BSA 40: Social class

This chapter analyses long-term trends in middle and working-class identity and in awareness of class inequality.
Download PDF
Facade of tower block
  • Authors:
    Monica Bennett
    Oliver Heath (Royal Holloway, University of London)
  • Publishing date:
    21 September 2023

Unequal Britain: the reawakening of class divisions

It is often suggested that social class does not matter much nowadays. This chapter assesses the validity of this claim by, first, analysing long-term trends in middle and working-class identity and in awareness of class inequality, and, second, by identifying who thinks of themselves as middle or working class and the political attitudes that are associated with class identity and awareness.

The myth of a classless Britain

There is no consistent evidence that people have become less likely to identify as middle or working class, while, despite the growth in white-collar jobs, more people identify as working than middle class. At the same time people are more aware of class inequalities in Britain.

  • In 1987, 46% identified without prompting as middle or working class. In 2015, 42% still did so.
  • When asked if they were one or the other, in 2021, 52% said they were working class while 43% indicated they were middle class.
  • Over three-quarters (77%) now say that social class affects someone’s opportunities ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite lot’, up from seven in ten (70%) in 1983.

Class identity not just about occupation

While those in blue-collar jobs are more likely than those in whitecollar occupations to say they are working class, people’s class identity is also strongly influenced by education and income.

  • As many as 62% of those in working-class jobs identify as working class, compared with 38% of those in managerial and professional occupations.
  • Only 28% of those who have been to university think of themselves as working-class, compared with 60% of those with a GCSE or less.
  • 32% of those whose household income is in the highest income quartile feel working class, compared with 52% of those in the lowest quartile.

Class identity and awareness affect attitudes differently

Those who identify as working class are less likely than those who regard themselves as middle class to uphold liberal values or express pro-immigrant views. But those who are aware of class inequalities are more left-wing in their attitudes.

  • Only 54% of working-class identifiers have a libertarian outlook, compared with 75% of middle-class identifiers.
  • While 77% of middle-class identifiers express pro-immigrant sentiment, only 48% of working-class identifiers do so.
  • Among those who think it is ‘very difficult’ to move from one class to another, 77% express left-wing views. Just 38% who say it is ‘not very difficult’ to change class hold such views.