Four Tickets into the Middle Class

July 31, 2012

Investing, Life

I’m developing a theory that states there are four traditional pathways or “tickets” into the middle class: 1) Get a stable, 40-year job with a growing organization, 2) Be a successful entrepreneur or investor, 3) Have a valuable special talent, and/or 4) Get a relevant university degree.

A colleague and friend of mine, Dr. Markus Hitz, professor of computer science here at North Georgia, recently forwarded me an outstanding TED talk by Nick Hanauer [click here for the YouTube video, <6 min.] in which the self-made multi-millionaire argues that the members of the middle class are the true “job creators”. Whatever side of that discussion you fall on, you’ll at least likely agree that part of what makes the US the powerhouse it still is, is the presence of a thriving, attainable middle class.

A significant problem the relatively new millennium is that a growing number of Americans don’t know or recognize how to attain middle class status. I’m making the case that there have been four traditional pathways to becoming and staying a member of the middle class in the United States, and that at least three, if not all four, of those paths still exist.

First, the path many of our parents and/or grandparents took: Get a stable, 40-year job with a growing organization. For my dad, that was in the copper mines of southeast Tennessee. For my father-in-law, that was with IBM. For some, that job is in the public sector, as teachers, civil servants, and the like. For others, it’s still possible to get a good job with the big local employer. While this pathway is not as secure as it once was, especially for employees without four-year college degrees whose jobs may be more prone to layoffs, downsizing and outsourcing, it’s still achievable in some parts of the country.

Second: Be a successful entrepreneur and/or investor. Two of my closest friends, James and Craig, have entrepreneurship in spades. James is currently owner or partner in three separate companies and helps run a successful 501(c)3 charity with his wife. Craig is the most laser-focused entrepreneur and real estate investor in his age bracket bar none, having built and sold companies in his early and mid-20’s while I was still figuring out what to major in. The three of us are in a small investment club together, which allows us to exercise our investment muscles together. I’ve never been the entrepreneur James and Craig have been, but I’m always glad to invest in a company I believe in and share in the profits. If you’re not the small-business-job-creator type, or even a sophisticated investor, you can invest through dollar cost averaging in mutual or exchange-traded funds (MDY is my favorite – disclosure: I own shares of MDY) to reach the ranks of the middle class, assuming you have steady income (see #1 above).

Third: Have a valuable, special talent. Basketball superstars, smooth-voiced pop singers, news broadcasters, comedians – they all have something in common: a special talent people will pay them to perform. Raw talent may only be part of the equation – I agree wholeheartedly with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule (from Outliers: The Story of Success) – but those of you with a talent that can be developed and that others will pay you to use have a third pathway to a lasting place at or above middle-class status. I can’t say I have much advice to offer here, but my respect and best wishes to those special few who reach wealth and success on this ticket.

Finally, the pathway most Americans tend toward these days: Get a relevant four-year or advanced degree from an accredited college or university. There are many antagonists making claims, some justified, that a four-year education isn’t as valuable as it used to be (I think it’s even more critical than ever), that student loan debt is crushing the middle class aspirations of millions of young Americans (they’re right on that one – that’s for another post), and that universities haven’t kept up with the needs of the workplace (again, there’s merit to this charge). My rule for a college degree is similar to the one for pathway #3, though – the degree has to be relevant and valuable; it has to be one that people will pay you to use. This doesn’t mean that only engineers and computer science/IT graduates will be successful (although we need lots more of these to remain competitive globally), it just means that you have to be able to use what you’ve gained in a four-year or higher degree program to build the kind of career, business, investments, or platform for your talent that others will find valuable enough to pay you to do.

As a university professor, in computer science & IT to boot, I try to remind my students of all four pathways – everybody has a slightly different “ticket” to success. I’m grateful to live in a country where we have the freedom to pursue any and all of the paths above. For me, my ticket into a stable position in the middle class was a four-year college degree. I then went on to pursue two graduate degrees, including a Ph.D. in computer science, which secured me the long-term, profitable career at the local big employer, the University where I work. If you’re not ready to be an entrepreneur and don’t have a readily identifiable special talent, a relevant, valuable university degree could be the right ticket to help you “stick” in the middle class.

I’d like to hear your comments – what other pathways are there for becoming and/or remaining a member of the middle class in the U.S. that I left out? A friend pointed out “inheriting a bundle”, and he’s got a good point, but I contend that you need to be able to adeptly manage even an inheritance (see pathway #2, which includes investing). Should I include that one, and are there any others I haven’t thought of?

Thanks in advance for your feedback!

About Bryson Payne

Author of Teach Your Kids to Code, Speaker, and Professor of Computer Science at the University of North Georgia.

View all posts by Bryson Payne

One Response to “Four Tickets into the Middle Class”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Inheriting/winning a lottery is perhaps worth adding as a separate item, althought I don’t know if lottery winners generally “remain” members of the middle class once the money’s gone…
    My question is how do I select a “relevant” and “valuable” college degree? Am I to assume journalism would be a wasted major, or art unless I’ve got “special talent”? Don’t non-career-focused degrees add value to an individual that empowers them to become middle class and stay there, or move up?


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