America's middle class has become quite a laboratory curiosity lately. Researchers everywhere suddenly want to know what it is, how it's changing and even whether it's endangered.
The reasons are obvious. Parts of the economy are undergoing wrenching change, and it's getting harder for many ordinary people to enjoy a decent standard of living.
A new study by the Brookings Institution now provides some numerical precision to back up all the anecdotal evidence that the middle class is fragmenting. Brookings researchers found that 61 percent of Americans attain a middle-class lifestyle by middle age. The researchers also mapped out six different "life stages," including what holds back those who don't make it to the middle class.
It starts with your circumstances at birth, and whether you're born healthy into a two-parent family with a mom who has a high school degree or better. From that point on, here are the percentage of Americans who "succeed" in four life stages between birth and adulthood, as defined by criteria such as performing above average in school, staying out of trouble, not becoming a teenage parent and living independently once beyond high school:
The odds of succeeding in one phase raise the odds of succeeding in the next phase, the researchers found. But you can fail at one phase, or more, and still make it to the middle class. That's why the percentage of people succeeding in the final phase of adulthood—which is 61 percent—is higher than the success rate in the two prior phases.
There's good and bad news in all this. The "failure rate" for adolescents is uncomfortably high, which is not surprising given that about one-fourth of all students don't graduate from high school. In an economy increasingly fueled by knowledge work and skilled labor, the prospect for high-school dropouts is dim, and large numbers of them can easily drag down the overall economy.
There's also a depressing familiarity in the mismatched performance of different racial and socioeconomic groups. Blacks and Hispanics, for instance, had far lower success rates than whites in each life stage measured by the study—especially adolescence and young adulthood. There are also huge gaps in success rates between those deemed "less advantaged" and "more advantaged."
This corroborates the worrisome trend found in other research that if you're born poor, you'll stay poor. In his recent book Coming Apart, political scientist Charles Murray argued that America has become a kind of binary society in which the upper and lower classes increasingly keep to themselves, self-propagate, and mingle less and less with those above or below them on the socioeconomic ladder. If true, America may be morphing into a culture that's far less egalitarian and more rigid than its citizens imagine it to be.
But the Brookings study also shows that people still do succeed against the odds. Of those who went completely off-track in every life stage between birth and adulthood, for instance, 24 percent still made it into the middle class. "There are quite a few individuals who are economically successful despite lack of success during school," the study noted.
It also found that kids who veer off-course early in life can get back on track, and raise their odds of success. And kids born poor are nearly as likely to end up successful as kids born better-off, provided they stay in school and succeed at each of those four critical life stages.
Presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talk about the fading fortunes of the middle class at nearly every campaign stop, each arguing that his policies will do more for working Americans than the other guy's. Studies such as the Brookings report and others by a whole slew of interest groups and research outfits usually buttress the claims of one candidate or the other—and sometimes both.
But there are also some pragmatic takeaways from this microscopic examination of the middle class that individuals can act on, regardless of what policymakers do. There's ample evidence that the middle class is under stress, and probably shrinking. But it's also still possible to get ahead, even if the odds are stacked against you. And it starts with some basic advice your grandparents could have given you: Do well in school and stay out of trouble.
Some things in America aren't all that different.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.