Social Class in the 21st Century

By Mike Savage

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In 2014 the World Economic Forum highlighted income disparity as one of the principal risks to economic and political security today. *

This book shows, focusing on the British case, how these spiralling levels of inequality are remaking social classes today.

We will show in this book how social classes arise from the concentration of three distinctive kinds of capital: economic capital (your wealth and income); cultural capital (your tastes, interests and activities), and social capital (your social networks, friendships and associations).

This is a prime message of this book – that social class is now a very powerful force in the popular imagination once again. People in Britain are aware of, interested in and also upset about class.

We should not think that the differentiation between ‘upper’, ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class has ever been straightforward or uncontested. Nonetheless, in many nations, and certainly in Britain, there has been an enduring preoccupation with the centrality of the boundary between the middle and working classes over the past two centuries. *

These sensibilities fed into the first attempts to formally classify the population from the early nineteenth century onwards, when identifying the central cleavage between the middle and the working class became the main object of interest.

The upper class was a group apart: they knew who they were, they did not admit outsiders and their privileges were largely unchallenged. *

The situation was subtly different, however, for the ranks of the middle classes in the professions and in business who were not always sure whether their ranks differed from those of skilled tradesmen.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century these dividing lines between middle and working class were adapted, notably by Conservative politicians who sought to define the middle classes as bastions of national virtue against what they saw as the ‘dangerous’, left-leaning working class.

Whereas in most nations, the majority of people are content to define themselves as middle class – neither terribly affluent nor enormously deprived – in Britain, to be middle class can be, and often is, taken to mean to command claims to cultural snobbery and privilege.

We argue that a new kind of snobbery has emerged, one which does not overtly claim that some people or lifestyles are superior to others – since that would fly in the face of our sense of democratic equality, which we genuinely hold dear. Instead, the new snobbery is based on being ‘knowing’, and in displaying an awareness of the codes which are used to classify and differentiate between classes. It distinguishes those who are skilled in exercising judgement, in a knowing and sophisticated way, against those, whoever they may be, who are deemed unable to choose effectively.

To find the best handle for grasping the codes which underpin this new snobbery, we offer our own framework for unpicking the class structure of Britain today.

Previous understandings of class have focused primarily on one’s occupation and the relationship between middle and working class, and this is the social divide which has caused most anxiety and concern. Today, we place the focus on forms of capital and their capacity to allow accumulation and inheritance. We will show that if we look at class in this way, we can detect a very different structure, one in which a small, wealthy elite class is pitted against a precariat with few resources, and between these two extremes there exist a patchwork of several other classes, all of which have their own distinctive mixes of capital, but none of which comes close to reaching the boundary which demarcates the top rank of the class hierarchy.

The growth of economic inequality has been dramatic in recent decades. Britain is now more unequal than most comparable nations.

Income inequalities in Britain are very high, and have been rapidly increasing. *

Income inequalities in Britain are very high, and have been rapidly increasing. *

The significance of housing as a source of wealth is that it generates a powerful categorical divide towards the bottom of the economic distribution between those who rent and those who own property.

In July 2014, a report by the homelessness charity Shelter found that nearly two million young adults between the ages of twenty and thirty-four were still living at home with their parents as part of what has been dubbed the ‘clipped-wing generation’. *

A home is not just somewhere to lay your head; for the advantaged, it can also be a strategic investment choice. *

Parental savings, combined with property assets which can be liquidated as retirees downsize, are vital in helping children and grandchildren go to university, buy their first homes, start their own businesses, and, ultimately, in the form of inheritance.

Four main points stand out in conclusion to this chapter. Firstly, an absolute increase in economic capital goes hand-in-hand with a more complex and elaborate hierarchy of economic positions in the middle ranges of society which clouds over the kinds of boundaries between middle and working classes that we might traditionally have expected to find.

Secondly, economic capital is not organized along a unitary occupational axis. For instance, income is not as strongly associated with occupation as we might imagine, so that one cannot make simple judgements about wealth on the basis of employment alone.

Thirdly, we can only understand economic capital, as the crystallization of long-term forms of accumulation.

What we see here is how present-day wealth, in the form of economic capital, can best be viewed as the product of long-term investments.

Fourthly, the growing relative proportions (of wealth vis-à-vis income) in people’s economic capital might well reduce general awareness of where they stand compared to other people.

The concept of cultural capital picks up on the fact that our cultural preferences are not only a marker of our personal preferences, but also highly social.

When we dress, we want to impress other people. Our passion for certain kinds of music goes hand-in-hand with disparagement of the music that we don’t like. This invariably slides into a dislike of the people whom we assume do like such music.

An elite and a precariat class can be differentiated from a more fragmented set of groups in the middle.

In a nutshell, this is the new landscape of social class in the twenty-first century. Having staked out this case, we will now show this imprint manifests in key arenas of social life, social mobility, education and geography, in the rest of this book. *

What overall picture of the role of higher education in social mobility do we get from the Great British Class Survey?

The expansion of higher education has not led to greater equality of access to universities; yet there is a tightening association between graduate status and membership of the most advantaged groups in British society.

Fundamentally, however, simply expanding the higher education system and making it easier for young people to go to university does not unsettle social hierarchies.

In fact, this differentiation of universities goes hand-in-hand with the institutionalization of our elite class.

Within a highly competitive educational market-place, it is access to the elite institutions which conveys the glittering prizes.

Class is geographical. Capital is accumulated, stored, transmitted and traded in, and across, specific locations. We associate particular places with certain class stereotypes.

The distinctive geography of Britain needs to be understood therefore in terms of the new approach to class we have championed here. Not only the economic, but also the social and cultural aspects of class all point to fundamental geographical inequities and differences – though in somewhat different ways.

The power of the boundary between middle and working class which has been the focus of much academic thinking in the past was symbolically and also economically associated with a north–south divide.

However, just as we have argued that the fundamental class boundaries lie at the top of the social hierarchy, so the power of this regional divide has now broken down. It has been replaced by two other dynamics: firstly, the power of highly segregated urban cores as elite zones. The process of intense elite segregation can be detected in all major British cities.

Secondly the dominance of central London is now paramount and overwhelms that of the north–south divide.

Cities (especially London, but the process extends to other cities) are the centres of accumulation. The countryside is defined in terms of the repose – the rest and recuperation – it offers in the context of these voracious urban driving belts.

The Economist argued that ‘economically, socially and politically, the north is becoming another country’.

It shows that it is not London that leads here, but Greater Manchester, where as much as 82 per cent of the city’s elite live in just one quarter of the whole built-up area’s postal sectors.

More broadly, economic and social divisions do not conform to a neat cleavage between the north and south; they bisect every region and city.

Urban space throughout the UK is increasingly being organized so that its central zones are powerfully stamped by the presence of those in the elite category.

The broader regional division between north and south, which used to define the fundamental contrast between working and middle class, industry and services, has now paled in the face of this metropolitan remaking of elites.

The social class geography of the UK is too complex to reduce to simplistic north–south dichotomies.

We live in a highly inegalitarian society, where macro-level policies are either inadequate or unable to counter the wide and widening disparities between rich and poor. *

Our country is economically dominated by one city, the economic power of which far outweighs even its massive demographic supremacy.

Yet, spatial inequalities exist within all our cities, and the geographies of affluence and deprivation are too multifaceted to be explained by simple north–south binaries.

Living in and around London, knowing your way around highbrow cultural capital, having a relationship with elite higher education and working at the top end of professional and corporate hierarchies now constitutes a pervasive elite constellation which extends well beyond a small ‘Establishment’ to define a central arena in which privilege is performed.

For all their seductive appeal, images of a persistent ‘landed gentry’ should not be taken as realistic representations of the contemporary elite class. *

We now move to a very different world from that of the elite. This is the ‘precariat’ class, who are positioned at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Whereas the elite now command attention and interest, lying at the centre of media attention and social research, the precariat recedes from view.

Despite increasingly popular support for liberal attitudes across a range of issues today, there is a hardening of stigmatization of those at the bottom reaches of society.

Unfair, patronizing and mean representations of poor, working class people, and the places where they live, are everywhere in the UK.

The narratives in the housing estates of the towns and cities in the Midlands and the north of the United Kingdom are of devastation.

The rent demanded by the private sector in London has now gone beyond the income range of anyone earning a low or average wage

How can we explain the fact that two-thirds of the UK population don’t feel like they belong to a social class? Why are people ambivalent and doubtful about which class they belong to?

Key to this is the perception that the very notion of class poses a fundamental threat to one’s sense of self, one’s individuality .

While most people in Britain might not directly identify with a particular class, the extent of inequality, and the way that it shapes people’s life chances unequally, means that class is still deeply felt in people’s identities.

Our sense of class is often recognized, not through understandings of who we are, but rather who we aren’t. *

Class snobbery in twenty-first-century Britain is far from dead; it has simply gone underground.

How, then, does the alarming account we have developed in this book affect the charged political landscape today?

Two long periods of rule by a Conservative government (during 1979–97 and 2010–14), and a New Labour government (1997–2010) have transformed the political landscape.

The economy has become overwhelmingly reliant on the service sector and finance. A very different set of political alignments are now to be found, and ones which have a much less clear association with occupational class.

What we are seeing now is an effective and powerful wealth-elite, who, broadly speaking, are highly engaged politically and know how to lobby, at one extreme, and a precariat, who are largely alienated from mainstream party politics, at the other.

To fundamentally challenge the inequities we have revealed in this study, we need to question the competitive, capitalist, neo-liberal market system itself. The legitimacy of this system depends on its being seen as consistent with freedom and equality of opportunity. By questioning this association, we will be better placed to reflect on the power of other, more effective and inclusive models. *