FEATURE24 March 2011

Stuck in the middle with... who?


Politicians are desperate to appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’. But a new survey by BritainThinks shows that nearly three quarters of people in the UK now claim to be middle class. Should researchers pay more attention to this than to the traditional socio-economic grades? Deborah Mattinson and David Ashton take a look.

“Show us what symbolises being middle class nowadays,” we asked focus group members. The most popular item? A cafetiere. “Maybe I’m a snob but I like fresh coffee. I won’t have instant.” “I’ve got eight or ten different types of coffee that I’m drinking.” Others produced similar small tokens of a middle-class mindset: a Cath Kidston bottle warmer, Green & Black’s chocolate, Twinings tea, an iPhone.

According to BritainThinks’ new survey, 71% of us in the UK now define ourselves as middle class. That represents a massive 33.6 million votes. And those 33.6 million people are more interested in politics ( 79% compared with 64% of those who say they’re working class) and, importantly, more likely to turn out and vote ( 69% compared with 55% of working class). They are also more likely to be floating or undecided voters – nearly one in five – and twice as likely to be members of a political party.

Researchers should take note that this self-defined middle class is much larger than that suggested by the conventional designations used in market research. People falling into the ABC1 socio-economic groups, categorised by occupation, currently make up only 56% of the UK’s population, with skilled manual workers, shop workers and unemployed people falling into the lower C2DE groups which traditionally represent the working class. But, as Marshall McLuhan said, perception is reality. And perceptions have changed dramatically in the past twenty years.

From aspiration to achievement
Focus groups in the 1990s, when asked the same question about class, would shrink from placing themselves in the middle. It was what they aimed to become, but not what they were. Back then, C1 and C2 voters described their aspiration as ‘bettering themselves’ compared with their working class parents.

Through the two decades that followed many did just that. They became the first generation in their families to own their homes, to send their children to university, to go abroad on holiday, to eat out regularly and to have two cars. They had acquired many of the trappings of the middle class, and began to think of themselves as such.

Just 21% now believe that class is contingent on occupation. Other factors might include education, our parents’ class, the kind of home we live in, our accent and vocabulary and the clothes we wear. But there is a more subtle qualification suggested by that cafetiere – our social class is, at least in part, determined by the small every day choices that we make: choices that define who we are and how we live.

To investigate this further, BritainThinks commissioned a survey of 2,000 people covering backgrounds, class perceptions, financial situations, leisure time and civic engagement. We also asked about attitudes towards politics, family, work, Britain’s direction as a country, and views towards more than 100 brands. We identified distinct segments among those who call themselves middle class, and ran focus groups with these segments to enrich our understanding of their attitudes.

How middle class differs from working class
Our survey found the middle classes were better off, with an average annual household income of £12,000 more than those who call themselves working class, and are twice as likely to have a personal pension, or savings greater than one month’s salary. They are three times more likely to own their home. People who self-define as working class are almost twice as likely to agree ‘it is a real struggle to make money last until the end of the month’, or that ‘it would be a big financial problem for me if I had to replace a large item such as my fridge or washing machine’.

But being middle class is about much more than being more affluent. It means a different outlook. People who define themselves as middle class are more confident and optimistic about the future. They use words like ‘hopeful’, ‘proud’, ‘happy’ or ‘excited’ to describe their mood, while working class people were more likely to say they were ‘worried’, ‘nervous’, ‘fearful’, ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘depressed’. Working class people are also more likely to see work as a means to an end, more likely to believe government doesn’t do enough for people like them and more likely to ‘often feel lonely’.

Some squeezed, some not
It was very clear from our survey that the 71% ‘middle class’ are not a homogenous group, but fall into distinctive segments – with some really feeling the pinch of the economic downturn, while others are more comfortably off. The ones who have it hardest are those we call the ‘bargain hunters’ and ‘squeezed strugglers’, both of which are more likely to be female.

Other groups are more at ease. ‘Comfortable greens’ are relatively wealthy, try to buy ethical goods and join the National Trust. ‘Urban networkers’ are young, often single and living in cities. ‘Deserving downtimers’ are the most affluent group – older, often retired and with substantial savings. The last group is the ‘Daily Mail disciplinarians’ who are also older and more likely to be male.

What it means for research
Our research found a huge amount of variation in attitudes between the views of those who define themselves as middle class and those who see themselves as working class. As the labour force changes and the dividing lines between the classes become blurred by the decline in traditional blue collar jobs, self-identification of class is now every bit as important in understanding people’s views and attitudes, whether in quantitative or qualitative research, as the traditional socio-economic grades used by many in the industry. Furthermore, the qualitative and quantitative differences between the six middle-class segments we identified were striking. The ability to identify and understand the views of these different groups can greatly enrich the picture we present to clients.

Class does still matter, but the way that it is used and defined by researchers may need a re-think.

Deborah Mattinson is a founding director of BritainThinks. She spent 20 years conducting and analysing focus groups for the Labour party. David Ashton joined BritainThinks in January, having worked at Populus for almost four years. BritainThinks commissioned an online survey using a sample of 2,000. Multivariate analysis was used to identify the six segments within those who identified themselves as middle class, and focus groups were conducted with people from each of these segments.