. Are you non-confused now?

    So, a college educated Starbucks worker is working class while a high school drop out writing Python code thanks to a boot camp course would be business class. It’s not a comprehensive means of classification, but it is good enough for labor lawyers and legislators.

    I still think the best reference on class in the UK is Jilly Cooper’s “Class”. She was a novelist who wrote successful pot boilers usually set in or adjacent to the exciting world of polo, an upmarket sport. Since England still has a formal class structure with an aristocracy, a gentry and everyone else, it’s fun to see her updates of the traditional types. It’s also useful for decoding 19th century novels and understanding why England was never able to leverage itself into the modern computer age.

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      1. The business class and the middle class are more or less the same. The modern consumer society started developing in the 19th century with rising industrialization and urbanization. The business class evolved with the rising wealth of towns and cities. It created a new class of relatively well off people who weren’t farmers or landowners. They made their livings using their brains more than their brawn, so this division roughly lines up with the white collar and blue collar division.

        There was also the matter of money and status. Business class men made more money than working class men. They had shorter work hours. They had standing in their community. They were more likely to be able to vote. Their peers were the ones allowed to serve on juries. They were less likely to be arrested by the police. Business class women were supposed to focus on home life and stay out of the labor market, while working class women were expected to work for money.

        There’s a difference in treatment and a consequent difference in attitude. Business class men have bank accounts. Working class men deal with payday lenders and pawn shops. This leads to big differences in attitude. I’d read Lubrano’s “Limbo” to get a sense of this. Lubrano grew up working class but moved into the business class. If you don’t want to deal with the book, just read the comments on Amazon.

        The class difference is real, and you can look at it many different ways. It’s like defining the Middle Ages. When did the Middle Ages start? Did they arrive everywhere all at once? How can you tell from artifacts and accounts if a certain place was in the Middle Ages at a given time? It gets harder as one looks more closely at the details and tries to find a firm dividing line.

        On the other hand, if you are trying to understand things, it makes sense to choose a dividing line and recognize that the division is not hard and fast. The business class / working class division is usually about economics. Middle class / lower class is usually about attitudes and identity. I’ve read accounts with “town class” and “country class”. Take a hint from the cognitive sciences. There are such a things as absolute pitch and absolute color that can be objectively identified, but there is no such thing as absolute scent or absolute taste. There is too much variability in the relevant human sensory system, but we manage to discuss scent and taste despite this.

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  2. Note also the U.S. terms “blue collar” and “white collar”.

    A B.A. degree in the USA is probably worth less than one in Sweden, and much less than one in Germany, because in the USA some things are studied at a small college which elsewhere would be apprentice-learned trades.

    I once had a teacher who said that Marx’s main mistake was that he didn’t see the rise of the electric motor, which made the small business possible, as opposed to the big capitalist-owned factories running on water or steam.

    There is also a huge difference between Sweden and the USA in terms of the spread of income.

    What is the reason for the phenomenon described in your footnote?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many commenters believe that half of Swedish working class men vote extreme-right because they feel they are doing worse than their dads did and have been tricked into believing it’s Hassan’s fault, not big capital’s.

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      1. Its not a coincidence that the global populist / far right movement is especially nostalgic about jobs in coal mines or car factories. Those jobs are remembered as male spaces where manly men could be manly (as always, the way something is remembered in political rhetoric is not always the same as it actually was).

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