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The Personal is Statistical: Why do so many of us identify as working class?

Posted on 14 September 2017 by Sophie Brown, Press Officer
Tags: British Social Attitudes, The Personal is Statistical, class

In our monthly series, The Personal is Statistical, we'll be talking about where statistics have interacted with our personal lives. They are a bit different from the blogs we usually post, but we hope you'll enjoy reading them. In this blog, Sophie Brown reflects on why so many people in Britain still identify as working class.


Sophie Brown

According to NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey, most people in Britain think they are working class. Even more surprisingly, this proportion hasn’t changed in 30 years.

I mentioned these findings over a family lunch recently and was genuinely shocked to hear that, despite having worked as a solicitor for almost 30 years, my Dad considers himself working class. He went to boarding school (albeit on a scholarship). He even graduated from Cambridge!

Subjective social class in Britain

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as BSA demonstrates that one of the major factors to contribute to a person’s class identification is their parents’ – and particularly their father’s – work. Put simply, if your father has had a manual job, you’re more likely to feel like you’re working class, regardless of your own occupation or level of education.

My Grandad was a plumber, which might go some way to explain why my Dad is one of the 47% of people in managerial and professional jobs who feel they are working class. Given my Dad’s profession, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I, on the other hand, consider myself middle class. I have a postgraduate degree and I work in an objectively middle-class job, two other key factors that BSA shows contribute to someone’s sense of class identity.

Over the past decade or so, there have been huge social changes that may mean that people don’t feel middle class, even if they fit into one of the NS-SEC definitions that would categorise them as such based on their current job. There’s been a huge increase in the number of university graduates, from 13% of 25- to 29-year-olds in 1993 to 41% in 2015, so we might have expected the proportion who feels middle class to have increased over that period. But the job market still hasn’t caught up. This mismatch between skills and qualifications means that, according to a 2015 report by the CIPD, over half of graduates are in non-graduate jobs. And research by the Resolution Foundation has found that this is set to be the worst decade for pay growth in over 200 years. Such wage stagnation, coupled with a rising cost of living, means that some people – even those in middle class jobs – have to scrape by in those last few days before payday.

So maybe it’s not all that surprising that people’s perception of their own social class is stubbornly stable. Compared to wealthy bankers and celebrities, they’re not privileged. BSA found that people who are objectively middle class and see society as being divided between a large disadvantaged group and a small elite are much more likely to regard themselves as working class than those who see society as more equal (59% compared to around 15%).

Researchers at NatCen are working with the Office for National Statistics to review the objective Standard Occupational Classification (SOC 2010) categories for the 2021 Census to better reflect the current job market. This is an important part of the jigsaw, but BSA demonstrates that subjective factors are just as powerful when it comes to shaping what class someone thinks they are. The complex question of class identity is unlikely to become simpler any time soon. 

 Follow me on Twitter: @brown_soph 

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