FEATURE28 June 2011

Class ain't what it used to be

A new survey by BritainThinks suggests that researchers need to rethink the definition of working class – and the way they think about class altogether.

This March, BritainThinks produced Speaking Middle English, a new survey exploring the views and attitudes of the Britons who self-define as middle class. Our weighted online poll of 2,000 people suggested that almost three quarters of us – 71% – place ourselves in one of the ‘middle class’ categories.

We were proud of the debate that the survey kick-started, and already our analysis of the 24% who define themselves as working class looks set to cause a similar stir. As soon as we announced it, social and market researchers and commentators began tweeting, blogging and emailing their views on which method and which question-wording would provide the most accurate picture – or the one that most accorded with their viewpoint.

In particular, fellow researchers have queued up to offer alternative classifications. Some of these have been more insightful than others. The differences between ‘objective’ classifications (by occupational background, or educational achievement) and subjective ones (what class a person says they belong to) are fairly obvious and not particularly enlightening – researchers may wish to classify others by the jobs they do, but they clearly classify themselves by other variables, including how they feel about their life and position in society.

“Class isn’t supposed to be a simple measure of where you think you stand in society. Being working class is supposed to be qualitatively different from being middle class – they are supposed to be two clubs, each with their own member benefits”

However, a number of researchers have pointed to differences in the results that flow from different self-identification questions, in particular the effect that the number of categories seems to have on the proportions of people who identify as middle and working class. This is a very significant finding, and one that speaks to a fundamental shift in what we mean when we talk about class.

If offered three categories (upper, middle and working), as per the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2007, a slim majority ( 57%) of UK adults choose to classify themselves as either working or upper class, with a slim minority saying middle. If, in a reflection of the many sub-categories that British people themselves ascribe to middle-classness, the survey offers five categories (working, lower-middle, middle, upper-middle and upper) you tend to get a big majority placing themselves somewhere in the middle. In January 2010 YouGov found that 66% said they were middle class in response to this question, and our survey showed 71%. In a further twist, YouGov showed in March this year that if you add a further ‘upper-working’ category, the balance shifts back towards working class – with 48% saying working or upper-working, and 42% saying one of the middle options.

What is class anyway?
These results give us reason to think seriously about what people are saying when they answer these questions. The variation in responses seems to suggest that respondents are seeing the options offered to them as an ordinal scale, in which each option is above the next – so adding in extra options at any point leads to a redistribution across the scale. But that isn’t how class is traditionally supposed to work.

Class isn’t supposed to be a simple measure of where you think you stand in society. Being working class is supposed to be qualitatively different from being middle class – they are supposed to be two clubs, each with their own member benefits. While you might place yourself towards the top or bottom of working or middle class, the idea is that you have a strong sense of which one you are first, and then decide whereabouts in that class you might sit.

The fact that adding in new options within a class can lead to a different spread across the classes themselves, suggests that for many people the very meaning of class has shifted – from a concept of discrete groups with their own values, cultural anchor points, internal hierarchies and positional markers to one where class names are simply indicators for where you think you stand in society generally.

This is a big change – and one that was confirmed when we segmented the 71% who said they were middle class in our earlier survey. The six segments that we identified were very different from one another, with deeply varying outlooks and priorities, experiences and values. In fact, the only thing linking them was a conviction that the definition of middle class is about what you consume and own, rather than what you do for a living.

New realities
Our new report investigates the views of the 24% who identified themselves as working class in our survey. Focus groups held in Basildon and Rotherham told us that the last two decades have not been kind to workers. Being working class used to be a badge of pride, but is not, most felt, any more. Being working class back then meant you had worked hard for everything you had. Jobs were ‘proper jobs’ with proper vocational training – unlike today’s apprenticeships. And those jobs were protected by powerful trade unions that spoke up for the workers.

Being working class is less attractive than it once was. BritainThinks’ survey shows that many people who do define themselves as such do so because they feel they have nowhere else to go. And they expect their families to be stuck where they currently are – six out of ten expect their own kids to be working class too. And while the historical perks of being working class – living in strong communities, doing an honest day’s work and knowing how to have fun – seem to have evaporated, the financial downsides have grown.

Worst of all is the stress of life near the bottom of the social scale, the nagging fear – felt especially strongly by the worst- off and most vulnerable – that at any time they might tip over and end up in a fourth class – not ‘working’ any more but lower class, underclass, or ‘chav’ class. The research reveals how important this new class-archetype is – not as a positive grouping but as a pariah-label, from which working-class people are anxious to differentiate themselves. This class cannot be described as ‘working’, our focus groups argued, because ‘they do not work’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘do not want to work’.

Members of this class are typified by the character of the ‘scrounger’ who ‘knows more about the benefits system than the rest of us put together’. Anti-‘scrounger’ feelings were strongest and voiced most loudly by those whose own situation might lead others to categorise them as part of this lower grouping. Those participants in our focus groups who were currently unemployed, or who relied on benefits to survive, were most eager to clarify. “I may be out of work, but I want to work, I’m looking hard for work and trying to get some training – and that’s the difference,” said one young single mum.

Alongside all the challenges of a world where class identification is often fluid, the appearance of the notion of a ‘lower class’ poses a further dilemma for researchers. The fourth class may be clearly there, identified by all – but self-definition will never work. No one is ever going so say, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ It’s always someone else.

Ben Shimshon and Deborah Mattinson are founding directors of BritainThinks. They are on Twitter as @benshimshon and @debmattinson. Further details of the surveys about Britain’s working and middle classes can be found at BritainThinks.com


13 years ago | 1 like

I really fail to see the point of this survey, however much look at it. I am not sure where to start. Few researchers rely on the old class categories and the results that i have read are a confused conglomeration of quant and qual. I suggest if you are doing serious research rather than producing meaningless headlines at least you ought to start with a proper sample rather than an online lottery.

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13 years ago

I think the previous post is a little harsh. Many researchers (especially client-side) still slavishly follow traditional SEG classifications - it's a bit disingenuous to suggest otherwise. One thing the article doesn't touch on is location, which we typically find to be at least as big a discriminating variable as so-called SEG. In our world of media & technology research, urbanites react very differently to new concepts and ideas compared to those in smaller towns and villages; they tend to be much earlier adopters of new technology and indeed of new ideas or outlooks.

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