What does it mean to be middle class, and why should we care?

Cost of Living Crisis (or, “Economics for Lazy People”)

As you can’t help hearing on the news at the moment, a core part of Ed Milliband’s campaign strategy is to wage war on the “cost of living crisis” on behalf of “middle income families”. Drawing attention away from Labour’s reputation for haemorrhaging money through benefits, he suggests we need to siphon some cash from the top-earners in entrepreneurial business, banking and finance.

By “middle income,” presumably he means what most people would call “middle class”. Indeed, a subheading in the Telegraph reads: ‘Foundations of middle-class life – well-paid jobs, strong pensions, housing ladder and university education – have all been “undermined”’, in reference to his Labour Party Conference Speech in Brighton during 2013.

But, before we all descend into chaos and panic, and even though we’ve only narrowly escaped the slavering jaws of a “triple-dip” recession, I’d like to conduct a short foray into what it means to be middle class in modern Britain and why we should care.

What does it mean to be middle class and why should we care? According to this BBC diagram, the middle class is to be defined by a history of consumption, from mass-produced cars to the modern-day farmer’s market – similarly to Ed using an exclusively economic definition.

I will naturally approach the question from a very British standpoint, as someone who has grown up eating chip butties, was educated at a local comprehensive and watched the BBC every evening.

Crisis of Confidence (See Urban Dictionary for Help)

Just who is having a crisis? What is the middle income bracket? Figures show the average UK family income (two parents and two children) is £40k combined, so probably a lot less than you might think. Urban Dictionary defines the middle class in exclusively cultural terms, suggesting that they are:

“Usually, working professionals and often take residence in suburbia or greenbelt areas. Generally speaking, their children attend university and do well within the education system, often following in their parents’ footsteps to maintain some sort of professional job.”

Being middle class seems to be defined by educational and economic attainment, and revolve around the family unit. Urban Dictionary isn’t completely certain, and admits that there are other factors to consider.

Many middle-class children don’t do well in school and never go to university. Plenty of working-class children perform excellently at school, and the figure of the eternally-unemployed, middle-class “waster” is well-known. On the other hand, being middle class does seem to provide a degree of immunity to being convicted of a crime, being a serious sexual offender or having mental health problems.

Angela Monaghan in the Guardian wonders the same thing: just who are these middle class? Monaghan says, ‘Research suggests membership of Britain’s middle class depends on personal perceptions as well as incomes.’ But what are these perceptions? Who decides whether one can enter the middle class, and does everyone actually want to? Is it a definable category or simply a fluid zeitgeist of feeling privileged, intellectual and future-oriented, ‘living by your wits rather than your hands’?

University and Class Consciousness

I went to the University of Southampton and there were plenty of privately-educated students, with the rest of the student body comprising a mixture of public school, grammar school and state comprehensive. I didn’t pay much attention to the stratification at first.

Eventually, I learned that the politicians who represent us in the Houses of Parliament are predominantly privately-educated, which will probably mean that their parents are rich. Someone explained the concept of ‘rah’ within the first few weeks of Freshers’.

Urban Dictionary defines it as:

“Someone who went to private school… likes rugby (not football), probably a member of a rowing, sailing or yachting club, refer to their parents as “Mummy and Daddy”. Boys: often seen to be wearing a lemon (or any pastel shade) sweatshirt slung casually over their shoulders and deck shoes. Girls: Dress similar to that of boys along with pearls, numerous shopping bags and Daddy’s credit card.”

Again: linking class to culture. Oddly enough, there hadn’t been any rah people at Poole High School, which is free to attend. In my time, it had the highest teen pregnancy rate in the area and apparently failed an Oftsed report (I can find nothing to substantiate this though). Southampton, on the other hand, is a Russell Group university (but not in the same league as Oxford or Cambridge) so it had many rah people. To call someone “rah” is to express disdain towards them for consciously choosing to align themselves with a privileged elite (by wearing Jack Wills, flip flops in winter and Ugg boots when it rains). You can be rich and not rah, but not rah without being rich. 

Tea and the Times Crossword

Middle class-ness is a category of identity learned from others, and therefore is an aspect of culture transmitted by sets of behaviours and common modes of thought. I found I liked these middle-class things – prizing education, equal rights for women, good food – a cup of tea whilst doing the Times crossword.

No one ever had to explain being middle class to me. Suddenly, I had found a culture I fit into, where no one mocked you for wanting to learn or liking to read. I learned about the wonderful history and cultural context of books, new ideologies to analyse and absorb, as well as how to turn food into a substantial leisure pursuit. I slowly but surely started reading broadsheet newspapers, going to art galleries and discovered BBC Radio 4.

But how does all this relate to Ed Miliband’s “Cost of Living Crisis” for the middle class?

The Middle Class makes it’s “Marx” in History

During a module called ‘Novel in the Literary Marketplace’, we were taught that in the seventeenth century, the “rising middle class” were comprised of merchant capitalists, clerks and small landowners, some of whom eventually accumulated enough wealth to rival the influence of the landed aristocracy. The Industrial Revolution cemented the fact that power would reside with those who own the means of production, hence the decay of the landed aristocracy (see popular ITV drama Downton Abbey for further details), and the mechanics of it are evolving still.

Thus, aristocratic Britain was no more, and the middle classes sprang into being as a result of capitalism, flourishing well into the nineteenth century and Queen Victoria’s long reign. Partly as a result of this, I think being middle class is upholding the values of: freedom, equality, education and enterprise (I can see an acronym emerging).

This section of society historically has had members who exhibit traits such as intellectual independence; are often explicitly feminist, environmentalist or atheist; are educated beyond the national curriculum (but not necessarily formally so); make decisions based on some level of reason, have the interests of others at heart; strive to succeed and aspire to equality between sex and race. These personal and intellectual freedoms have been enabled by the middle class of history, who made money and fought for the right to vote, insisted on free education for all and the right to free speech. Naturally, these values are not exclusive to the middle class, but I digress.

That class isn’t so readily identifiable anymore, because now those battles have been mostly won. Class is created by inequality, but in modern Britain social mobility is prevalent: that’s why the term “middle class” now pretty much covers everyone. This is why using a purely economic definition doesn’t work anymore. Middle class culture survives: the enterprising, principled and intellectual middle class, who give us cause to celebrate.

The appropriation of the term ‘middle class’ (or the sneakily disguised ‘middle income’) by politicians like Ed Miliband has rendered it nearly meaningless. It’s being used as a tool to encourage people to fear a crisis and therefore vote for Labour; apparently this is called ‘dog whistle politics’.

Class is an outdated term, reliant on immutable social structures which no longer exist. It’s a smokescreen employed by politicians in a calculated attempt to increase personal power.

There seems to be a penchant for Marxist theory now, as the 2014 electoral race begins – and no wonder, since Conservative policies really do hit the poorest people hardest. Hopefully recent political and economic developments don’t suggest that the privileges won for us by the historical middle class might be revoked. There’s so much more to class than Marxist theory – a downtrodden proletariat oppressed by the greedy, heartless bourgeoisie – but the whole class of society is certainly more important than the few. We should not sell our hard-won privileges for a feee.

NB: that’s not a typo.

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The Career of a Pessimistic English Literature Graduate

Well, I’ve finally made it into a profession I actually wanted to be in. It’s been a long journey and fraught with many a tear and wail. Sometimes it seemed impossible that I would reach the dizzying heights of the (digital) communications world, but I’ve done it – and neglected to blog along the way.

Sorry about that. It’s things like blogging that keep you going; sharing your thoughts with the world, lifting you above tedious (and sometimes humiliating) tasks – the bidding of over-inflated and under-competent senior management members.

It’s a hard place to reach and one you can only get to through being well-connected or extremely committed; supported by eternally generous family and long-suffering friends. I never realised just how important a workplace was or how wrong you can get it, especially when you’re young and desperate for a job, any job.

Interestingly, as ever, job prospects have evolved. I’ve grown up in the era thinking that City bankers and lawyers are some of the most highly-paid and high-profile professions (failing incredible beauty and a talent for acting), whilst being a journalist romances the writer in me. However, the reality is that news journalism is, figuratively speaking, back-breaking work, some jobs that seem glamorous or lucrative might not be as rewarding as Mad Men would have us believe, and hardly anyone reaches the baffling status of people like Justin Bieber or Colin Firth. Read this article for a sobering look at the world of Wall Street (in contrast to the recent DiCaprio film) from a former banker. TV and film have warped our expectations of what we can reasonably expect from a satisfying life.

All those years of higher education are finally worth it, and now I work in higher education as Digital Communications Assistant. To me, this is an amazing job that I have struggled hard to get but to others, it’s probably a little dull and technical (it’s not). Whatever your aspirations are, it’s important to keep going even when it seems like you’ll just never get there. I will never know what it’s like to be a doctor, lawyer or teacher – those professions that immediately jump to mind when a child casts around for typical “grown-up” jobs – unless I make a somewhat unlikely career change.

I suppose I’ll have to revise my goals and give myself something else to strive for; focus on actually being great at the job, for instance. Being an English student is an interesting path, and one that I’m still observing radically different forks within. There are some I know who are making it as journalists, the top prize of the second-tier glamour professions (journalism, broadcasting, advertising, publishing). In case you were wondering, top-tier glamour professions refer to the film, sports, movies and fashion industries. There are internal communications specialists, editorial assistants and jazzy PR professionals. Some fellow English grads have diverged and started forging their way into the related and equally as competitive areas of “the arts” and museums.

According to my 1982 Concise Oxford Dictionary, the word glamour means “bewitching or enchanting”, “magical” in some way, but Google says that it can also mean “an attractive or exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing.” In this context, I am using it to mean exciting and attractive professions that seem to require little actual drudgery compared to the high levels of recognition and financial reward – though neither are always the case.

Still, hardly anything matches the thrill of seeing your name in print – though this medium is clearly dying out. That’s okay, because in a few years I’ll have a vast knowledge of digital communications under my belt, a rapidly developing field (sometimes mysteriously known as “new media”) that emerged with the internet explosion a few years back. Social media, websites, e-comms and tinkering with HTML will all be things that I can be quietly proficient in.

I think it’s important to challenge preconceptions, and maybe there are amazing careers that I haven’t even thought of. Hardly anyone wants to work in engineering or manufacturing, but apparently this is the industry to watch. If you ever thought being a B n’ B owner would be dripping in glamour, check out this website to find out why it’s not. The working world is more complex and alluring than I ever suspected it might be; even accounting for my previously rock-bottom expectations.

I’m pleased and I’m proud; I hope to revel in these sensations for a while, though I’m not really sure if communications can be described as glamorous. One thing that is true, is that the buzz still hasn’t worn off when people actually ask me for ideas about projects that are interesting. It’s funny to think that I could (or would) not imagine post-university life before I lived it, like some dark abyss beyond the reach of sanity.

Well, here we are, and it’s looking good.