The Saturday Debate: What do we mean by middle-class?

Here’s your starter for ten in our Saturday slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate:

Class has always been an intangible concept in the UK.

While most countries would define it quite simply as a function of income, in our class-hungover country there are all manner of other factors: state or privately educated, your profession, whether you have a degree, your postcode, your family circumstances (‘where you came from’), even your accent. So while carpenters and plumbers may well earn more than university lecturers there’s no doubt which of those would be regarded as the middle-class occupation.

How far is this understandable or right any more? Should income be the sole determinant of whether someone is defined as middle-class (in which case we are talking about families with a combined income of roughly £30,000)?

Or should we recognise that life chances are about more than just money – if you have a good education and supportive parents in professional jobs, then surely your opportunity for living life as you want to do so is greater than those from a more impoverished background, regardless of what your current income is?

There was a fascinating article (sorry, subscription-only link) in The Economist earlier this year looking at ‘The misinterpreted middle’, and pointing out how Britain’s problem with defining what we mean by middle-class has affected our public policy choices:

… the most important reason for recognising the real middle class is that it has had a worse time of it in recent decades than is generally recognised. … Although incomes in the middle have not stagnated in recent decades, as in America, they have grown relatively slowly. Real median income increased by an average of 1.6% a year between 1979 to 1997, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, and then by 1.9% until 2007. This was lower than the rate at which the economy grew. Much of this is down to the loss of middle-income jobs to technology or cheaper foreign labour. …

The result is a middle class more vulnerable to hardship and insecurity than is often grasped. Research by the Department for Work and Pensions found that in the financial year 2006-07, 6% of households in the middle-income quintile could not afford to send their children swimming once a month, 9% had too few bedrooms to be able to put over-tens of the opposite sex in separate bedrooms and almost a quarter could not afford a week’s family holiday away from home. A survey last year by the Trades Union Congress found that 38% of people in that same middle quintile were concerned about their job prospects, the same proportion as in the very bottom quintile.

The very concept of middle-class has become defined either by the metropolitan media classes – who assume middle-class must mean shopping at Waitrose and worrying about school fees – and twee suburban sitcoms in which amiable people get into a bit of pickle but sort it all out within 30 minutes.

Such stereotypes have obscured what we actually mean by middle-class, and stopped politicians from taking a serious look at the real middle-class, and the policies that are needed to help them.

Agree? Disagree? The comments thread awaits you …

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13 Comments

  • The Liberal position on this should be simple, whatever class people think they are. The same as our position on gender,sexuality, nationality etc. This has the advantage that the way people see themselves has more effect on their behaviour than their “objective” position anyway.
    Actually, the whole idea of defining people from the outside seems a bit marxist.
    “Subjective” class is already measured- if I remember correctly its about 52% working class, 4% upper & 44% middle for Britain, with upper constant & about 1% shifting from working to middle every 3 years. So, by 2050 we could expect 4% upper, 57% middle & 39% working class.

  • Perhaps this is a naive question…. isn’t the Economist article confusing two issues that should better be distinct? There is the sociological issue of how one defines ‘middle class’, and there is the economic issue of what has happened to people within a certain income group. As Stephen points out in his bit of the blog post, income doesn’t necessarily equal class definition, and the effect discussed in the Economist quote (overtly at least) deals with level of income, not class.

    I wonder how much it matters what we call the affected people with average or just-above average incomes who are nevertheless feeling the pinch. It is clear that a loss of disposable income (and with this, a sense that quality of life is being diminished) among a significant part of the population has to be an issue for politicians and public policy whether we define that group in class terms or not….

    The only question we might have to wonder about is whether public reaction is expected to be stronger if we are told that this is happening to a part of the population generally called ‘middle class’ than it would be if we were talking about ‘working class’ people (or people on lower incomes) dealing with a similar effect?

  • David Langshaw 31st Jul '10 - 8:07pm

    When I worked at the Stock Exchange 20 years ago we used to play a game called “Prolier Than Thou”, in which the winner was the one with the greatest claim to be working class. For various reasons (birth, background, education, jobs done in the past, Union membership etc) I was usually an easy winner, much to the annoyance of the Militant Tendancy member in the same Department. Nevertheless, like George Orwell I now describe myself as Upper Lower-Middle Class, which seems to cover most bases.

    What was clear, however, was that many people working in “the City” in a variety of clerical roles had (and still have) the same anxieties and outlook on life as many more obvious members of the Working Classes – even though most mouthpieces of the Working Classes (usually self-appointed) would not have regarded them as such.

  • Jane Elwood 1st Aug '10 - 9:10am

    If this government worries you then you’re middles class.

    If it arouses you – then you are upper class

    If it scares the living daylights out of you, you’re one of the rest …

  • Pal Barker,

    Your figures, if accurate, are dire news for the Labour Party.

    In May, Labour crashed to its second worst election defeat since the Second World War, its record for economic competence in tatters, leaderless, and without any clear underlying philosophy to justify its existence.

    If you look at the outpourings of the Labour trolls on this site, if you step behind the bluster and bravado, you will see a trend emerging. Labour appears to be retreating into tribalism, into a bunker mentality of class chauvinism and hatred of the class enemy. This is bolstered in part by the belief that Labour avoided an even more catastrophic defeat by appealling to class loyalty in the last few days of the campaign.

    If Labour goes down this route it would be disastrous (for Labour, that is). As Paul’s figures show, they are on a losing wicket, just as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock were on a losing wicket, prior to the imposition of Blair/Mandelson. I don’t think David Miliband is keen on playing the class card, but he is unlikely to be able to exercise the same kind of dictatorial control over his party as Blair/Mandelson did.

    An earlier generation of Lib Dem leaders (Ashdown and Kennedy) said that the long-term future for the Liberal Democrats was as a non-socialist party of the centre-left which ultimately replaces Labour. I think that’s right. After all, in large parts of the country, we already have replaced Labour entirely, and we have made huge inroads into the big cities in recent years. Which makes one wonder why we are propping up a Tory government, but I don’t think that will be happening in a year’s time.

    If it is the case that fewer and fewer people are thinking of themselves as “working-class”, a Labour Party returning to its roots is entering a cul-de-sac.

  • This result from last Thursday illustrates my above points:

    Keynsham Town Council, Keynsham South
    Thursday 29 July 2010 12:00

    LD Andy Halliday 599 (49.2)
    Con 313 (25.7)
    Lab 306 (25.1)
    Majority 286
    Turnout 31.13%
    LD gain from Lab

    Labour tribalists are scared witless by the Liberal Democrats. That is why they are so addicted to trolling on this site, and why they so desperately want the Coalition to survive (their behaviour is helping to ensure that it does).

    This is what ALDC has to say about Keynsham South (just outside Bristol):

    Political Earthquake 2
    Paul Crossley replied: 30 July 2010 20:04
    As with Radstock this was safe rock solid Labour seat until recent times. The Town Council seat is on the same boundaries as the Unitary seat. In 2007 the Conservatives started the first inroad into the Labour hegemony by winning one of the 2 seats. At the recent General the Conservatives won this seat in the NES victory over Labour and they were expecting to win it again. The Liberal Democrats were first out of the blocks with a good local candidate and before the election had even been called we had knocked on most doors just to thank them for voting in the General. This surprised people but actually made them feel good about us and the coalition. We followed this up with a survey and again this was done before the election was called. The three week campaign was high intensity and we spoke to a staggering 60% of the voters and put out good quality positive leaflets. Because Bath and NESomerset had helped others in byelections we were delighted that N Somerset, Bristol and S Glos activists came out to support Andy. The Conservative campaign by contrast was lazy and poor and the Labour party seem to have simply imploded locally and had nothing to offer. All in all a great night for Liberal Democrats in NE Somerset.

  • What’s class? Why should we care?

    Move on, Britain, nothing to see here.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Aug '10 - 11:21pm

    The Brtish right-wing media has a clever way of using the term “middle class”. It uses it to mean the wealthiest and most privileged 5% or so in society, but in a way which makes those who really are in the middle think it refers to them. So, if the Daily Mail runs a headline “Attack on the middle class” it is likely to refer to some taxation policy which would actually benefit those who really are on average income or who have average wealth at the cost of mildly denting the super-rich.

    In recent decades, our country has become more divided, not less. We used to be quite egalitarian, life chances were less linked to parental income than in most other European countries. I was shocked to read the other day (it was in the Economist, so it must be true …) that we are now nearly the most unequal country in the OECD in these terms.

    So, it is clear that the disappearance of some of the old class-based aspects of our country is just a smokescreen which hides an actual deepening rather than a lessening of class divisions. Is it not weird that class is now hardly mentioned as a political issue even though it has actually become a bigger issue since the days when it was more what politics was about?

    We have become more like the USA, a country of massive inequality, which simply refuses to believe it is such because it supposes it has disposed of such things as aristocratic titles, and whose upper class has managed to develop a national ideology in which the poor are the greatest defenders of all that keeps them poor and keeps the upper class (though they don’t call it that) rich.

  • More important is the ruling class, surely?

    We have a cabinet packed with multi-millionaires – both Tory and Liberal – forcing through huge cuts to people’s living standards to pay for a crisis of their economic system.

    Go figure.

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