I love rags to riches stories. A new Canadian arrives penniless and within two decades, he’s a multi-millionaire. Someone from the wrong side of the tracks gets spotted, tries out for an audition and becomes a well paid actress. It makes a great movie plot. Cinderella, The Blind Side, Prince and the Pauper and Slumdog Millionaire are just a few examples. It is possible, no matter how humble your background or the education level of your parents or grandparents to advance upwards in socioeconomic class.

In Canada, one of the first questions we often ask is, “What do you do?” I don’t want to be defined by what I do but by who I am. I want people to know me first and not pre-judge me based on my job title. I have a friend who is a lawyer and had so many conversations either stop dead or turn into lawyer jokes when she told people what she did that she started to respond, “I work in an office.” It was true but it wasn’t the whole story. We want to know where people are in the hierarchy of life and knowing what someone does is a key to figuring out where they stand in our social system. It is more polite than asking how much they earn or the details of their net worth.

In North America we have what is often referred to as the “American Dream”. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. With enough work and a little luck, anyone can make it. In this, our land of opportunity, there are no cultural constraints on how much you can make and where you fit in the social hierarchy.

The idea of rags to riches being a good thing is relatively new in our western culture. Even a few decades ago, people distinguished between new money and old with the implication that new money was empty and without class. The Beverly Hillbillies were rich but a perfect example new money; low class people who happened to have a lot of money. The idea was that people with old money had class and breeding while people whose money was new had none.

Do we, in our culture still define people by social class? Do we still distinguish between old money and new? Is the “Canadian Dream” just about currency and possessions or is it more? How do we define social class?

Socio-linguists might argue social class can be identified through dialect and use of grammar. Historians might suggest that it is something in our past, deeply rooted in our family and cultural history. Others might claim it’s purely net worth, the neighborhood you live in, the way you dress or the social class in which you were raised.

Every culture has its own way of defining class and often it’s not about net worth. Perhaps it is something in a person’s posture, the way they relate to others or command respect without words. Or is it a simple mathematical formula? job title + family wealth + education + net worth = social class. After all, isn’t social class really about our perceptions and where we place ourselves and others in a hierarchy of importance.

What’s your view, how do you define or recognize socioeconomic class in Canada? Is it only about wealth, or is it something more? Under what conditions would it be possible for someone from a humble background to gain entrance into a high socioeconomic class?

Kathryn has been a staff writer for MDJ since January 2009. During the day she works in an office. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.

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  1. Paddlacus on March 25, 2010 at 10:25 am

    “In Canada, one of the first questions we often ask is, “What do you do?” I don’t want to be defined by what I do but by who I am.”

    I think one of the reasons people ask this question is that it’s an easy way to get a lot of information about the person and at least start to fit them into several categories. When I was living in Japan one of the first questions people asked me was “What are your hobbies?”, which sounds strange in English but really does give a better idea of what the person is interested in and what their priorities are.

    So I’m not sure that the ‘what do you do?’ question is all about gauging socioeconomic status as it is one way to begin finding common ground or something to expand on in the conversation.

  2. 2 Cents @ Balance Junkie on March 25, 2010 at 10:26 am

    I’ve been reading “The Millionaire Next Door” and have found it fascinating how the research shows that the vast majority of millionaires don’t look the part. They have cheap clothing, modest homes, and generally stay married to the same person for a lifetime.

    Most have accumulated wealth by running a business and spending less than they earn. I guess these people would be “new wealth”. The research did show that millionaires who had inherited their wealth spent more on clothing, etc.

    I think you could get a different answer from each person you asked about socioeconomic class. It comes down to values in the end, but it’s human nature to judge by appearance – at least at first.

  3. guinness416 on March 25, 2010 at 10:42 am

    “So I’m not sure that the ‘what do you do?’ question is all about gauging socioeconomic status”

    I agree. Very few people I’ve ever met really care in which boring way you spend your 9 to 5, or particularly want to talk about their own. I think it’s lack of conversational skills to be honest, one step up from talking about the weather.

    I’m no intellectual but go to some of the “transitional” neighbourhoods and see the yuppies newly moved in (of any colour or national origin) and the be-mulletted, 2-buck-a-beer-special original residents act as if they can’t even see each other. Or see how some of my south asian colleagues and friends treat their neighbours based on family back home. As an immigrant, those are both examples of recognizing class differences in Canada to me.

  4. Scott on March 25, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Here’s an eye-opener/reminder I found one day whilst doing some research: the Canadian “MIddle Class” is vaporizing.

    (The web pdf, p.5: http://www.csls.ca/notes/Note2009-2.pdf )

    It’s being replaced by lots of rich people and lots of poor people.

    So maybe a better question would be, “Which end of the spectrum do you ultimately want to end up in, and what are you going to do to achieve it?”

    In the end, I guess socioeconomic class and status only matter if they matter to you. I know a couple of real life multi-millionaires (one young, one old), and they couldn’t give a rats a$$ about such things. They are just “regular” people (heck, they young guy used to be homeless!). Just saying…

  5. Jungle on March 25, 2010 at 11:28 am

    The problem lies in perception. Because of media, false insecurity and debt, people perceive your wealth from what you show off. Nice watches, multiple cars, expensive clothing, large houses, vacations, etc. Most would assume you have lots of money from this lifestyle. This false perception can make you feel like you’re in a different socio-economic class. After reading the Millionaire Next Door, they discover these high consumption, wasteful families, are not nearly as wealthy as they are perceived.

  6. ctreit on March 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Studies have shown that Canada does pretty well when it comes to intergenerational mobility, but the US formerly also known as the “Land of Opportunities” does not do so well. Thus, I cannot really agree with your statement that ‘in North America we have what is often referred to as the “American Dream”’. You have it in Canada. It has been absent in the US for a while. In the US this dream only exists in the heads of people who want to believe it but the facts tell a different story.

    OECD study: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/17/42/44566315.pdf (Warning: 15 pages long)
    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2010/02/11-5 (a good summary of key points of the OECD study)

  7. Lulu on March 25, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I think class is more about how you act than the way you grew up or how much money you have. I know people who have lots of money but no ‘class’ at all. I grew up poor but my mother believed that education is the best way out of that poverty. She encouraged us to speak well and not use any poor grammar, even with friends. I attended private school (on scholarship) and always tried to speak proper English because that is what I was taught to do.

    When I moved to the U.S. the other black people there kept saying that I am ‘acting white’ because I speak (British) English. I think it is silly but that is the way that some people think.

    I am a teacher now and I have had students tell me that black people and mexicans are supposed to act a certain way and that only white people have class. I am hoping this is just native to the part of the country that I live in but it is sad to think they believe just because you are born in the ghetto you have to remain there all your life.

  8. Elbyron on March 25, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    I’m surprised nobody has yet mentioned that education can be a form of socioeconomic indicator. Success in life is often measured by others based on what you own, but respect can be earned by simply having a higher level of education. Anyone with a doctorate gets to put “Dr” in front of their name, and in most people’s minds, they are automatically elevated to a higher class. Even the particular university or college that somebody attends (or if they dropped out of high school) will affect how other people view them.
    I agree with Lulu that education is the best way out of poverty and into a higher class, but it’s not just because it opens the doors for a better career or more money… the education itself is a form of class (pardon the pun).

  9. Canadian on March 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Lulu, hee hee you said it all man. We are living in modern barbaric world here mighty rules. Off course skin colour is face of that barbaric world, don’t think I am a victim of anything racial personally (fortunatly NO so far so good) but what I see in North American and Europe is same skin attraction, what ever you do or say is great other things are nothing.

    I here mostly in Toronto is ‘”where you come from?” I don’t understand everybody is an immigrant at some point of time in histroy what makes a difference? but they want to remind the people that I am before you and my skin is different and I have a CLASS.

  10. Adam on March 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    I would have to say that socioeconomic class, by it’s very definition, implies that it IS simply about net worth (economic), and how that relates to your standing in society (socio).

  11. Paddlacus on March 25, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    “I here mostly in Toronto is ‘”where you come from?” I don’t understand everybody is an immigrant at some point of time in histroy what makes a difference? but they want to remind the people that I am before you and my skin is different and I have a CLASS.”

    As someone who lives in Toronto I have to say that’s a really sad way of looking at things. The beauty of living here is that it’s probably one of the most diverse cities in the world. Meeting someone from another part of the world is a great experience and a chance to learn about a way of life and culture you’ve never seen before. Certainly a more interesting conversation than “I work in an office”.

    I met a girl on a bus a few weeks ago who was asking me about my job since she was looking for work for her brother. She was from Somalia, and told me a fascinating story about moving here, her struggles, her dreams. I’ve never met a Somali person before (that I know of), and I’m glad I had that experience. You could argue that it doesn’t matter where she’s from, but I don’t think the question should be taken immediately as offensive.

    Canadian – maybe approach this type of question with a mind of sharing your culture with someone who is genuinely interested, and not who simply wants to feel better about themselves because your answer is anything other than “Here”.

  12. paymepablo on March 25, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Great topic and some good comments.

    I recently attended a speed dating event and out of the 15 girls I “dated” 10 first asked “what do you do” I hate when people ask me this question, I usually lie or give a vague response, because when I say I’m an accountant (which I am) people immediately make judgements; most people don’t like accountants; I barely do.

    I like asking where you come from, or what is your background, but not for determining their class but rather using their motherland as a conversation piece. Having travelled extensively, I know that people are generally proud of where they come from. Living in Toronto; the second highest foreign born population (Miami # 1) although Toronto is the most diverse, has taught me to get to know something about every culture, however small.

  13. Krista on March 25, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    I’ve always hated lumping the socio- with the -economic as a measure of class. I really don’t think money has much to do with it.

    I’m with Lulu, class is how you comport yourself. My father (the classiest person I know) was raised by a single mom and he didn’t finish high school. In other words, he was economically low class. But you could put him at the same table as the Queen for dinner and not know it.

    To me, higher class people pay attention to the details – speaking correctly, dressing appropriately, even table manners. Traditionally these things were linked with wealth because poor people were too busy working for subsistence to have time learning ‘etiquette’. But in this day and age, anyone can educate themselves in these simple things. And it’s taking the time to get (and maintain) that education that defines class to me.

  14. Ms Save Money on March 25, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    I totally agree with you, Krista. Not sure who made up that word but it really isn’t fair to group the two words together because they are completely different things. However, reality is that people will determine your class from your status and financially economic level. It’s inevitable. We live in a world where material possessions speak for us and that’s really sad. Higher class people have mannerisms in my opinion.

  15. Dividend Lover on March 25, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    new money lives on bridle path, old money lives in rosedale.

    new money wants to make sure middle class folks can see they have it now.

    old money would prefer the middle class not know how much they have.

  16. sco on March 25, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    For most people there there is no “American Dream” or “Canadian Dream”. For many it’s a nightmare, not a dream (ask the foreign medical doctor working as taxi driver).
    The truth is that becoming rich is a matter of pure luck (mostly at birth).
    The quality of life of the so called “middle class” is continuously decreasing. In reality there is no middle class. Financial independence starts at a million dollars investment capital and that is about 1% of the starting net worth for the rich class. 1% is not middle.
    In the eyes of the rich, 99.5 % of Canadians are poor.

  17. Kathryn on March 25, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    I tend to agree with Lulu and Krista on this one. Class does tend to be about how people act; their etiquette and respect for others rather than a net worth figure. By its very definition the ‘economic’ part implies wealth but there is so much more to class than money.

    Sco: “In the eyes of the rich, 99.5 of Canadian are poor.”

    In the eyes of the developing world, 100% of Canadians are rich. It’s all a matter of perspective.

  18. Scott on March 25, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    re #16: point in case, #4.

    Interesting point though, about society automatically putting “lettered” individuals (eg. Dr.) in a higher class. A hold over from the days when doctors and lawyers still made way more than every other job? A hold over from immigrants wanting their children to become doctors and lawyers (because of the former statement)?

    How many people would put a banker or car salesman or politician at the top of their “class” list? Why not? They probably all make a ton o money!

    And, just for the sake of it…how would Jesus rank? What with His poverty and long hair and hanging around lepers and such. Ew.

    See, “class”, as it were, is nothing more than a non-real perception people use to make themselves feel secure — birds of a feather. Rubbish is what I call it.

  19. Kate on March 26, 2010 at 3:30 am

    +1 to where do you come from. The second people hear the accent, that’s where they ask this question. Automatically you are turned into “immigrant” class.

  20. Paddlacus on March 26, 2010 at 7:58 am

    @Kate: Have you ever been travelling and been asked where you were from? Were you offended? Did the people you answered seem to be judging you based on your answer? Or did they follow it up with questions of genuine interest?

    I’d love to hear from any readers who weren’t born in the country they’re currently living on on how they feel about being asked this question, and whether they think they’re being judged by their answer.

  21. Canadian on March 26, 2010 at 9:02 am

    @Paddlacus: “Thanks but no thanks” we know how great Toronto is and I don’t want you generalize anything and cerntainly your repeated answer. By the way we are not travellers and one should be there to understand real things to experiance it.

  22. Yuckademus on March 26, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Since Canada is multicultural I don’t believe that there is a single hierarchy for socialeconomic class that everyone falls into (and increasingly there’s people who don’t fit anywhere, further on that below). There are multiple hierarchies which exist primarily in their own bubbles. There is the distinction between “native” Canadians and more recent arrivals, and within those groups, there’s further a breakdown in terms of specific ethnic clusters, religion, profession (blue collar/white collar) and region.

    Personally although I was born and raised in Canada, I don’t feel like I belong to any socioeconomic class here. My parents arrived in Canada from a village in South Asia, but did not settle in a predominately South Asian or even immigrant area. So I grew up in a lily white/wasp neighborhood that was an odd mix of both the very wealthy and those living off of government assistance. Also my parents weren’t typical of either the professional class of immigrants nor the working class immigrants that arrived in Canada from South Asia, so we were oddballs even amongst those that you’d superficially consider our people. My father was educated but my mother had never gone to school and both came from a dirt poor rural upbringing and so had nothing in common with the professional class of scientists, doctors, etc. that came here and were largely from urban and middle class backgrounds in the home country. And with me growing up in Canada and almost always being the only immigrant and child of colour in the neighborhood, I had no frame of reference for what my socioeconomic class was. Economically we were middle class but socially we were cut off and my parents ties were to their extended family in the home country who lived in a totally different world than we did (literally back then, a village with no running water, electricity, etc.) where most of their generation had never been to school or could read/write. So what do I measure myself against? My friends and collegues here whose culture is completely alien to mine at home or my cousins back in the home country who are herding goats?

    I’m an engineer to make ends meet but it’s nothing I’m proud about like that, and I don’t think it says much about me. I’m Canadian but not really…I’m brown but not really…you know. I fall into some economic category according to my income and net worth…but can I really identify with people that have the same numbers as me in any other meaningful way? i don’t know …So what am I?

    And as you write “social class really about our perceptions and where we place ourselves and others in a hierarchy of importance.” but when you have nowhere to place yourself, what then?

    IMO we are increasingly a society of alienated people, there is no community so what meaning does class have? and I think what I am describing isn’t that abnormal or is it?

  23. Paddlacus on March 26, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    @Yuckademus: Incredibly interesting question. I find myself in a similar situation even though I was born and raised here and am about as Canadian as you can get. I look around at most of my friends, who were born in different countries and have different cultures and compare it to myself, who has no sense of culture or history. I don’t have any traditions worth speaking of, no religious orientation that really means anything to me, and like you said, nowhere to really place myself.

    It might be a ‘grass is always greener’ thing, but I sometimes feel jealous of people who can walk around in bland homogonized cities but, when they need to, go back to their homes with their families and shared traditions and customs and feel like they actually belong to something.

    THIS is the reason that I like learning about other cultures – because they invariably have more of that sense of culture and community than I ever have and it’s always great to see.

  24. used tires on March 27, 2010 at 9:45 am

    @Paddlacus: That’s a very interesting insight into Japanese society, and one I completely agree with. I feel very few people in the world actually do what they truly want to, so their job has nothing to do with who they are. But hobbies, interests, pastimes, etc. are what truly define that person and paint a proper portrait.

    Till then,


  25. Gerard on June 12, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Kathryn, wow, cool to read an article on money/class that considers the perspective of sociolinguists! A lot of what sociolinguists are finding these days is that in societies where social mobility is possible, what people really mark (linguistically and otherwise) is what they want to be, not what they are or where they were born. The farther people have moved, or hope to move, the more likely they are to worry about having “proper” grammar or using the right fork. They need to get that stuff “right” to protect themselves against class prejudice.

    I have to disagree with the comment that suggests that socio-economic status “by definition” involves the social status that results from the amount of money you have/earn. Status derives from both social and economic inputs. If you earn $120K a year driving a truck in Fort Mac, or selling dope, you’re *probably* working class, and *probably* have a cluster of behaviours that go with it: attitudes toward money/education/food/gender, accent, purchasing patterns, media choices, leisure time activities, number of books in the house, voting patterns… even favourite colours. On the other hand, if you earn $80K a year from investments and spend your spare time volunteering on museum boards, you probably have a very different cluster of behaviours. (Immigrants blur these distinctions a lot, which is what makes being in Canada so cool!)

    Now, a logical response to my post might be, “Who cares? This is a site about making/saving money, not abstractly defined class.” This stuff does matter, though, if you’re interested in what makes people tick, why they make the choices they make. Class has a huge influence there.

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