Jessi Streib, "Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall" (Oxford UP, 2020)


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Talking about social class and the American class structure is a challenge. It can be easy to talk about the class system too rigidly, implying that “the rich stay rich while the poor stay poor.” Yet in our individualistic culture, much rhetoric suggests that anything is possible, which can dismiss the privileges or constraints that come with social class.

Dr. Jessi Streib, assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, is a social class researcher and scholar whose work focuses on interesting junctures and disjunctures where class reveals its influence on individual lives. In Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall (Oxford UP, 2020), Streib focuses on a cohort of over 100 men and women who began life in the upper middle class, interviewing them over a ten-year period as they transition from their teens to their late twenties. By looking at the interplay of resources and identity characteristics that influence each person’s class trajectory to maintain upper middle-class status or become downwardly mobile, Streib identifies the multifaceted elements that influence these outcomes.

Each chapter highlights stories that exemplify and show the range of outcomes in various trajectories through a series of archetypes. Social class if often discussed through quantitative studies that can maintain an abstractness to the concept of class mobility, so there is a real power in telling the stories of individuals as an approach to demonstrating the multi-faceted factors that affect social class. The book explores stories of those who become professionals, stay-at-home moms and family men, aspiring athletes and artists, rebels, and explorers. Streib is able to show the interplay of complicated choices individuals make as they enter adulthood, focused on individual values and goals but with associated class implications.

Privilege Lost brings to life the stories of the downwardly mobile, showing that class standing is only one way to measure one’s life satisfaction. This exploration of the coming of age of white upper middle class youth reveals much about class and privilege in American family life.

Michelle Newhart is a sociologists and instructional designer at Mt. San Antonio College.

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