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Tuesday 26th
posted by Morning Star in Features

With a decline in our manufacturing base and a rise in low-paid, insecure white-collar jobs, Britain’s class structure no longer matches up to the old stereotypes, argues MIKE SAVAGE

WE live in dramatic times. Times of austerity, we are told, yet we are also aware that the super-rich have seen their fortunes soar even higher since the 2008 financial crash.

Inequalities in health outcomes are intense, and growing. Male routine manual workers are twice as likely to die before the age of 65 compared to professionals or managers.

A report issued just this week reported that the gap between rich and poor teenagers getting to university is growing.

Yet, despite the deepening of these social divisions, we don’t really know what social class means these days.

This is one of the major lessons I learned when working with the BBC on its Great British Class Survey, the results of which have now been published in Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican).

On the one hand, nearly everyone seems obsessed by class. Over nine million people have done the BBC’s “class calculator” to find out which class they are now supposed to be in.

The topic of class attracts huge interest in the media — think about the appeal of Downton Abbey, or the growth of what is sometimes called “poverty porn,” such as represented by Benefits Street, or Shameless.

And this is not surprising, given that we are so regularly confronted with stark class inequalities as we go about our daily life.

Yet when we come to think about what the key class divisions actually are these days, then there is far less certainty.

This is where we use the Great British Class Survey to offer the most comprehensive recent analysis, based on an unusually large web survey and supplemented by lots of additional research including interviews.

Our key argument is actually a simple one. In the past we normally think of ourselves as either “middle,” “working” or “upper” class — as with the famous sketch from the Frost Report.

Famously, in this sketch, the upper-class John Cleese has “innate breeding,” whereas the middle-class Ronnie Barker, has “more money.” Working-class Ronnie Corbett, however, “knows my place.”

Of course, this sketch was only a parody, although one which testifies to the sensitivities about the divisions between upper, middle and lower class which have been so marked in British culture.

Today, however, things are very different. We can’t so neatly be put into three class boxes. The fundamental class divide used to intersect with the division between “blue” and “white” collar, between wage and salary, and between those who worked with “hands” or “head.”

Many British firms used to have separate canteens to differentiate “staff” and “line.” But this world no longer exists. The proportion of the workforce in manufacturing has declined from 40 per cent in 1952 to a mere 8 per cent today.

Furthermore, the middle-class world has changed too. Many white-collar jobs are routine and badly paid, with uncertain job security.

Rather than professionals and managers having considerable amounts of work autonomy, they work in a target-driven culture and are subject to ruthless performance-related pay.

The recent strike of junior doctors indicates how even well-paid professionals feel that they are under the cosh.

The gentlemanly world of late trains to work and languid lunches hardly operates.

Nowhere is this change more marked than in the City of London itself where “a gentleman’s word is his bond” has been transformed in the aftermath of 1980s deregulation into the cut-throat heart of financial trading.

And the world of the upper class has changed too. The old aristocratic quarters of London’s West End have been taken over by global plutocrats.

The retail Mecca of the British upper crust, Harrods department store, was taken over by the al-Fayeds in 1985 and in 2010 was acquired by the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar.

So, what is class these days? Our Social Class in the 21st Century has a simple key argument. The division between middle and working class which used to preoccupy is no longer clear cut.

Instead, it is the gap between the small elite at the top and the rest of the population which is of prime importance. We don’t think this is quite the same as the 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent which has been popularised by Occupy, as a rather larger proportion of people have serious amounts of wealth.

But it is pointing in the same direction as Karl Marx argued — that the fundamental class division pits a small propertied class against a much larger class who have much less, or no, property.

We also argue that at the bottom we can identify a small “precariat” class who are characterised by being badly off.

Despite media stereotypes and the stigmatising views of Tory ministers, this is not a work-shy class, where unemployment runs in families and scrounging is a way of life.

It is a class which is characterised by insecure and low-paid jobs. The gap between this precariat and the elite is huge: although there is considerable social mobility in the middle ranges of the social structure, the chances of moving from the bottom to the top are few indeed.

Our book also argues that we need a new intellectual framework to understand class. We are influenced by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argues that alongside the inequalities generated by economic capital we can also distinguish “cultural” and “social” capital.

Cultural capital refers to the way that some people’s cultural tastes are marked by forms of snobbery and elitism. 

We argue that despite the apparent rise of commercial culture, we can still detect powerful — though insidious — forms of snobbery which pit the “clever” and “witty” against the narrow, uneducated and parochial.

When Martin Amis recently attacked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as “undereducated” and “humourless” he was demonstrating his cultural capital as a means of putting down Corbyn.

And of course, Amis, the Oxford-educated son of celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis, has inherited plenty of this.

Social capital refers to the way that social networks allow strings to be pulled. We only need to look at the world of today’s political elite, and the way that the Oxford hothouse has produced such clear ties, to see how important this is.

This focus on economic, cultural and social capital allows us to see how advantages overlap and reinforce each other, so making them more powerful and pervasive.

Economic capital can buy educational advantage, which also generates exclusive social networks, which makes it easier to get privileged jobs. And so the merry-go-round goes on — for those at the top.

And this is the rub. Left unabated, inequalities of economic, social and cultural capital will increase, year on year. Thomas Piketty’s brilliant Capital in the 21st Century has shown this clearly enough for economic capital.

Bill Gates has earned more since he retired as CEO of Microsoft from his shrewd investments than he ever did while he was working.

Unless we challenge these trends, we will slowly but certainly move towards an even more elitist society.

The challenge of class inequality is akin to that of climate change. We need to do something about it now, or our futures look bleak indeed.

  • Professor Mike Savage is head of sociology at the London School of Economics. Staff and students of the department blog at Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican 2015) is available online from and in all good bookshops.