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Class Matters

Posted on 14 July 2016 by Nancy Kelley, Deputy Chief Executive .
Tags: British Social Attitudes, class, polling, social and political attitudes, society

47% of people in middle class jobs in Britain feel working class.

Why do so many middle class British people think they are working class? What does it mean that they feel like this?

This isn’t just a British phenomenon – despite the very high profile of talk of everyone being ‘middle class’ in American politics over recent decades a significant percentage of middle class Americans feel working class too. In fact, according to YouGov polling in December 2015 34% of Americans earning between $50-100k a year said that they considered themselves to be working class.

But, as evidenced by the following charts, while class identity in the US appears to be responsive to external influences, in Britain, the proportion of people who identify as working class has remained steady for over 30 years, despite the long-term decline in manual jobs, major economic shocks and wider social changes. In the US the Pew Research Center offer respondents the choice of middle or lower class, while NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey offers middle or working class so it’s not a perfect comparison, but the question wording itself gives an insight into how the different countries think about class.

 Subjective social class in Britain

Subjective social class in US

Here, being working class means something well beyond what your job is, and how much you earn.

Quite of lot of this can be explained by our families – 61% of people in professional or managerial jobs who have a father from a working class background describe themselves as working class but only 24% of those with a father in a similar prof/managerial background to themselves do.  And education plays a significant role in shaping class identities too.  But that still leaves a big group of people who have lived the social mobility dream – born into a working class family, went to university, got a good job, and yet identify as working class.

Why is this?  Perhaps it’s because as our labour market changes ‘middle class jobs’ don’t feel as special or as secure they used to. Perhaps it’s because the cultural markers that divide the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ middle classes are being reinforced.  Perhaps it’s because of adherence to the adage – ‘never forget where you’ve come from’.

Whatever the reason, this matters.

What we can see in the BSA data is that class identity (not just socio-economic status) is strongly related to key values: left/right affiliation, libertarian/authoritarian orientation, attitudes to migration.

Our class – the one we feel for ourselves, is an identity that shapes our attitudes and our actions.  Researchers (and politicians) take note.

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