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The upper class in modern societies is the social class composed of the wealthiest members of society, who also wield the greatest political power. 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.
The term is often used in conjunction with the terms "middle class" and "working class" as part of a tripartite model of social stratification.
1 Historical meaning,
2 British Isles,
3 United States
4 See also,
6 Further reading,
7 External links,
This section requires expansion. (March 2012)
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.
Main article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_structure_of_Britain#Upper_class
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. Since the Second World War, the term has come to encompass rich and powerful members of the managerial and professional classes as well.
Main article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_upper_class
In the United States the upper class, also referred to simply as the rich, is often considered to consist of those with great influence and wealth. In this respect the US differs 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', whereas in the United States 'class' is more easily defined as 'where you are going'; i.e. one is born into the upper class in the UK. 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 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.
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. These members obtained valuable social capital by joining the club.