I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids whose parents preferred not to pay private-school tuition. Growing up in an immigrant household, I’d felt largely immune to class distinctions. Before high school, some of the kids I knew were somewhat worse off, and others were somewhat better off than most, but we generally all fell into the same lower-middle- or middle-middle-class milieu. So high school was a revelation. Status distinctions that had been entirely obscure to me came into focus. Everything about you—the clothes you wore, the music you listened to, the way you pronounced things—turned out to be a clear marker of where you were from and whether you were worth knowing. [...]
Who counts as upper middle class? It depends. Back in 2013, one survey found that 85 percent of Americans saw themselves as part of a broad middle class, stretching from lower middle (26 percent) to middle middle (46 percent) to upper middle (12 percent). We could define it by income—say, all single adults who earn more than $100,000 a year, or all married couples that earn more than $200,000—but that’s too crude. Let’s just say that upper-middle-class status is a state of mind. We’re talking about families that earn well into the six-figure range yet don’t feel rich, either because of their student loan debt or the enormous cost of the amenities they consider nonnegotiable: living in well-above-average school districts for those with children or living in “cool” neighborhoods for those without.