40 years of British Social Attitudes: Class identity and awareness still matter
The latest annual British Social Attitudes report from the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) shows that people are just as likely as they were in the 1980s to identify as middle or working class and are also are at least as likely to believe that someone’s social class affects their opportunities in today’s Britain.
In the latest survey as many as 77% say that social class affects someone’s opportunities in Britain ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. This is slightly higher than the 70% who expressed that view in 1983 and the 66% who did so in 1985.
Meanwhile, people are more likely now than twenty years ago to think that it is difficult to move from one class to another. As many as 32% now think it is very difficult to do so, almost double the proportion (17%) who held that view in 2005.
Class not just a question of occupation
- Although far fewer people are now employed in a working-class job, there has not been a corresponding decline in the proportion who identify as working class. When invited to say whether they were middle or working class, 52% now say they are working class, little different from the 58% who did so in 1983. Nearly half (46%) of those who identify as working class are employed in middle-class jobs.
- Whether people say they are middle or working class nowadays reflects their educational background more than their occupation. 60% of people who left school with the equivalent of a GCSE or less identify as working class compared with just 28% of those who went to university.
- People in the lowest quartile of household incomes (52%) are also more likely than those in the highest quartile (32%) to identify as working class.
- Ethnic minorities are more likely to identify as working class than people from white backgrounds; the young are more likely to identify as working class than older persons; and women are just as likely as men to identify as working class.
- People in the North of England (56%) are much more likely to identify as working class than people in the South West (35%) or London and the South East (40%).
Class and attitudes
Regardless of occupation, people who identify as working class are more left-wing, more authoritarian, and more anti-immigration than those who identify as middle class. However, working-class identifiers have become less distinctively left-wing but more distinctively authoritarian and anti-immigrant than previously.
- 65% of people who identify as working-class express attitudes towards inequality that can be classified as ‘left-wing’, compared with 56% of those who say they are middle class.
- 46% of those who identify as working-class express attitudes towards issues of individual freedom versus social conformity that can be classified as ‘authoritarian’, compared with 25% of those who regard themselves as middle class. This is a 21 point difference compared to 14 points that existed in 2005.
- 52% of working-class identifiers express anti-immigrant views, compared with 23% of those who call themselves middle class.
In contrast, awareness of the difficulty of moving from one class to another has become more strongly linked to holding left-wing views, while it makes little difference to the prevalence of authoritarian or anti-immigrant views.
- The proportion saying it is very difficult to move from one class to another has increased from 17% in 2005 to 32% in 2022.
- Now 77% of those who think it is ‘very difficult’ to move between classes hold left-wing views, compared with just 38% of those who say it is ‘not very difficult’. In 2005, the gap between the two groups was much smaller (49% vs. 38%).
- 43% of those who say it is ‘very difficult’ to move between classes can be classified as authoritarian, as can 45% of those who say it is ‘not very difficult’.
Gillian Prior, Deputy Chief Executive at NatCen said: “Our annual British Social Attitudes survey suggests class continues to loom large in people’s lives. People are at least as likely as they were forty years ago to identify as working or middle class and to think that class makes a difference to people’s lives, while they are now more likely to think that it has become difficult to shift between classes.
But people’s class identity is not simply shaped by their occupation. It is also about education and income. There are also differences by age, ethnic background and even between different parts of the country.
Meanwhile, there have been important changes in the link between class and attitudes. People who regard themselves as working-class have become less distinctively left-wing but more distinctively authoritarian and anti-immigrant in their outlook. At the same time, however, the perception that it is difficult to move between classes is associated with left-wing attitudes and not with an authoritarian or pro-immigrant outlook.
Authoritarian and anti-immigrant sentiments might have more appeal for some working-class identifiers but, for those who are aware of class differences, issues of inequality matter more. This suggests the challenge facing politicians who would like to pursue a more left-wing agenda is to raise awareness of the inequalities that social class can bring.”
For more information please contact:
Emileigh Spurdens, Communications Manager, National Centre for Social Research
Direct: 0207 549 8506
Katie Crabb, Head of Marketing and Communications, National Centre for Social Research
Direct: 0207 549 8504