OPINION29 March 2021

Back to class

Opinion People Trends UK

How do the British public identify with class? And what does this mean for research? Tom Brookes examines how the UK’s attitudes towards class are evolving in the 21st century.

The British colloquial understanding of social class can be slippery and difficult to pin down. Try explaining the difference between something seen as upper middle class and middle class, for instance, and it is easy to flounder on intangible distinctions based on culture, pride and prejudice. At the same time, however, unwritten rules of the game underpin these smallest of differences. When you know, you know.

Given this slipperiness, how useful is class as an objective label of social identity? How we label and categorise individuals and groups is critical to effective research, allowing us to understand and analyse difference. As the class divide remains a central way in which we understand social inequality in the UK today, knowing what we mean when we say middle and working class in research is important.

Typically, survey research uses occupation as the foundation for labelling social class, with market research tending to use social grade (the ‘ABC1’ system). At BritainThinks, our recent study into social class asked respondents which class they identify with. This provides the rare opportunity to consider the merits of self-identification, and understand how individual conceptions of class map on to social grade, income and education. The findings are based on a online survey of 2,104 people from across the UK that took place between 26th and 28th February. Four focus groups, two containing people who self-identify as middle class and two who self-identify as working class, were also conducted online in the week starting 22nd February.

It is first important to note that, for the majority, class is not a spontaneous way in which they understand their social identity. More than two-thirds see themselves as classless, with 68% saying they do not see themselves as belonging to a social class compared with 32% who do. When forced to choose, the working class outnumber the middle class, with 54% identifying as the former and 45% the latter.

Mapping social class self-identification onto social grade demonstrates that there is a link between social and economic group (SEG) and class, but also that many people’s subjective class identity challenges those objective labels. More than one-third ( 37%) of those in higher or intermediate managerial professions (AB) identify as working class, while just under one-third ( 31%) of semi or unskilled manual workers and casual workers and the unemployed (DE) identify as middle class. The traditional model of understanding class in terms of occupation and labour relations only goes so far in understanding class in 2021.

A similar relationship exists between social class and household income, with higher incomes linked with middle-class identity, lower incomes with working-class identity, but neither acting as a guarantee. Indeed, 36% of those earning £21,000 and below identify as middle class, while 28% of those earning more than £62,000 identify as working class.

Class is clearly about more than how much you earn. In fact, members of our focus groups told us exactly that, without having to resort to charts and statistics. In the words of one working-class participant from Wakefield: “I could be a multimillionaire, but I’d still be working class. That’s how I was brought up, that’s what my parents instilled in me to be. It’s my roots.”

These discrepancies are perhaps partly due to self-identification enabling a measure of identity at the individual rather than household level. SEG measures the occupation of a household’s ‘chief income earner’, while household income combines the earnings of partners. This elides differences between individuals and risks tying the measurement of class to an outdated, patriarchal ‘head of the household’ model.

Most of all, however, it demonstrates that social class can be ‘sticky’, with class origin often seeming to matter more than the destination. This poses a challenge to how we think of social mobility. The growth in higher education is sometimes assumed to be evidence of social mobility. Yet attending university is not a ticket to the middle class: 40% of graduates identify as working class.

Class identity is deeply personal and cultural, constituted of multiple, intangible factors stemming from individuals’ family histories and biographies. That richness cannot be distilled in one single measure, but self-identification goes some way towards capturing our shared understanding of class. 

Tom Brookes is research lead at BritainThinks.