The Middle Class

My Pyramid

I, like a solid portion of my audience in all likelihood, come from a middle class family.

Seldom have I felt like anything in the world was out of my grasp, and I generally assume that if I want to do something, there will be a way to do it if I’m willing to work hard enough.

Vertical mobility is a psychological reality in the First World (even if it doesn’t necessarily happen as frequently as we’d like to believe) which means that if I find myself in a situation I don’t like I am certain I can figure out a way to make myself stronger/richer/faster/whatever other adjective I want to be. It happens all the time. I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work for me.

This is the arrogance of the middle class. And largely it’s warranted. Despite all the problems with the Western World, the fact is that we really do have a massive middle class and because of this the vast majority of people are comfortable and confident enough to not worry about a whole lot beyond what impacts their immediate lifestyle. We’re pretty far up Maslow’s pyramid, and the view is great.

But therein lies the downside, as well, because no matter how much we are told about the problems of the world, it’s incredibly difficult for us to put ourselves in the mindset of someone who is living in a wildly different reality.

Their Pyramid

I’m traveling through Peru, on my way to Lima from Buenos Aires and I’ve got 10 hours left on a 72 hour bus ride.

This bus sucks, and that’s no lie. The seats are cramped, the bathroom may as well not even be there, and the air conditioning isn’t doing much to suppress the pulsing desert heat.

Looking out the window, I see a handful of Peruvians my age, clustered around a fire outside a house built out of tree trunks and plaster, the top unfinished and one side collapsing. They look up as the bus passes, a little surprised but not enough to stir from their reverie, eyes pivoting back to the sputtering of the flames, minds reseting, eyes unfocusing.

I know from speaking to a few people in this part of Peru that their prospects are clear, and they aren’t much.

The buses are where most of the locals make their money, climbing aboard and peddling homemade foodstuffs to captive passengers, then getting dropped off a few miles further down the road, hoping to catch another bus or otherwise walking back, potentially not having made a single sale for their efforts.

There’s a chance that someone here will meet a mate from another country or city and make their way to a city, but it’s incredibly unlikely, and the locals are still talking about the last connection of that sort that happened…30 years ago.

No, what usually happens to these kids is they grow up in the same town as their parents, doing the same thing that their parents do: manning snack shops, selling Inca Cola to tourists, and lounging about with their friends after dark, encircling a fire build on the front stoop, talking about anyone interesting they saw on the buses earlier that day and probably about that lucky gal from 30 years ago.

Motive Power

What’s the point of motivation? Or a better question, where would it even come from? If your reality is such that you’re good and caught in a town where mobility, upward or otherwise, simply isn’t possible on any kind of scale, what’s the point of moving beyond the campfire to see what else is out there in the world? There would be no one to encourage you. No old wive’s tales about the son-in-law who sold his startup for 5 million dollars while in his teens or the middle-management shlub who became CEO.

That’s probably the biggest benefit of being a member of the middle class and the biggest deficit suffered by those who are not. The modern folktales passed on from person to person, describing what’s possible and who can do what and how are what keep us all ticking, moving forward and striving for more.

Keeping these tales alive are what keep our ambitions alive, and passing them on are what spreads the fire of innovation.

Spark a fire. Tell your tale.

Update: December 1, 2016

Interestingly, this is a concept that was relatively new to me back then — or rather, it was a concept that was around, but which I hadn’t spent much time thinking about. These days it’s a much bigger part of the common conversation, however, and we call it ‘privilege.’ Which is a much better term than the ones I was using in this post, but it amounts to the same thing.

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