Coffee? I’ll just have instant

John Rentoul

 Coffee? Ill just have instantWe reported the massive study of Britain’s new middle class by BritainThinks, Deborah Mattinson’s new research company, in The Independent on Sunday yesterday.

The coverage included Mattinson’s account of her experience of talking about class in focus groups since the late 1980s, and three memoirs of being brought up in different classes, by an alarmingly thin looking working-class Kevin Maguire, a middle-class David Randall and a posh Matthew Bell.

Randall’s account of the semiology of suburban Worcester Park is a gem:

The detached homes had a certain type of name – “Tall Trees”, or “Hilltops” – suggesting to the distant correspondent they commanded several choice Home Counties acres. (Another, “Pantiles”, was treasured by us, if only because we enjoyed removing the “L” from time to time.) Ours merely had a number, one of many signs that you had not quite “arrived”.

It also included a quiz by which the reader can decide if he or she belongs to any of the six middle classes identified by Mattinson’s research. It is not on the website, but I have put a pdf of it here (with apologies for the quality: it takes a little while for the maximum zoom to load).

The top line of our report (apart from the importance of real coffee) was that 71 per cent of people now describe themselves as middle class (7 per cent upper middle, 43 per cent middle, 21 per cent lower middle) and only 24 per cent as working class when asked to choose.

There is no directly comparable time series, but it compares with a MORI series from 1986 to 2008:

Most people say they belong either to the middle class or to the working class. If you had to make a choice, would you call yourself middle class or working class?
Middle 28%
Working 66%
Middle 30%
Working 67%
Middle 32%
Working 61%
Middle 35%
Working 58%
Middle 40%
Working 57%
Middle 44%
Working 52%

And it compares with the British Social Attitudes average 1983-89:

Most people see themselves as belonging to a particular social class. Please look at this card and tell me which social class you would say you belong to.
Upper Middle 1%
Middle 26%
Upper Working 21%
Working 46%
Poor 3%

(YouGov used same question as BritainThinks in January 2010:

Upper 0%
Upper Middle 5%
Middle 39%              Total Middle 66%
Lower Middle 22%
Working 30%)

Some of the expansion of the middle class found by BritainThinks may be attributable to people who would in the past have described themselves as “upper working class” – an option not available in the BritainThinks study – now defining themselves as “lower middle class”. But most of it is clearly a real and significant change in attitudes over the past quarter-century.

The findings cast a new light on the debate about social mobility. Some studies have suggested (pdf) that social mobility decreased during the Thatcher years, in that people were more likely to end up in the same class as their parents. Those studies defined class by job category. This research suggests that, defined by how people see their own class status, the middle class has expanded hugely over the past two decades.

There may be an element of what Peter York calls false consciousness in this, in his commentary, but if people call themselves middle class, who are we to argue?

*“Which of these best describes you, middle class or working class?”

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  • Ciaran Rehill

    I am working class (well, technically unemployed class). Such a pity the “working mans party” sold out under Toe Knee and ensured the Liberals were the most left of centre party in Britain. (Respect does not count after G Galloway dressed as a cat on Celebrity Big Brother). I will now inspect the Watteau here at Rehill Grange.

  • airmarshall

    Each class has it’s own requirements; but it maybe said that every class teaches the one immediately below it; and if the highest class be ignorant, uneducated, loving display, luxuriousness, and idle, the same spirit will prevail in a humbler life.

    Talk aboot the blind leading the blind Mr Rentoul.

  • petersimplex

    In the Wikipedia entry for Tosspot, I read the following

    The morality play Like Will to Like, by Shakespeare’s contemporary Ulpian Fulwell, contains a character named Tom Tosspot, who remarks that

    “If any poore man have in a whole week earned a grote,
    He shal spend it in one houre in tossing the pot”

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