Keeping a foothold in the American middle class is harder than ever, thanks to economic trends that are leaving many families without the financial security that is the group's hallmark.
Four out of five Americans say it's harder to be middle class today than it was 25 years ago, according to a recent survey from online credit services company Elevate. In the past 15 years, millions have fallen out of the classification, with an analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts finding that each of the 50 states saw its share of middle-class families shrink during that period.
The triple-whammy of a deep recession, weak economic recovery, and stagnant wages have left many Americans with a sense that they're falling behind. In some cases, they're not only getting left behind by the rising fortunes of the top 1 percent of American earners, but also are dropping out of the middle class, a broad economic term that signals financial stability and the means to plan ahead, save for the future and feel comfortable.
"Compared to the middle class of a few decades ago, the 'new middle class' is less financially stable than ever before," said Ken Rees, chief executive of Elevate.
Although some may point to the proliferation of mobile phones and flat-screen TVs as a sign that people are doing just fine -- and that some families may simply be spending too much -- the trappings of a middle-class life have shifted during the past several decades. For instance, some consumer electronics like smartphones, once pricey status symbols, have plunged in cost during the past 10 years. By contrast, other costs of admission to the middle class, such as earning a college degree, have skyrocketed.
Real median income for working-age Americans has fallen more than 12 percent since 2000. That means that while buying a flat-screen TV may not overly strain a middle-income family's budget, sending a child to college may now be out of reach.
Many households are also grappling with volatility in their income thanks to the shift away from stable full-time jobs and the emergence of the "sharing economy," which makes workers more susceptible to wide income swings.
"JPMorgan Chase did a study of their customers and found that at every income bracket, Americans could see a swing of close to 30 percent in income month to month," Rees said. "As the number of stable, higher-paying jobs in the U.S. has eroded, it has created new financial pressures for millions of Americans and resulted in significantly reduced savings rates."
Read on to learn about seven signs that you've dropped out of the middle class.