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The upper class in modern societies is often considered by middle class social scientists and their adherents to be the social class composed of the wealthiest members of society, who also wield the greatest political power. According to this view, the upper class is generally contained within the wealthiest 1-2% of the population, and is distinguished by immense wealth (in the form of estates) which is passed on from generation to generation.[unreliable source?] This popular definition is at odds, however, with how the upper class views itself: as members of families that have been long distinguished not merely by wealth or fame which are ostensibly available to all in a democratic society but rather by generations of leadership in public service, education, charity, the military, and the arts. Because the upper classes of a society may no longer rule the society in which they are living they are often referred to as the old upper classes and they are often culturally distinct from the newly rich middle classes that tend to dominate public life in modern social democracies. According to the latter view held by the traditional upper classes no amount of individual wealth or fame would make a person from an undistinguished background into a member of the upper class as one must be born into a family of that class and raised in a particular manner so as to understand and share upper class values, traditions, and cultural norms. The term is often used in conjunction with the terms "middle class" and "working class" as part of a tripartite model of social stratification.
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Historically in some cultures, members of an upper class often did not have to work for a living, as they were supported by earned or inherited investments (often real estate), although members of the upper class may have had less actual money than merchants. Upper- class status commonly derived from the social position of one's family and not from one's own achievements or wealth. Much of the population that composed the upper class consisted of aristocrats, ruling families, titled people, and religious hierarchs. These people were usually born into their status and historically there was not much movement across class boundaries. This is to say that it was much harder for an individual to move up in class simply because of the structure of society.
In many countries the term "upper class" was intimately associated with hereditary land ownership. Political power was often in the hands of the landowners in many pre-industrial societies despite there being no legal barriers to land ownership for other social classes. Upper-class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility, though not necessarily: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country. Some upper classes were almost entirely untitled, for example, the Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
British Isles and Colonies
In England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, the "upper class" traditionally comprised the landed gentry and the aristocracy of noble families with hereditary titles. The vast majority of post-medieval aristocratic families originated in the merchant class and were ennobled between the 14th and 19th centuries while intermarrying with the old nobility and gentry. Since the Second World War, the term has come to encompass rich and powerful members of the managerial and professional classes as well. Members of the English gentry organized the colonization of Virginia and New England and ruled these colonies for generations forming the foundation of the American upper class or East Coast Elite.
In the United States the upper class, as distinguished from the merely rich, is often considered to consist of those families that have for many generations enjoyed top social status based on their leadership in society and their distinctive culture derived from their Upper class ancestors in the colonial gentry . In this respect the US differs little from countries such as the UK where membership of the 'upper class' is also dependent on other factors. In the United Kingdom it has been said that class is relative to where you have come from, similar to the United States where class is more defined by who as opposed to how much; that is, in the UK and the US people are born into the upper class. The American upper class is estimated to constitute less than 1% of the population, while the remaining 99% of the population lies either within the middle class or working class. The main distinguishing feature of the upper class is its ability to derive enormous incomes from wealth through techniques such as money management and investing, rather than engaging in wage-labor or salaried employment. Successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, politicians, investment bankers, venture capitalists, stockbrokers, heirs to fortunes, some lawyers, and top flight physicians and celebrities are considered members of this class by contemporary sociologists, such as James Henslin or Dennis Gilbert. There may be prestige differences between different upper-class households. An A-list actor, for example, might not be accorded as much prestige as a former U.S. President, yet all members of this class are so influential and wealthy as to be considered members of the upper class.
"Upper-class families... dominate corporate America and have a disproportionate influence over the nation's political, educational, religious, and other institutions. Of all social classes, members of the upper class also have a strong sense of solidarity and 'consciousness of kind' that stretches across the nation and even the globe." -William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005.
Since the 1970s income inequality in the United States has been increasing, with the top 1% experiencing significantly larger gains in income than the rest of society. Social scientists (such as Alan Greenspan) see it as a problem for society, with Greenspan calling it a "very disturbing trend."
According to the book Who Rules America?, by William Domhoff, the distribution of wealth in America is the primary highlight of the influence of the upper class. The top 1% of Americans own around 34% of the wealth in the U.S. while the bottom 80% own only approximately 16% of the wealth. This large disparity displays the unequal distribution of wealth in America in absolute terms.
A contemporary member of the American upper class may or may not be rich, but belongs to a family that has probably produced senior military officers, Senators and U.S. Congressmen, state governors, or Presidents of Harvard and Yale, and there are probably schools, colleges, streets, skyscrapers, and monuments named after his ancestors, but he will probably not be as politically influential as Barack Obama (upper middle class) or as rich as billionaire George Soros (upper middle class). These are examples of members of the current ruling class who are not members of the upper class. In modern social democracies the ruling class is typically composed of people of middle class origin.
Members of the upper class in American society are typically knowledgeable and have been educated in "elite" settings. Wealthy parents go above and beyond to ensure their children will also be a member of the upper class when they grow up. Upper class parents enroll their children in prestigious preschools and elementary schools leading to private middle schools and high schools, and finally Ivy League colleges. One of the many advantages of attending these prestigious schools is the quality of the teaching. Along with schools such as Ivy League colleges, upper class members have traditionally joined exclusive clubs or fraternities. Students at Yale University created the Skull and Bones social club. The Skull and Bones was a secret society that had members such as George H. W. Bush and John Kerry. These members obtained valuable social capital by joining the club.
- Akhbar-Williams, Tahira (2010). "Class Structure". In Smith, Jessie C. Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 322. ISBN 978-0-313-35796-1.
- Arnold Toynbee, Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I-X in one volume (Oxford University Press, 1960)
- Victoria Krummel (2008). The Old Upper Class — Britain's Aristocracy. Akademische Schriftenreihe. GRIN Verlag. p. 5. ISBN 978-3-638-74726-4.
- Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-50520-1.
- Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, Mass.: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X.
- Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, Mass.: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-36674-0.
- Johnston, D. (29 March 2007). "Income Gap is Widening, Data Shows". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- Thomas, E. & Gross, D. (23 July 2007). Taxing the Rich. Newsweek.
- "Johnston, D. (5 June 2005). Richest Are Leaving Even the Richest Far Behind. The New York Times". Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- "Pizzigati, S. (7 November 2005). Alan Greenspan, Egalitarian?. TomPaine.com". Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- "Greenspan, A. (28 August 1998). Remarks by Chairman Alan Greenspan. The Federal Reserve Board". Retrieved 2007-06-20.
- [G. William] (2005). Who Rules America: Power, Politics, & Social Change (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-287625-5.
- Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-79241-3.
- Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-79241-3
- Allan G. Johnson, ed. (2000). "UPPER CLASS". The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology: A User's Guide to Sociological Language (2nd ed.). Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-21681-0.
- Michael Hartmann (2007). The Sociology of Elites. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought 50. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-415-41197-4.
- Victor T. King (2008). The Sociology of Southeast Asia: Transformations in a Developing Region. NIAS Press. ISBN 978-87-91114-60-1.
- Susan A. Ostrander (1986). Women of the Upper Class. Women In The Political Economy. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0-87722-475-4.
- Number of households with net-worths over one million dollars
- Relationship between income and education[dead link]
- "The Aristocracy – how the ruling class survives" on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time featuring David Cannadine, Rosemary Sweet and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto