Is middle class no longer magical?

What I’m covering in this blog may not come as a surprise to people who identify as being working class or who don’t identify with one at all. Many have been facing problems such as poor standards of housing, high unemployment, communities suffering from high levels of crime, and poor health for many years. But during the boom times these things weren’t on the front pages. Yet when “middle class” became threatened, it was all over the papers. The Guardian, The Independent, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. I can see the generic headlines now. ‘Thought bad stuff only affected poor people? It could affect you! Run for the hills!’

It does my head in. Others feel the same judging by the reactions in the comments fields of articles featuring individuals complaining about being without luxuries that they had gotten used to such as private schooling for the children, a nice house, regular holidays and new cars.

You’ve heard the song I’m sure:

Middle class is magical/a safe world free from strife

Let bad things happen to other folk/while you read “Country Life

My own take is that class labelling is such a loaded concept that all too often the debate around class gets so heated that people lose sight of the wood for the trees. What defines a person’s class?

  • Occupation?
  • Income?
  • Education?
  • Accent?
  • Race?
  • Parents?
  • Appearance?
  • Hobbies?
  • Political preferences?
  • Religious views?
  • Where you live/value of house?
Has my class changed as a result of my changes in education and occupation? What class am I in now that I am on benefits and am job hunting compared to say when I joined the civil service fast stream & was working with ministers?

What do you do when they can’t make things better again?

Two of the lines that I’ve used to help slay my demons of the past (mainly in terms of what I did do and didn’t do) have been along the lines of

  • “In those days you didn’t have the internet”
  • “Whatever you could have achieved had other stuff happened, chances are it would have been swamped by the tsunami that is the ongoing economic crisis
Essentially, my upbringing and education has been about striving for some sort of stability far away from the trials and tribulations of modern day living. As a child I first stumbled across the concept of pollution and climate change when I saw a copy of the Blue Peter Green Book 1989 at a supermarket. It comes as a shock to the system as a child when you are faced with something so frightening that is beyond the remedy of your parents. Church wasn’t that much help either – an institution that I still feel poisoned my relationships with everyone and everything. As a teenager I struggled with why God didn’t sort out all of this bad stuff that was going on.

Playing it safe.

What’s this got to do with the problems of all things middle class? Lots of things. Earlier this year I wrote a blogpost called Life on a piece of paper. This described the archetypal ‘life of stability’ where in a nutshell we were encouraged to life staid uncontroversial lives. Risk free but dull as hell. I stumbled across a Telegraph article by William Leith that echoed similar sentiments.
I managed to follow it all of the way through to a career in the civil service (but without the detached house, new car or a holiday to the south of France).

It’s a safe existence, as is getting things ‘correct’ – but it doesn’t help with those who want to innovate and create new things. I stumbled across an article that asked whether it would be college dropouts that would save the USA via Philippa Young. Is the same true for the UK?
At school, the concept of setting up my own business was not even on the radar. Careers guidance was all about finding something that someone would employ you to do. Setting up your own business was outside that mindset. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we need people to start up their own businesses, but find our institutions wanting. Universities in particular came in for a kicking regarding careers guidance in this article from GraduateFog.

The Financial Tsunami.  
The scale of the economic crises that have hit us as far as I’m concerned are so great as to be beyond the comprehension of the human mind – certainly as far as the scale of the banking bailouts are concerned. There was nothing in my economics degree that covered how to deal with an economic and financial crisis such as this. Prior to the banking crisis issues with government spending that involved numbers I viewed as huge have been knocked out of the ring by new numbers that I didn’t even know existed.

But it’s also hit the private sector too. We forget about the hits the frontline workers in retail banks have taken as a result of decisions that they had no say in. I used to work for a bank before I went to university. I saw first hand the contempt a chief executive treated frontline staff with at an annual staff conference in London when he flatly refused a pay rise to such staff (who had not had any rises for the previous few years) saying ‘We have to pay the market rate.’ Nothing about saying ‘We’ll give you a rise and pay a little bit more than the market rate – & make that a selling point to customers saying that you’ll get better service because we treat our staff better & are able to recruit higher calibre people compared to our competitors’.

There’s also the automation & centralisation that has taken both the mental stimulation and sense of achievement in some jobs. It happens in the public and private sector alike – mainly a result of senior managers wanting to maintain close control over things rather than in trusting the professionals on the ground. Remember my blogpost asking about localism for banking?

People start protesting

We then come to the issue of the protests and the demonstrations – one in particular that got the clerics in the Church of England tripping over their cassocks and robes. Richard Murphy was one of many Christians to call for St Paul’s Cathedral to throw open its doors to protesters – and proceeded to name those individuals and institutions that had a say in the decision to call for the protesters to move on. The demonstration polarised opinion in Christian circles – with those of a more conservative leaning calling for protesters to be moved on. 

The inequalities are making some of those at the top nervous. A number of scholarly articles (such as Spirit Level) to comment from the Financial Times (see end of this article) saying that protesters have a point have made others sit up. But what are the protesters protesting about?

I wandered down to St Paul’s to take a look for myself with Big Puffles and Little Puffles. The usual suspects were out in force as they always are at these things. But what was really noticeable was the discussions in and around various tents. I overheard a couple of young male students who wanted to know when they were supposed to start marching and chanting – because wasn’t that what protests were about? What were people protesting about? My take is that each individual can answer for themselves. The great thing about digital media is that people can now make their own media and speak directly to the wider world without the need for a spokesman or representative – or even political party – to do it for them. For me? Here are a few things:

Now, all of that stuff is A LOT of stuff to be angry/concerned/worried about. But trying to boil all of that lot down to a short soundbite is more than difficult. Trying to find responses and solutions to all of that lot is not easy either. One of the things I’ve accused politicians of is being hopelessly out of their depth in the face of all of these problems. The impact of both mainstream media hounding and tight control from the top has resulted in too many stupendously uninspiring figures rising to elected public office that is far beyond their competency. “Business as usual” politics won’t solve this crisis – nor will “business as usual” politicians. “Business as usual” is not an option – but that inevitably means a break from the stability of the past – is that what frightens middle class people?


16 thoughts on “Is middle class no longer magical?

  1. Your class is determined by your place in the production process and how much autonomy and control you have over your work, everything else is the effects of this position.

    As someone with an economics degree I’m surprised you don’t get this.

  2. I loved the post – it got me thinking – loss of job security, fearing the erosion of the welfare state, the loss of disposal incomes as they now struggle to cover ‘basic expenses’ and feeling of helplessness and disenfranchisement. These have been the characteured hallmarks of the ‘working class’.

    Somehow the neat post-war ‘hierarchy’ of upper class, middle class and working class has collapsed into a two caste system – ‘ruling class’ and ‘subjects’. Perhaps thats why the middle class are increasing feeling angry and impotent.

    One might hope that this translates into major cultural and constutitional change and a rejection of the present system of ‘representative democracy’ in favour of something more egalitarian?

  3. I posted a piece on my own blog a little while ago about how the traditional middle class is being completely trashed by Osborneomics – – focussing in particular on older people on fixed incomes, drawing on the private pensions that, in the Thatcher years, they were told would provide them with a comfortable old age; facing near-zero interest rates on their savings; and soaring prices, especially of fuel. Their pensions and savings have been trashed by city speculators and they see a Government that looks increasingly like the political wing of the City of London. They find themselves supporting their children through the most expensive higher education in the developed world and see them emerging crippled with debt and with no prospect, even in a good job, of buying a house. They approach old age with a Health Service being privatised by stealth. And although they own their homes outright, their environment is being threatened as the Coalition weakens planning controls in favour of speculative building. They hear a lot of rhetoric about the Big Society but they were once the backbone of charitable giving and can no longer afford to do it.

    Where, politically, do these people go? In the past, to the Lib Dems, but that avenue is closed. The Green Party, and obvious destination for those concerned about the destruction of the countryside, has no more than a patchy presence on the ground. Faced with this, the rhetoric of the Occupy and Uncut movements is attractive – some say that it lacks theory, but while it is mostly couched in a sort of nebulous appeal to fairness, it has much appeal. And the new experiences that austerity brings may well mean that people are more open to new political ideals.

  4. If you do not have an independent income (ie you have to work) then you are by definition, working class.

    What I think is often referred to, mistakenly, as working class in the UK is a person’s world view derived from their culture. The people I mixed with at university might as well have lived on a different planet – their views, attitudes, and how they behaved towards others was absolutely foreign to me. I really was living in two distinct worlds with different rules. What was considered natural things to do, natural ways to behave was certainly not normal in the ‘other world’

    In one world getting a cheque for a Christmas present was a problem… a rare thing were cheques where I grew up and they had to be taken to the local pub manager who would cash it for you, but everyone knew what a manodge was, everyone knew that surely? Everyone was involved, surely? Well, all those I was at uni knew what cheques were, couldn’t imagine a world without them, yet bizarrely they had never heard of a manodge.

    For the rest of your thoughts Puffles2010, I’d suggest you spend some time listening to and reading the work of David Harvey.

  5. I don’t think “class” is defined by income, or by whether or not you work for your living, or even what you do (though that does affect it a bit). It’s about values.

    I earn less than many people I know who would consider themselves working class – but my values are not theirs. My income level places me in their class, but my attitudes do not. I value learning, books, music, the arts. I enjoy academic pursuits and intelligent discussion. My better-off neighbours’ idea of entertainment is a night out in Rochester Casino, whereas I would rather go to a classical concert. I don’t watch soap operas and I don’t read Hello magazine. Even the food I eat is different – I have takeaways much less often than my neighbours do, I spend much less money on alcohol and I don’t smoke. I pay for music lessons for my children rather than decorating the house or booking holidays in Spain. I have more in common with what are regarded as upper-middle-class parents, well-off professional couples, than I have with the car mechanics, plumbers and kitchen fitters who live in the houses nearest to me. I suppose I’m a snob.

    Noel, I am self-employed. I have complete autonomy and control over my work, although when I do it is of course constrained by when students are available to attend lessons. Your definition would therefore presumably make me upper class. But Ellie’s definition makes me working class. I regard myself (probably) as middle class because of my values. My income is typical of socio-economic class C/D, but my educational level and profession put me in socio-economic class A/B. Which just shows what nonsense it all is, actually.

  6. Oh Frances!
    Utter poppycock! Books defines your class! Oh, good grief! I and my friends, my neighbours must be of the Royal Class on that measure! What an insult to every young struggling mother who takes her kids to the library, who sits and reads while she waits for them to stir looking for the next night-feed! Good grief! And I do suppose no plumber, no joiner was ever required to read a book in order to qualify for their trade? Haven’t you seen a working class kid with his football book? Haven’t you been in the local pub in a working class area? Our local pub is the ‘evening library’…it has a huge shelve of books running the entire length of the longest wall, there is a bookcase in another part of the pub… guess who reads them… brings them back, buys a book and when finished, takes it down and adds it to the collection? Guess? It really isn’t some lost middle class person who drives down to the working class pub.

    If you work to earn money to survive then you are working class. Cling to your delusions if you must, but have the decency and intellect not to insult the rest of the world as you do so. Better still, get up and go find the information you use to form your opinions. Curiosity is a human quality and not restricted to the working classes after all, is it?

  7. Here you go, Frances, a prisoner from one of the most repressed classes of the Western World, so repressed he wouldn’t be considered as even working class: Yet, this accomplished young man could wipe the floor with your ideas and opinions from the cell where he sits. Given he is a published author one would assume he is of your class? I am convinced you wouldn’t give this man the time of day in the street if you met him as a free man.

  8. Ellie, being rude to me doesn’t invalidate my opinions – or validate yours. If you had bothered to read what I actually said, I was making the point that “class” as a political or socio-economic division is in my view completely meaningless. People with different backgrounds but similar income levels can have little in common, and that can be seen by them as a class division when it is in fact simply cultural. My values, my interests ARE different from those of my neighbours, and because of that they DO see me as a middle class snob. You prove nothing by denying the validity of my experience, and by suggesting that I would refuse to speak to someone in the street simply because of their background you say more about your own values than mine.

    I don’t know where you live, but I live in a poor area in North Kent. You won’t find a single book in the pubs round here. Reading isn’t something that people do unless they have to – oh yes, I know plumbers have to read books to study. And I have been a young mum who took her kids to the library. It was deserted.

    Get off your soap box, Ellie, and come and see what life in a poor “working class” area is REALLY like. And learn to be polite if you wish to debate.

  9. Furthermore, Ellie….even if I were defining class by “books” (which I am not), how exactly am I “insulting” people who read? Unless of course you think “working class” is an intrinsically “better” label than “middle class” or (to quote you) “Royal Class”, so describing someone as anything other than “working class” is insulting them? What a remarkable example of inverted snobbery. Personally I don’t want a class label at all if it means someone will judge my personal worth on the basis of that label.

    Your definition of “working class” is simplistic. Even people on six- and seven-figure salaries have to work for their living, so are working class according to you. But the person who has taken early retirement at 55 due to ill health and is living on their limited savings, according to your definition, is not working class. Which, as I said before, just shows what nonsense the whole thing is.

    Finally, I really don’t care whether your prison inmate is an accomplished published author or an illiterate drunk. His ideas and opinions are of no more – or less – intrinsic worth than mine.

  10. Frances

    Do you or do you not have an independent income? This is not difficult. You dragged in reading of books as a distinguishing factor…once you do that, rather than simply sticking to answering whether you do or do not have an independent income, well, you render all following words of no more importance than a tabloid horoscope.

    I am not insulting you, I am pointing directly at a technique, a well-trodden technique, used by those who can’t bear to think they are no better then their own peers in order to distinguish themselves as being ‘above’. If you choose to use such silly techniques, it hardly insulting for me to point it out to you.

    And silly it is, all the little devices used to create fantasy divides are all going up in a puff of theft by the rich. You’ll have a very hard time coping with the idea you’ll be living in the garret down the road soon enough. Huffing and puffing like little baby dragon won’t help. And it certainly will not change the fundamentals of economics no matter how desperately you blow flames at it.

    I’ll see you when you come to the garretts, because I know you won’t be moving into rooms at the palace or a private island. Bring some soothing herbal remedies if it will help you cope.

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