Time to Abandon the Middle Classes
The Sunday papers positively drool over stories about class - a peculiarly British form of navel-gazing that plays to our national prejudices and sense of self.
No surprise, then, that yesterday's supplements had cleared acres of space for a survey suggesting that seven out of 10 Brits now describe themselves as 'middle class'.
"The popularity of being middle class appears to seal the victory of 1980s Thatcherism, which championed the values of property ownership and self-reliance that are now nearly universal," the paper concluded.
My concern is that the results of asking people if they regard themselves as middle class may not, actually, tell us very much at all. The point about self-definition is that it relates not only to who we think we are but also to who we think we are not. Identity, our sense of self, implies that we can put a fence around our characteristics and say that those outside the boundary are "not one of us".
I remember the exercise in my school maths lesson where the class had to draw a Venn diagram incorporating eye-colour, hair-colour and height. No-one wanted to be the kid whose features were an isolated island, separate from the mainstream.
Defining oneself as middle class is saying one is not working class or upper class. Virtually no-one in the survey described themselves as 'upper class'. God forbid! I don't know whether any Dukes or minor royals were among the 2,000 respondents, but who would want to associate themselves with a social group whose cultural status is generally thought to have been inherited from the blood or bank balance of Mummy and Daddy? The use of the word "upper" seems to imply arrogance and superiority - quite un-British.
"Working class", a handle accepted by one out of four Britons, has associations with the tribal politics of the 20th Century but also, as the Mail article implies, with lower aspirations. Once the working classes would have dressed differently - blue collar rather than white - and the jobs they did would be manual rather than sedentary. There was a powerful sense of group identity associated with the noble virtues of hard work and the struggle to make ends meet.
The notion of the 'working class' has changed
Today, many of the occupations paying minimum wage are service jobs - call centres, contract cleaning, office security and catering. Low paid workers often wear a uniform, a suit, even a tie. They may be indistinguishable from the middle classes waiting for the bus to the office. The nobility of the proletariat has been diluted in the social emulsion of sameness.
Being middle class in Britain, therefore, is about not being upper or working class. It says I am not some snooty aristocrat, nor am I a class warrior or a couch potato. I have get-up-and-go, determination and spirit. Who wouldn't want to be that?
Which is why I think it is time to abandon this notion of middle class. It is an almost useless expression, so vague that even the BritainThinks pollsters were obliged to sub-divide it.
"The survey is clear that the 71% 'middle class' are not a homogenous group, but fall into six distinctive segments" they claim. How polling companies love their "distinctive segments".
We are introduced to Bargain Hunters and Squeezed Strugglers, Comfortable Greens and Urban Networkers, Deserving Downtimers and Disciplinarians. Political strategists are encouraged to believe that only if they find a message to appeal to the latest manifestation of Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man can they guide their party to victory.
In reading all the stories yesterday, I was reminded of some work done by another polling company, Ipsos MORI, for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looking at attitudes to poverty in 2009 - in the midst of the recession.
Focus groups of working adults from across the income range were assembled. However, "participants demonstrated a strong tendency to place themselves in the 'middle' of the income distribution".
"For most of the participants in our discussion groups, it is people 'like them', whom they perceive to be in the broad 'middle' of the income spectrum, who seem to be undergoing a particularly difficult time. In their words, it is the 'middle band of people' who 'get forgotten', who 'suffer the worse' and who are 'worse off', losing out to both top and bottom."
Ipsos MORI also sub-divided this "middle" group into "Traditional Egalitarians and Traditional Free-marketeers", "The Angry Middle" and "Post-ideological Liberals".
This would seem to be further evidence that the phrase "middle class" is such a catch-all that we might as well ask people whether they are, in yet more sociological jargon, "strivers" or "skivers".