The Misery of Being Merely Upper Middle Class: The Haves Demand Sympathy for Not Being Have-Mores

The Exiles.

“Nate, a midlevel Wall Streeter, and his longtime girlfriend, Emily, are effectively evicted from New York City when they find they can no longer afford their apartment.”

So begins the description on the dust jacket of a novel that arrived at The Observer offices earlier this summer. It’s called The Exiles, and its author is a former Manhattanite named Allison Lynn who has since fled the city, according to the press materials.

At first, we thought that the book had to be some kind of satire. Surely, no one could be so tone-deaf and oblivious to the difficulties faced by the working and middle classes that they would think a novel about the plight of a couple pulling in $200,000 per year would be compelling? Maybe Nate and Emily are some kind of social-climbing monsters in the model of The Custom of the Country’s Undine Spragg, whose oblivious greed and endless desires ruin the lives of everyone around them?

We read on.

The “effective eviction”—not to be confused with many of the actual evictions that actually disadvantaged New Yorkers have experienced—turns out to be an entirely voluntarily decision to leave a “cramped two-bedroom” in downtown Manhattan, an apartment whose rent had just passed “the $5,000-a-month mark.” Even worse, this apartment “didn’t boast any luxuries. No washer-dryer, no fireplace, no outdoor space, no second bathroom. They were thankful simply to have an elevator in the building and a daytime doorman to help lug in the baby supplies.” Unlike their friends, they rent rather than own and lust bitterly after their friends’ Okite countertops, kitchens with two separate wine refrigerators and induction cooktops shipped in from Denmark. Being exiled from New York is apparently what happens when a $200,000-per-year salary doesn’t buy you the wealthy lifestyle you think you deserve and you decide to move to some godforsaken backwater like Newport (yes Newport, the dingy hellhole famous for all of its historic mansions).

As it happens, the book is entirely serious about the dire fate of the merely wealthy, the most pressing social issue of our time. The Exiles is littered with references to how impoverished Emily and Nate are—“who cared if Nate was financially undesirable, as economically impaired as she was?” (Emily is an advertising executive before taking maternity leave and deciding not to go back, because she realizes that she has turned into “a potato chip marketer, pregnant by the only pauper on Wall Street.”)

When their Jeep Grand Cherokee—a six-year-old car they have to park in a discount lot in Manhattan, can you imagine!—is stolen with, tragically, Emily’s new pair of TOD’s loafers inside on their first day in Newport, the family’s lives spiral out of control. Without credit cards, they’re forced to live on room service and the mini-fridge of their three-star hotel. Now they are “officially the have-nots”—a status that Emily is terrified of, having grown up as the child of a professor and been forced to eat sandwiches made with generic peanut butter.

Throughout the book, the pair bemoans their minor misfortunes, like the fact that they had to purchase a used Bugaboo from their friends and “the shame they’d shared after the transaction.” Nate and Emily nickname the stroller Ollie, “for Oliver Twist, the haggard little orphan boy. Since then, whenever Emily saw an industrial Stokke on the street—a Norwegian import far more technical than even a new Bugaboo—she’d glance pleadingly at Nate and joke, in her best cockney accent, ‘Please, sir, may I have some more.’ ”

The only section in which the couple thinks even glancingly of those who are less fortunate than themselves is a cursory, parenthetical mention in a long passage in which Emily justifies her decision to steal a friend’s painting, because she has so little power that she has been “essentially evicted from Manhattan.”

“She kept thinking about the economy’s manic upswing. The pundits were claiming growth might hit record highs by the end of the year, growth that represented some sort of hope for a country rising in the new century, fighting back after a tragedy of epic magnitude. Though from what Emily could see, all the proceeds of that growth were being thrown toward the ridiculous—bespoke bicycles, personal airstrips, hand-massaged beef. None of it was coming her way (or the way of all of the children who were still starving, the middle class who were still fighting for health insurance).  If the money were hers, she told herself, she’d build something to last. Whether in technology, in dairy, in philosophy, she didn’t know. But she’d at least, with the cash, have a chance at mattering.”

Yes, literature is littered with despicable characters who, like Emily and Nate, prove resistant to epiphanies (rather than learning the emptiness of their desires and the hollowness of wealth, the couple basically concludes that they’ll have to make do with a lot, which in Newport, at least, is more than it was in Manhattan). And Ms. Lynn, despite the novel’s lack of critical distance, does seem to have tapped into a cultural moment—remember the Wall Street Whiner, who last year managed to buy a $1.2 million condo on his measly $350,000-per-year salary?

These days, that sense of entitlement, particularly among those who are already very privileged, is so widespread that the very fortunate are not only unembarrassed when it comes to bragging about how much they have, but also when it comes to complaining about how much they don’t.

Natasha Lyonne, a successful actress in a new hit show (Orange is the New Black) from a very wealthy New York family, in a recent New York magazine story about apartment hunting (she was looking in the $3,500-and-up range), speculated on what she’ll do when she can’t “afford the city” anymore: “I feel like I just have such the blood and bones of a New Yorker that I can almost imagine better, like, giving up the fight and not being able to afford the city and going out West, keeping a small place here, and then when I’m like 80, coming back here, living on the park and going to the theater. For the matinee.”

Yes, that’s right, not being able to “afford the city” and settling for keeping just “a small place” on the park.

Even politicians are growing ever more attuned to this privileged group’s plight—Christine Quinn wants to give families making up to $200,000-per-year city-subsidized loans to send their children to the best preschools.

In “a conversation” with the author included with the press materials, Ms. Lynn writes:

“One of the things I’m interested in is how, even during times of upswing and prosperity, the income gap can be insurmountable. That gap divides New York City (and plenty of other urban areas) not merely into the haves and have-nots, but into the haves and the almost-haves—divides the super-rich from the middle and upper-middle class. Many of these almost haves, like Nate and Emily, never thought they’d end up on the wrong side of that financial line. I see it now in my city friends who’ve reached their late 30s and early 40s—they’re successful in their fields, but, no matter how well they do, they’ll never be able to catch up to the college pals who are buying multimillion-dollar lofts and sprawling beach houses. It’s too late to break out of the middle.”

Oh the horror of not being able to break out of the (upper) middle class! Never to be rich, let alone filthy rich. Never to buy a multimillion-dollar loft or a sprawling beach house.

After all, now that Manhattan’s poor and the middle class have effectively fled to the outer boroughs (with the exception of NYCHA, Mitchell-Lama and an ever-dwindling supply of rent-stabilized units), the merely wealthy are increasingly finding themselves at the bottom of Manhattan’s merciless pecking order. And they are demanding that we feel as sorry for them as they feel for themselves, to understand the particular misery of being a have among the have-mores. Ms. Lynn was right about there being a tragedy—she just made the mistake of thinking that this was a tragedy for the upper-middle class, rather than for society as a whole.

This is, perversely, what happens when you have a city where the lower and middle classes have become so invisible that the wealthy forget what it is like for those living with less. When the wealthy start feeling sorry for themselves because they’re not part of the global super-elite. When the rich emerge from a financial crisis largely of their own making emboldened rather than cowed. When great wealth, and the pursuit of even greater wealth, blurs perceptions to the extent that being middle class is a fate to be avoided at all costs, rather than the embodiment of the American dream.