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Social Sci LibreTexts

1.2: The Cohort Effect

One important context that is sometimes mistaken for age is the cohort effect. A cohort is a group of people who are born at roughly the same period in a particular society. Cohorts share histories and contexts for living. Members of a cohort have experienced the same historic events and cultural climates which have an impact on the values, priorities, and goals that may guide their lives.


Consider a young boy’s concerns as he grows up in the United States during World War II. What his family buys is limited by their small budget and by a governmental program set up to ration food and other materials that are in short supply because of the war. He is eager rather than resentful about being thrifty and sees his actions as meaningful contributions to the good of others. As he grows up and has a family of his own, he is motivated by images of success tied to his past experience: a successful man is one who can provide for his family financially, who has a wife who stays at home and cares for the children, and children who are respectful but enjoy the luxury of days filled with school and play without having to consider the burdens of society’s struggles. He marries soon after completing high school, has four children, works hard to support his family and is able to do so during the prosperous postwar economics of the 1950s in America. But economic conditions change in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s. His wife begins to work to help the family financially and to overcome her boredom with being a stay-at-home mother. The children are teenagers in a very different social climate: one of social unrest, liberation, and challenging the status quo. They are not sheltered from the concerns of society; they see television broadcasts in their own living room of the war in Vietnam and they fear the draft. And they are part of a middle-class youth culture that is very visible and vocal. His employment as an engineer eventually becomes difficult as a result of downsizing in the defense industry. His marriage of 25 years ends in divorce. This is not a unique personal history, rather it is a story shared by many members of his cohort. Historic contexts shape our life choices and motivations as well as our eventual assessments of success or failure during the course of our existence.

Consider your cohort. Can you identify it? Does it have a name and if so, what does the name imply? To what extent does your cohort shape your values, thoughts, and aspirations? (Some cohort labels popularized in the media for generations in the United States include Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation M.)

Socioeconomic Status 

Another context that influences our lives is our social standing, socioeconomic status, or social class. Socioeconomic status is a way to identify families and households based on their shared levels of education, income, and occupation. While there is certainly individual variation, members of a social class tend to share similar lifestyles, patterns of consumption, parenting styles, stressors, religious preferences, and other aspects of daily life. (Consider, for example, some terms that have been used in marketing to refer to different consumer groups: the “truck and trailer” or the “pool and poodle” group referring to working class and upper middle-class groups.) All of us born into a class system or are socially located and may move up or down depending on a combination of both socially and individually created limits and opportunities. Below is a model of the class system identified in the United States (Gilbert 2003; Gilbert and Kahl, 1998), a description of these social classes, and a partial listing of the impact that social class can have on individual and family life (Seccombe and Warner, 2004).


Click HERE to view a slide show on social class from a study by the New York Times. Then review the descriptions given below.

Model of Social Class Based on Socioeconomic Status

Upper Class: This group makes up about 1 percent of the population in the United States. They own substantial wealth and after-tax annual family income of between $200,000 to $750,000 (DeNavas-Walt and Cleveland, 2002). The upper class is subdivided into “upper-upper” and “lower-upper” categories based on how money and wealth was acquired. The “upper-upper class” (0.5%) has money from investments or inheritance and tend to be stewards of the family fortune. This “old money” brings a sense of polish and sophistication now shared by those with “new money”. The newly rich (0.5%) have made their fortunes as personalities in sports and media or as entrepreneurs. Members of the newly rich tend to flaunt their wealth; a practice looked upon with disdain by old money. One of my former students reported her experience as a flight attendant working first class on a trip from New York to Los Angeles. One of her passengers had a name that would be familiar to many Americans as a family with old money. Seated several rows behind him was a couple from the newly rich and she wore a long fur coat, they became drunk on champagne and were quite loud during the flights. The plane had landed, and as the flight attendant was helping her upper-upper class guest on with his coat and he looked over his shoulder at the couple and sneered, “New money.” (So consider this: if you ever win the lottery, you may risk being shunned by “old money”!)

Upper Middle Class: About 14 percent of the population in the United States is considered upper middle class. Income levels are more often between $100,000 and $200,000 annually and hold professional degrees that involve education beyond a four-year bachelor’s degree. One of the distinctions made between the middle class overall and members of the working class is that members of the middle class have occupations in which they are paid for their education and expertise. These white-collar workers (a term that originally referred to the distinction between what office workers wore to work as opposed to factory workers designated as “blue collar” workers) hold professional positions such as physicians or attorneys and as professionals enjoy a good deal of freedom and control over their occupations. They determine the regulations of their work through professional organizations (such as the American Medical Association). Having a sense of autonomy or control is a key factor in experiencing job satisfaction and personal happiness and ultimately health and well-being (Weitz, 2007).

Middle Class: Another 30 percent of the population is considered middle class. These individuals work in lower-paying, less autonomous white-collar jobs such as teaching and nursing or as lower-level managers. Members of the middle class may hold 2 or 4 year degrees, but often from less prestigious, state-supported schools. Their income typically ranges between $25,000 and $75,000 annually. They own less property and have less discretionary income than members of the upper-middle and upper class and yet they may share the values and standards held by the upper-middle class. Yet, acquiring larger homes, newer vehicles, and pursing travel, paying for health care and dental expenses often means taking on substantial debt. This problem is not unique to the United States, however. Consider this excerpt from a British newspaper describing today’s “impoverished professionals” in which a couple goes to dinner before a movie and realizes that they have no cash. So out come the 9 credit cards.

I’ve brought all the cards . . .trouble is, I can’t remember which ones are up to their limit . . .Go to a cash machine? Forget it. Both our current accounts have been frozen. Welcome to the world of middle-class debt . . . On paper, my husband and I are what is known in polite parlance as “comfortably off”. In reality, we have no money. Anything that comes in goes immediately on debt repayment . . . That and paying the nanny so we can both go out to work and earn more money for more debt repayment. An Impoverished Professional, I call myself. And there are plenty of us out there.

The average amount of credit card debt in American households is $8,000 and out of 144 million Americans who carry an “all purpose” credit card, only 55 million pay their entire balance off each month. The industry refers to these people as “deadbeats” and prefers the almost 90 million customers who extend their payment over months. These “revolvers” create nearly $30 billion in profits for the industry. (Frontline, 2004). Carrying debt can be extremely stressful and have a negative effect on health and social well-being. The consequences of such debt are still being explored.


The Working Class: Thirty percent of Americans are considered members of the working class. The working class is comprised of those working in occupations such as retail, clerical or factory jobs. Their jobs are typically routine and more heavily supervised than those of the middle class and require less formal education than do white-collar jobs. Members of the working class are subject to plant closings, lower pay, and more frequent lay-offs, and may rely on fewer workers contributing to the family income. Fewer earners and less job stability impacts not only family income, it also impacts the likelihood of having adequate health care. Being employed does not insure adequate healthcare; in fact, sixty-nine percent of the 45 million Americans who lack any medical insurance live in households where there is at least one full-time employee (Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, 2004). Americans who are self-employed or working in companies with fewer than 200 employees are less likely to have health insurance benefits than those who work in companies with 200 or more employees (Weitz, 2007).  And the cost of obtaining even minimal health insurance as an individual is often prohibitive.

Social class differences go beyond financial concerns, however. In a classic study on parenting styles and social class, Melvin Kohn (1977) found that working class parents emphasized obedience, honesty, and conformity in their children while middle-class parents valued independence, initiative, and self-reliance. These differences are attributed to the expectations made of parents as workers; blue-collar workers are rewarded for conformity while white-collar workers are rewarded for initiative.

The Working Poor: Twenty percent of Americans are categorized as the working poor. These people live near the poverty level and hold seasonal or temporary jobs as unskilled laborers. This includes migrant farm workers, temporary employees in service industries such as restaurants or in retail typically for minimum wage. The poor and working poor experience many of the same problems that can have an impact on development. We will examine this list after describing the next social class.

The Underclass: Approximately five percent of Americans are part of the underclass described as temporary workers, part-time workers, those who are chronically unemployed or underemployed (Gilbert, 2003). They may receive some governmental assistance and tend to be looked down upon by other members of society. Since 2008, we have seen national unemployment rates in the United States hovering around 10 percent due to changes in the economy and being unemployed is less stigmatized but still very stressful. Many of the underclass are children or are disabled. It is estimated that there are about 3.5 million homeless people in the United States and 1.5 of them are children (Urban Institute, 2000).


Find out more about homelessness at Life on the streets can be extremely dangerous involving addiction, deceit, violence, sexual assault, and prostitution or “survival sex” which refers to exchanging food for shelter (Davis, 1999).

Other Consequences of Poverty: Poverty level is an income amount established by the Social Security Administration that is based on a formula called the “thrifty food plan” that allows one-third of income for food. Those living at or near poverty level may find it extremely difficult to sustain a household with this amount of income. Buying the least expensive, most filling foods typically means buying foods high in fat, starch and sugar. Living in poorer housing with the fear of eviction or poor plumbing and disruptive neighbors can also be stressful. Poverty is associated with poorer health and a lower life expectancy due to poorer diet, less healthcare, greater stress, working in more dangerous occupations, higher infant mortality rates, poorer prenatal care, greater iron deficiencies, greater difficulty in school, and many other problems. Members of the middle class may fear losing status, but the poor may have greater concerns over losing housing. And while those in the middle class are more likely to use shopping or travel as a way to cope with stressors, the poor are more likely to eat or smoke in response to stress (Seccombe and Warner, 2004).


  • Use THIS TOOL to calculate your social class position based on four commonly used indicators of socioeconomic status in the United States:
  • Explore many other chances and choices in life that are impacted by social class by clicking HERE and reviewing the stories given on the left of the screen.


Think about how social class might impact the life of someone with whom you are working in a hospital, school, or other setting. What should you consider in order to be most effective in helping that person or family?