This week, I completed a survey on the BBC website to discover which class I belong to. In reality, I don’t have much doubt about which class I belong to, so I was really discovering more about the people who designed the survey than I was about myself.
Over the last few days, there’s been a brief flurry of media interest in new research that suggests there are now seven classes in Britain. The survey was based on this idea. It declared me to be part of the “precariat”. This is odd, because even on the survey’s own terms, I didn’t seem to meet the criteria for it. It may be because I’m self-employed.
Then again, the questions were so bizarre that I doubt many of the findings are likely to be useful at all. I wasn’t asked what work I do, but was asked what work my friends do. This varies considerably. I was asked what I enjoyed in terms of entertainment. For these researchers, it seems that class is not about money and power, but about whether you go to the theatre.
Of course, such things might be an indicator of how much disposable income you have. But the cultural associations of a particular activity often have little to do with the income needed for it. Just think of the cost of going to a Premier League football match.
Associating class with culture and recreation gives the impression that class is some sort of lifestyle choice rather than something structural. This sort of attitude makes it easier for some people to dismiss the whole notion of class. Examples include Jill Kirby of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, who appeared on the Today programme to argue that “class has eroded almost completely”.
I was disappointed that nobody on the programme asked her to explain how it is that the majority of finance directors, QCs and senior journalists went to fee-paying schools, even though 93% of people in the UK are educated at state schools. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mayor of London and Archbishop of Canterbury all went to some of the most expensive schools in the country, which between them educate less than one percent of the UK population. How can anyone argue that this is a country without class?
Another argument that is often heard is that “we are all middle class now”. Those people who go straight from Eton to Oxford to well-paid jobs in investment banks are certainly not middle class. Nor are the million people working in supermarkets and the even greater number working in call centres, many of whom are on zero-hours contracts with little legal protection and far less job security than in the “traditional” working class jobs they have replaced.
I’ve seen class from various angles. My father was a manual worker and I grew up on a council estate. Studying in Oxford, I realised that the “middle class” people – the sons and daughters of teachers and junior managers – had far more in common with me than they did with those who had been to fee-paying schools. Indeed, even people who had been to the less expensive private schools were at a considerable distance from the old Etonians. The big difference was clearly between the people from the “top” schools and the rest of us.
Of course, someone on a middle income who also has a fulfilling and flexible job is likely to have more power over their life than someone on a low income with a demeaning job. I’m not suggesting that there are no nuances or sub-divisions. But let’s not use this as an excuse to mask the reality of the most important distinction. As the Occupy movement has put it, this is between the “one percent” and the “ninety-nine percent”.
Some people point to the blurring of the boundary between the middle and working class as evidence that class does not matter. They say that it shows that people such as Karl Marx were wrong. However, you have only to read Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto to discover that a blurring between the middle and working class is just what Marx predicted. He argued that the increasingly important division was between a tiny number of very rich people and everyone else.
This should not come as any surprise in Britain today – or, indeed, in most of the world. The poor and people in the middle are being told to pay for an economic crisis caused by a system that served the rich. The poorest are suffering the most, with swingeing benefits coming into force only days before the Centre for Policy Studies claimed that class had been eroded. People on middle, as well as low, incomes are facing job losses and pension cuts, just as the NHS is part-privatised, university fees are trebled and local services destroyed at every turn.
People who object to all this have been accused by David Cameron and George Osborne of waging “class war”. It is Cameron and Osborne who are waging class war. They have slashed taxes for the rich, defended millionaire bonuses and turned a blind eye to corporate tax-dodging at the same time as taking a slash-and-burn approach to public services. The Conservative Party are continuing with their three-hundred-year tradition of promoting the interests of the wealthy. Surveys that define class by tastes in music are not going to help us to resist them.
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Was the class study done with the aim of developing marketing categories?
I know a number of middle class people who work in supermarkets, including graduates who can’t find a graduate job, foreigners who are limited in what work they can do here but had higher level jobs in their country of birth, those who have been unable to progress in their career for medical reasons and older women wanting part-time work or needing extra money. I’m from an upper working class background and they are far more middle class than I am. Class here has never just been about income, unlike in the USA. If we’re talking about the 1% and the 99% that’s a different matter, a power divide that doesn’t include the different levels of classes.
I’m very much middle class – father a doctor, mother stayed at home, though both were university educated (and were immigrants, which adds an extra dimension). But at Oxford in the early 70s I felt very out of the loop of public school students, and before that I once danced with the son of the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University and when i told him what school (grammar) I went to, he said ‘What an inferior school’ (I didn’t dance with him again – he was a minger anyway…)
The BBC calculator put me as ‘new affluent worker’ the first time I did it, and ‘elite’ the second! Guess it doesn’t know what to do with someone who is self-employed, has low income but loads of capital and owns four properties in North London. Essentially in terms of both income and lifestyle I am downwardly mobile from my parents, although the capital I’ve inherited from them skews it. But I still see myself as middle class because I ‘speak posh’ and because my parents were middle class.
I personally believe class is essentially inherited and that it takes a couple of generations to move classes. It’s a very complex mix of financial, educational and cultural factors.