The Saturday Debate: What do we mean by middle-class?

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2010

Here’s your starter for ten in our Saturday slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate:

Class has always been an intangible concept in the UK.

While most countries would define it quite simply as a function of income, in our class-hungover country there are all manner of other factors: state or privately educated, your profession, whether you have a degree, your postcode, your family circumstances (‘where you came from’), even your accent. So while carpenters and plumbers may well earn more than university lecturers there’s no doubt which of those would be regarded as the middle-class occupation.

How far is this understandable or right any more? Should income be the sole determinant of whether someone is defined as middle-class (in which case we are talking about families with a combined income of roughly £30,000)?

Or should we recognise that life chances are about more than just money – if you have a good education and supportive parents in professional jobs, then surely your opportunity for living life as you want to do so is greater than those from a more impoverished background, regardless of what your current income is?

There was a fascinating article (sorry, subscription-only link) in The Economist earlier this year looking at ‘The misinterpreted middle’, and pointing out how Britain’s problem with defining what we mean by middle-class has affected our public policy choices:

… the most important reason for recognising the real middle class is that it has had a worse time of it in recent decades than is generally recognised. … Although incomes in the middle have not stagnated in recent decades, as in America, they have grown relatively slowly. Real median income increased by an average of 1.6% a year between 1979 to 1997, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, and then by 1.9% until 2007. This was lower than the rate at which the economy grew. Much of this is down to the loss of middle-income jobs to technology or cheaper foreign labour. …

The result is a middle class more vulnerable to hardship and insecurity than is often grasped. Research by the Department for Work and Pensions found that in the financial year 2006-07, 6% of households in the middle-income quintile could not afford to send their children swimming once a month, 9% had too few bedrooms to be able to put over-tens of the opposite sex in separate bedrooms and almost a quarter could not afford a week’s family holiday away from home. A survey last year by the Trades Union Congress found that 38% of people in that same middle quintile were concerned about their job prospects, the same proportion as in the very bottom quintile.

The very concept of middle-class has become defined either by the metropolitan media classes – who assume middle-class must mean shopping at Waitrose and worrying about school fees – and twee suburban sitcoms in which amiable people get into a bit of pickle but sort it all out within 30 minutes.

Such stereotypes have obscured what we actually mean by middle-class, and stopped politicians from taking a serious look at the real middle-class, and the policies that are needed to help them.

Agree? Disagree? The comments thread awaits you …