Fear of Falling

The Inner Life of the Middle Class


By Barbara Ehrenreich

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A brilliant and insightful exploration of the rise and fall of the American middle class by New York Times bestselling author, Barbara Ehrenreich.

One of Barbara Ehrenreich’s most classic and prophetic works, Fear of Falling closely examines the insecurities of the American middle class in an attempt to explain its turn to the right during the last two decades of the 20th century.

Weaving finely-tuned expert analysis with her trademark voice, Ehrenreich traces the myths about the middle class to their roots, determines what led to the shrinking of what was once a healthy percentage of the population, and how, in its ambition and anxiety, that population has retreated from responsible leadership.

Newly reissued and timely as ever, Fear of Falling places the middle class of yesterday under the microscope and reveals exactly how we arrived at the middle class of today.


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Barbara Ehrenreich is the journalistic equivalent of a forensic detective. You need only take her to a hotel or a trendy restaurant, an upscale doctor’s office or a franchise gym, and she’ll unmask these familiar-seeming tableaus. She shows us the lives of the underpaid maids, the exploited busboys, the uninsured waiting at the nearby ER, and the women mopping the treadmills, this manual labor the closest they’ll ever get to lifting weights for fun. She deploys her proverbial ultraviolet-light analysis to reveal the unjust underside, making these cruelties and indignities impossible to ignore.

In her 1989 masterpiece Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich casts this violet light on the seemingly cozy, smug surfaces of what she’s called “America’s professional managerial class”: schoolteachers, engineers, professors, government bureaucrats, and therapists, among others. It’s so good that Fear of Falling was, for me, the gateway drug to Barbara Ehrenreich and everything she represents.

The PMC, as she dubs them, imagined that the material affluence they had obtained after World War II—cars, televisions, delicately whirring washer-dryers, crystalline Sony brand hi-fi, and backyard barbecue pits—was America.

By the 1980s, this group was obsessed with the idea that they might be “losing ground,” or weakening. They had needed to be hardworking and disciplined to make their way into their educated caste, and now they were holding on for dear life. The PMC were equally terrified that their children would not obtain the same quality of life as they had. As she writes of the professional managerial class’s angst: “Like affluence, permissiveness [toward its children] crystallized the middle-class fear of going soft, giving in, and eventually losing the will to succeed.”

As Ehrenreich explained in a later interview, “The fear a lot of upper-middle-class people have is that their children will not get into the same class, because you can’t just bequeath your class status to them. They can’t inherit.”

Her anatomy in these pages is unsparing. Her critique gets its x-ray-eyed sharpness, in part, by virtue of her distance from the PMC. She was not born into this group, after all, but rather into the mining families of Montana and more broadly to the hard-living, blue-collar men and women of the Rocky Mountain West. Indeed, Ehrenreich can be said to have had her baby bottle filled with a serious distaste for doctors, lawyers, bosses, and priests. Even when she became categorically one of them—after all, she was a feted columnist at Time magazine in its Golden Age, among others—her childhood experiences and her later involvement with labor organizing in the 1970s had made her continuously aware of working-class struggle.

She was galled that her PMC neighbors were ignorant of the truck drivers, nurse’s aides, and factory workers among them, or even contemptuous toward them. She didn’t care for their tendency to identify with institutions and to reject restive discontent. Fear of Falling is something of a poison-pen letter to this cosseted group, a shout to them that they should open their eyes a bit wider.

Now, thirty years later, we can see how right Ehrenreich was about her concerns toward the PMC’s lack of cross-class solidarity, as well as how accurate she was in her reading of that caste’s anxiety toward their own children.

Indeed, a whole new abyss had opened up in the 1990s. The twist was that these bourgeois parents’ fears turned out to be economically accurate. The younger ones among the new caste—broadly known by the marketing sobriquet “Millennials”—have alighted downward. Indeed, the title of this book thirty years from now could drop the “fear” and change “falling” to “fallen.”

As a result, they might not be able to afford the homes with lawns and the multiple cars. They may have to forgo the vacations in Europe and the private schools. According to a mobility study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, if you were born in the 1940s, you were almost certain to make more money than your parents did by age thirty. If you were born in the 1980s, you have a 50-50 chance of doing so.

Today, many office or academic jobs have taken on the precarious character of retail work, with robots waiting in the wings. Ehrenreich’s subjects from Fear of Falling have begotten a new generation, whose burdens include the swollen price of health- and childcare, record educational debt, and a housing market gone berserk.

Another excellent aspect of Fear of Falling—one that adds to its forensic sharpness—is that it’s pure, unadulterated Ehrenreich. She never depends on that old-time reporters’ crutch, the dozens of talking head sociologists, neuroscientists, or “ordinary” human beings. The form typically demands these folks be snatched for comment from their offices or street corners, or nowadays from the edges of Twitter. Instead, Ehrenreich relies wholly on her funny, trenchant, analytical, and never-dull voice, as well as dozens upon dozens of secondary sources she gathers like raw silk yarns to weave on her loom. She even jokes about her process in the book’s pages, writing that “the cultural ubiquity of the professional middle class” means that “there is no need to travel to offbeat settings or conduct extensive interviews to find out what is on its mind.”

The acidic flair and humor here have their own sort of rigor, however. Take an example of her reading of the PMC in the 1950s: “[T]here were signs of widespread anxiety and discontent among the broad class of people who now had ‘everything’—house, cars, children, dozens of gleaming, purring appliances. White-collar men were…questioning the ‘rat race’ and the corporate demand for conformity, right down to the drinks one ordered (martini, very dry) and suits one wore (gray flannel).”


I first read Fear of Falling when I was in my early twenties, as I read most books, in a public park. Almost instantly, it became my secular Bible. It was journalism that was also aphorism and also sociology. (Sample line: “Money does not bring happiness—only the wherewithal, perhaps, to endure its absence.”) Who else had attempted this particular crosshatching of reporting, astringent criticism, and satire? In addition, while Ehrenreich is a “woman writer” and a feminist, she is also a heterodox one. For her, gender inequity sometimes gets subsumed by class, as when women’s surge into “the professions” increased class inequality due to adaptive mating; the male doctor was applauded for marrying a female doctor rather than the nurse or the secretary, but in the process inevitably deepened economic inequality.

Similarly, while Ehrenreich is always Left, on the side of the little guy or woman, she is never doctrinaire or boring. This makes her something of a rarity.

She is also one of the few journalists concerned with solidarity. Back then, she wanted to try to explain the fact that the professional managerial class being “indifferent to the non-elite majority” was a problem, as it has turned out to be electorally. In addition, how “middle-class-led reform movements, from the Progressive Era to the War on Poverty, have been marred by an elitist distance from the would-be beneficiaries of reform” would prove to be a serious issue. After all, today, the “beneficiaries of reform” would necessarily include members of the middle class itself! Her constant effort toward cross-class and working-class solidarity continued after such attempts stopped being fashionable in the 1980s and before they became fashionable again in our present moment, under the auspices of a reborn socialism.

Indeed, as I write this, we are seeing small encroachments of the sort of possibilities Ehrenreich has long been pressing for, albeit always with a rapier wit that is sensitive to ironies and potential failures in traditional unions. You can see these transformations now in everything from who is being voted into Congress, to the mass- and self-generated teachers’ strikes in Red States, to a revival in civic care, which expresses itself in programs like Medicare for All.

She has even helped make one of these transformative moves an actuality: She and I have led a nonprofit, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, dedicated to aiding reporters who have been laid off or are living in reduced circumstances. Some of them are long-term poor and underbanked; others are simply struggling with a contracted magazine and newspaper economy that thwarts their attempts to do immersive or thoughtful freelance reporting. She came up with the idea for it in 2011, three years after the 2008 recession, knowing that journalists no longer simply feared falling, but had already fallen. Over a thirteen-year period, from 2004 to 2017, 45 percent of newspaper jobs had been lost.

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project offers writers and photographers hard, cleansing brainwork and payment for their literary labors (this is unalienated work, of course, far from the nasty bluster of the workfare policies and bootstrapping of both Republicans and Democrats). Journalists—her tribe, our tribe—have been taken down. For her, giving them a paid way to practice their craft again is the best route back up. In Fear of Falling, as with so much of her writing, meaningful, unalienated work appears as a surprising protagonist—the people’s ultimate revenge on a toxic system. As she writes in these pages: “The pleasure of work is the middle class’s tacit rebuttal to capitalism, a pleasure that cannot be commodified or marketed, that need not obsolesce or wane with time.”

Alissa Quart

May 6, 2019



This book is about the middle class—more specifically, the professional middle class—and its journey—intellectual, political, and moral—from the sixties to the eighties. Even the names of these decades seem to tell a story, one that begins with a mood of generosity and optimism and ends with cynicism and narrowing self-interest. And that, in the largest sense, is the theme of this book: the retreat from liberalism and the rise, in the professional middle class, of a meaner, more selfish outlook, hostile to the aspirations of those less fortunate.

If the focus on one class seems unnecessarily narrow, I would point out that most books, and especially those which make large claims about the American character and culture, are in fact about this class and about it alone. We are told, periodically, that “Americans” are becoming more self-involved, materialistic, spineless, or whatever, when actually only a subgroup of Americans is meant: people who are more likely to be white-collar professionals—lawyers, middle managers, or social workers, for example—than machinists or sales clerks. Usually, this limitation goes without mention; for, in our culture, the professional, and largely white, middle class is taken as a social norm—a bland and neutral mainstream—from which every other group or class is ultimately a kind of deviation.

Consider one of the great popular sociological endeavors of the last three decades, The Lonely Crowd. In this wonderfully imaginative, wide-ranging book, David Riesman purported to demonstrate a deep change in the American character—a decline, one might say, of inner discipline and will. Only well into the book does the reader discover that many millions of Americans—the members of the blue-collar working class—are exempt from this characterological change, or “immune,” as the author puts it. No one seems to have thought this omission strange; though, clearly, Riesman’s crowd was far lonelier than it needed to have been.

Many other familiar and important books about the American experience and character turn out to be entries into the swelling biography of the middle class. The Feminine Mystique, for all its role in inspiring the feminist revival, was not about “women,” but about college-educated, suburban women married to doctors, executives, psychiatrists. The Greening of America depicted only the greening of the white-collar crowd and their student young—the blue-collar working class again being “immune” or, in this case, past saving. Habits of the Heart, a chronicle of moral numbness and declining public spirit, is again, and by the authors’ honest admission, about the habits of middle-class hearts.

These books only reflect a larger tendency to see the middle class as a universal class, a class which is everywhere represented as representing everyone. Television typically displays only a narrow spectrum of American experience and opinion. The pundits who dominate the talk shows are, to a man and an occasional woman, all members of this relatively privileged group—well fed, well educated, and employed in physically restful occupations such as journalism or college teaching. When we see a man in work clothes on the screen, we anticipate some grievance or, at best, information of a highly local or anecdotal nature. On matters of general interest or national importance, waitresses, forklift operators, steamfitters—that is, most “ordinary” Americans—are not invited to opine.

Much, though certainly not all, contemporary fiction shows a similar narrowness of focus. A typical “quality” novel of recent vintage will explore the relationships and reveries of people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot. E. L. Doctorow has observed that when a novel featuring poor or working-class people does come along, it is usually judged to be “political” in intent, meaning that it does not qualify as art.

The cultural ubiquity of the professional middle class may seem to make it an easy subject for a writer. There is no need to travel to offbeat settings or conduct extensive interviews to find out what is on its mind. One does not have to consult specialists—sociologists or anthropologists—to discover how people in this class order the details of their daily lives. Their lifestyles, habits, tastes, and attitudes are everywhere, and inescapably before us.

But the very ubiquity of the professional middle class makes it vexingly difficult to write about as a distinct class—and a class which, far from representing everyone, is also a distinct minority. Who can presume to step “outside” of it? Its ideas and assumptions are everywhere, and not least in our own minds. Even those of us who come from very different social settings often find it hard to distinguish middle-class views from what we think we ought to think. And for those of us who are inside this class, as most professional writers are by definition, if not also by virtue of shared tastes and habits of mind, the effort can be overwhelming.

There is even a problem of what to call this class. One measure of its status as an implicit mainstream and a presumably neutral vantage point is that it has no proper and familiar name. Middle class is hardly satisfactory, standing as it often does for almost everyone except the extremes of wealth and poverty. New Class is favored by intellectuals, but assumes some awareness of the “old” classes—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and has hence remained exotic. Intelligentsia is occasionally used but is far too narrow and, I think, unduly flattering. Professional-managerial class comes closest to describing the special status of this class, and professional middle class—which I will employ here—is close enough. But since that term is cumbersome to read or say, I will fall back, at times, on middle class.

But the very things that make this class so hard to talk about also make it urgent that such talk begin. Nameless, and camouflaged by a culture in which it both stars and writes the scripts, this class plays an overweening role in defining “America”: its moods, political direction, and moral tone. If we hope to see ourselves with any clarity, we have to begin to make the effort to step back and see the middle class as one class among others, and as a class with its own peculiar assumptions and anxieties. Because it is through the eyes of this class—and often also in its image—that we have, for so long, been content to see America.


My own interest in the professional middle class stems from a long habit of writing about ideas: what might be called “mainstream” ideas, of the kind that are found every day in the media or the ambient culture generally. Much of my time has been spent on bad ideas—notions that eventually get shelved as myths, such as the huge edifice of beliefs undergirding the historically unequal relationship between men and women. At some point one is bound to ask, or be called on to explain, just whose ideas these were, and why such notions ever arose and took the form they did.

Any honest answer must begin by pointing out that most ideas that find their way into the cultural mainstream originate within a rather narrow social base. They are crafted by a relative elite: people who are well educated, reasonably well paid, and who overlap, socially and through family ties, with at least the middling levels of the business community—in short, the professional middle class.

Such an answer is not, of course, the same as an explanation for any particular idea or belief. The professional middle class is not to be imagined as a cabal, or even a very homogeneous lot. Ideas are simply part of the business of this class, or at least the business of its more vocal members—journalists, academics, writers, and commentators. These people are paid to provide the “spin,” the verbal wrap that gives coherence to events or serves to justify arrangements we might otherwise be inclined to question. Sometimes members of this class are even paid to do the questioning.

But it can be illuminating to trace ideas to the social milieu from which they arise. For example, many of our traditional ideas about the proper role of women were articulated by physicians and psychiatrists—men of a class (again, the professional middle class) in which it has not usually been necessary, in an economic sense, for women to work outside the home. Similarly, the dilemma we so often read about today, over whether women can combine careers with childraising, is freighted with implicit class assumptions: that women have careers, as opposed to mere jobs, and that they have the wherewithal to abandon these careers without condemning their children to penury.

The ideas that set me off on this project were ideas about another kind of inequality, one shared by men as well as women—the economic inequality of class. While ideas about gender, and even race, have moved, however haltingly, in the direction of greater tolerance and inclusivity, ideas about class remain mired in prejudice and mythology. “Enlightened” people, who might flinch at a racial slur, have no trouble listing the character defects of an ill-defined “underclass,” defects which routinely include ignorance, promiscuity, and sloth. There is, if anything, even less inhibition about caricaturing the white or “ethnic” working class: Its tastes are “tacky”; its habits unhealthful; and its views are hopelessly bigoted and parochial.

These stereotypes are hurtful in many ways, not least because they imply that nothing can be done. Efforts to help the poor would only increase their fecklessness and childlike dependence; and the working class, as stereotyped, would be hostile to such efforts anyway.

The prospects for easing economic inequality once seemed much brighter. In the 1960s, equality—at least of opportunity—was a respectable social goal, endorsed by presidents and embraced by leading intellectuals. Today we seldom hear the word. In the sixties, liberalism—as defined by the intention to achieve a more egalitarian society—was an affiliation worn with pride. Today that term has degenerated into a slur, coyly designated as the “L-word.” In the early sixties, the big debate was about how best to mobilize the War on Poverty; today such an undertaking would likely be seen as misguided and possibly detrimental to the poor themselves.

It is not that the problems have gone away, or no longer justify our concern. An unseemly proportion of the population still lives in poverty: as much as 20 percent, if we leave aside the federal government’s stone-hearted definition for a more realistic measure. Millions more, in the working-class majority, still labor at mind-dulling, repetitive tasks, and count themselves lucky to have a job at all. Meanwhile, the gap between the haves and the have-nots—not only between the rich and poor but between the middle class and the working class—is wider than it has been at any time since the end of World War II, so that America’s income distribution is now almost as perilously skewed as that of India.

If the reality has not improved, then ideas have changed for other reasons. We simply care less, or we find the have-nots less worthy of our concern. But why?

I started out with the seemingly straightforward plan of tracing mainstream ideas about the “lower” classes—the poor and the working class—over the past three decades. In mainstream American culture the lower classes had dropped from view in the fifties, vanishing so completely that they had to be “discovered.” There was the discovery of poverty in the early sixties and the equally dramatic, though less well-remembered, discovery of the working class at the end of that decade. Each of these events was accompanied by much fanfare—cover stories, television specials, scholarly analyses, even Hollywood attention—and it seemed to me that by mining this material I might gain some insights into our attitudes toward the less-well-off and why these views have seemed to sour.

But in this project, more than any other I had undertaken, the question of whose ideas was inescapable. If the poor and the working class had to be discovered, from whose vantage point were they once hidden? And what we is implicit in any statement about our attitudes? Gradually, and with some initial apprehension, I realized that our ideas could not be traced or even understood without clarifying that evasive we and introducing the middle class as an actor in the story. What happened, in the life of this class, to cause the retreat from liberalism?

The conventional explanation, such as it is, focuses on events external to this class: In the sixties, as the conventional wisdom goes, rising crime rates led to disillusionment with the African American poor and the disadvantaged generally. Liberalism, to paraphrase a conservative aphorism, was mugged. Next came the “blue-collar backlash,” which showed that most Americans—at least most white “Middle Americans”—were deeply conservative anyway. Finally there was the economic crunch of the seventies, which awakened any remaining liberals of the middle class to their own material self-interest. They retreated into their careers and private lives, secure in the belief that the “have-nots” were not worth helping anyway.

There is more than a grain of truth to this account. The problem is that it leaves out the element of consciousness—of thought and interpretation. Events do not just hit us on the head, provoking reactions as if by reflex; they come to us already thickly swathed in layers of judgment and interpretation. Sometimes there is very little underneath these layers: The “event” itself represents an act of imagination. For example, as we shall see, the blue-collar backlash which figures so prominently in conventional explanations of American politics was hardly a clear-cut movement or event. It was a highly biased and selective interpretation of the mood of working-class Americans at a certain time. We might raise similar questions about the response to crime, or to the economic downturn. Why does a particular interpretation take hold? Why one way of seeing things and not another?

If external events do not tell the story, or at least not the whole story, then we have to turn to what we might call the “inner life” of the middle class. My straightforward plan, then, of tracing ideas about class and inequality had to be expanded to a more daunting project: an attempt to understand the retreat from liberalism as an episode in the life of the middle class, a change of mind, a shift in consciousness. And the key shift, the one which began to seem most closely linked to the decline of liberalism, was in the middle-class perception of itself: from the naïve mid-century idea that the middle class was America, and included everyone, to a growing awareness that the middle class was only one class among others, and an isolated, privileged one at that.

The discoveries of the poor and the working class were, of course, essential to this self-awareness. So was something I had not originally figured on: the student rebellion of the sixties, whose impact on middle-class opinion will be explored in the pages ahead. All of these discoveries and events combined to convince an influential minority of the professional middle class that their class was, in fact, a very special group, an elite above the majority of “ordinary” people. It was in this new and emerging self-consciousness as an elite that the middle class, or significant segments of it, turned right.

Conventional, or, I should say in this case, conservative, wisdom might argue the reverse. Liberalism, we often hear, is the property of an elite—the so-called liberal elite that has been denounced by Republicans from Spiro Agnew to George Bush. Conservativism—on economic as well as social issues—is, on the other hand, often thought to be native to the common folk, the “average Joe.”

Yet historically, and for obvious reasons, elites are seldom the champions of equality and social justice. The youthful members of a social elite may embrace the cause of the downtrodden; scattered individuals may follow their conscience to some course of action beyond mere charity. But on the whole, an elite that is conscious of its status will defend that status, even if this means abandoning, in all but rhetoric, such stated values as democracy and fairness.

In fact, as we shall see, the notion of the professional middle class as a powerful elite finds its most forceful expression among those who are, or who have moved, the farthest from liberal ideals. It is a notion that is central to contemporary right-wing thought, from “neoconservatives” to New Rightists. It has become, although in a peculiarly disingenuous way, almost the defining obsession of the right.

This book is about what could be called the


On Sale
Jan 7, 2020
Page Count
416 pages

Barbara Ehrenreich

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich (1941-2022) was a bestselling author and political activist, whose more than a dozen books include Natural CausesLiving with a Wild God, the award winning essay collection Had I Known, and Nickel and Dimed, which the New York Times described as “a classic in social justice literature.” An award-winning journalist, she frequently contributed to Harper'sThe NationThe New York Times, and TIME magazine. Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism.

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