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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