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the squeezed middle

noun

people on average incomes who have less money than previously to buy the things they need because rising costs have not been matched by an increase in pay

'Many of these companies have built their brands on the backs of the country's middle-classes. But this swathe of society, caught between recession-proof top earners and low-income households, has come to be described as the squeezed middle in modern-day, austerity Britain.'

Wall Street Journal 8th October 2012

In the face of increased outgoings and no proportionate rise in income, are you 'strapped' for cash? Is money rather 'tight' at the moment? If so, then you may be among the significant proportion of the population who are extending the metaphorical concept of being 'constrained' by financial circumstances by being described as the squeezed middle - you may not be struggling to put food on the table or pay fuel bills, but then again, there's no Mercedes on the drive or holiday in the Caribbean, either …

in spite and perhaps even because of the difficulty in pinpointing a precise definition of the squeezed middle, the expression has been very quick to catch on

The term squeezed middle, though understood in the US, is mainly used in British English, and refers to those people who neither fall into the lowest income category, where they might get support from the welfare state, nor count among the country's top earners, for whom financial cutbacks have little personal impact. These people are therefore 'piggy in the middle', seeing their income eroded through tax changes and rising prices, and consequently, though not struggling to make basic ends meet, experiencing a significant decline in their standard of living.

Predictably, a precise definition of what it means to belong to the squeezed middle is rather subjective. A person may describe themselves as belonging to the squeezed middle because they have less disposable income and so for instance have to change their weekly shopping allegiances from a high-end supermarket chain to one which offers more economical options. Critics might argue however that this person is not a bona fide member of the actual squeezed middle, who rather than merely changing where they shop are being forced to make adjustments to what and how much they buy.

In spite and perhaps even because of the difficulty in pinpointing a precise definition of the squeezed middle – the phrase acts as an effective catch-all for people with middle incomes in a wide range of circumstances – the expression has been very quick to catch on, lapped up by the media and resonating with people feeling disillusioned in a climate of austerity (the general term now used to cover issues such as inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending). So struck were they by the expression squeezed middle's explosion onto the scene that Oxford University Press lexicographers on both sides of the Atlantic named it their 'Word of the Year' in 2011.

Background – squeezed middle

The expression squeezed middle was launched into the public consciousness when it was used by UK Labour party leader Ed Miliband in a radio interview in 2011, and quickly caught on as something that a large proportion of the electorate felt they belonged to. However the essence of the phrase has existed in other forms for some time, financial analysts often referring to squeezing the middle class or a squeeze on the middle class. In the US and Canada, the phrase middle-class squeeze has been visible for a number of years.

Interestingly, squeezed middle is now starting to pop up in contexts which aren't strictly financial. In March 2012, an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper talked about "a squeezed middle of universities", referring to institutions that fell between the two camps of attracting the best-performing students and offering the lowest fees. Given that the concept of being caught in the middle of two extremes is something that might apply in a variety of contexts, it will be interesting to see if the phrase crops up more widely and thereby secures its potential longevity.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 22nd October 2012.

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