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The upper class is often seen as the top tier of a triparite class structure, above middle class and working class. The term has had a complex range of meanings and usages, and in the 21st century many people are uncomfortable with it as a term and as a concept.
In the United Kingdom, France, and many other countries the term upper class was long intimately associated with land ownership. Political power was in the hands of landowners for many centuries, often to the exclusion of other rich people (which was one of the causes of the French Revolution). Upper class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility, but not necessarily so: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country.
In the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries the term "upper class" referred to an elite which combined wealth and social power, but the connection with landownership was far weaker than in Europe; in the Northern states it was almost non-existent. This usage of "upper class" lingered into the 20th century to some degree, associated with the WASP elite and the power of the graduates of the Ivy League.
In the United Kingdom "upper class" is now almost always used pejoratively, and British people are much more anxious to avoid being labelled "upper class" (or even "upper middle class") than their American equivalents, preferring to attempt to huddle together under an undifferentiated middle class designation. The U.S is now arguably more socially stratified than the UK, albeit that some individuals move up a class by making money. This reflects the absence in America of the embarrassment that many Europeans feel about their societies' socially stratified pasts; the high level of inequality in the U.S. compared to other developed countries (see Gini coefficient); and the power of rhetoric that the U.S. is a unique "land of opportunity". Thus there is a widespread assumption that inequality paradoxically proves that any American can make it. Generally this is unaccompanied by any analysis of how common social advancement actually is in the U.S. compared to other developed countries, and it is sometimes supported by a wildly inaccurate assumption that class divisions in Europe, and especially in the UK, have hardly loosened since the American Revolution.
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