Frank TRENTMANN

Professeur d'histoire au Birkbeck College (université de Londres) et « fellow » au Sustainable Consumption Institute (université de Manchester), ancien directeur du programme de recherche « Cultures de la consommation ».

The troubled lives of the British middle class

Britain was the birthplace of the middle class. Commercial prosperity and urbanisation swelled their ranks in the eighteenth century. By the 1750s, on the eve of the industrial revolution, roughly one in five families belonged to what contemporaries called the “middle sort”, a group positioned between aristocrats with their inherited wealth, on the one hand, and the dependent poor, on the other. It stretched from lawyers and clergymen to traders and manufacturers. Independent income mattered, however modest, but equally important was a new moral and material lifestyle that prized politeness and domestic comfort. Daniel Defoe, the writer, defined the middle sort simply as those “who live well”, neither profligately nor miserably.

The middle classes changed the face of Britain perhaps more than any other modern society. They were at the centre of a new consumer culture, acquiring soft furnishings, carpets, porcelain and accessories. They formed a new political interest. And they created a new kind of national identity, positioning themselves as productive Britons with their feet firmly on the ground, not cosmopolitan aristocrats with their foreign tastes and frivolous luxuries. To squeeze the middle was to squeeze the nation. It was in the campaign for the vote, leading up to the 1832 Reform Act, that the middle sort found their voice as a “middle class” and a home in the Liberal party.

From a long view, industrialisation and the rise of the working class marked only a temporary change of fortunes. By the 1980s, the middle class was bigger than ever, thanks to industrial decline and a shift to the service and financial sector. In 1911 one in ten Britons worked in a middle-class occupation. By 1991, around one in three had a professional or managerial job. No less significant was how middle class ideals promoted a politics of aspiration which defined independence and enterprise, upward mobility and home ownership as the essence of the good life, symbolised by Margaret Thatcher’s “Right-To-Buy” sale of public housing in 1979. This aspirational lifestyle has remained the dominant goal of public life and party politics ever since. New Labour merely changed the accent. Fighting a Conservative government headed once again by sons of the aristocracy, the Labour opposition tellingly positions itself today as the champion of the “squeezed middle”.

From the beginning to the present, the middle class has been a product of ideal as much as reality. Wide disagreement exists about where precisely to locate the “middle” and whether there is an essence to being middle class at all. A few years ago, the insurance giant AXA defined the middle as those enjoying an average income of £ 62,000. This would include only the 30% of top earners, a group far richer than the middle fifth of the population that hovers around the statistical median of income distribution. To understand the condition of the British middle class, it is therefore also vital to examine social mobility, homeownership, access to education, and cultural taste.

The decline of social mobility has been one of the great fears haunting the corridors of Westminster in the last decade. Is the middle class being hollowed out and British society settling back into an hour-glass shape of rich and poor, a polarised society of “two nations” as the Conservative Disraeli warned in the Victorian period? In fact, current fears tell us more about how meritocracy has become the touchstone of policy -- left and right -- than about the realities of class. Britain, like most developed countries, has seen a widening gulf between rich and poor since the 1970s. Social mobility, however, has held up fairly well. Inevitably, the big shrinkage of industrial jobs and the swelling of managerial and professional ranks could not go on forever. Still, “relative mobility” has not slowed. Relative mobility measures how likely it is for people from different class backgrounds to end up in the same social position. By that count, young adults today are as likely to move up or down the class ladder as their parents were a generation earlier – and certainly more likely to do so than their ancestors a century ago. There has been a “constant flux” since the 1960s, in the words of the sociologists Golthorpe and Erikson. Every third Briton with parents in routine working jobs rises to a professional occupation. Indeed, the OECD in 2007 found that the United Kingdom was more fluid than France or Germany, although it was more rigid than Scandinavian countries.

Mobility, it is sometimes forgotten, is about moving down as well as up. What has happened in the last two decades is not that British society has frozen, but that men are more likely to drop out of the middle class. There has been an interesting divorce, then, between social change and political ambition. British society is as mobile as ever. At the same time, politicians are more than ever worried about voters being squeezed out of the middle class. Middle class comfort is treated as a virtual right. Arguably, the fixation with the middle class is one reason the plight of a new underclass took politicians so unaware in the riots of 2011.

The great expansion of the middle class since 1945 has come with a big increase in occupational diversity. Doctors and lawyers have been joined by financial advisors and call centre supervisors. Contrary to Thatcher’s association of middle class life with independence and the market, for a good many it was the public sector that was the social elevator, with new professional jobs in schools, hospitals, and local government, especially for women.

In the face of occupational fragmentation, shared values, norms and lifestyle assume ever greater significance as social glue. How effective are they at a time when incomes are drifting apart, on the one hand, and gender, ethnic and other identities are gaining in importance? Into the twentieth century, the middle class derived its identity from positioning itself against an aristocratic elite distinguished by inherited privileges and wealth. This easy opposition has disappeared. The new divide is between the high-flying bank executive on a seven figure salary plus bonuses and the average bank clerk fearing for his pension. In 1980, according to the Low Pay Commission, the former earned 13 times as much as the latter. By 2011 the gap had widened to 75 times. It would be naïve to expect a shared middle class identity between the two.

Escalating earnings at the top threaten to pull the middle class apart. So do risk and vulnerability at the bottom. For many professionals, home ownership remains a distant dream. In inner London, for example, one in three professionals rent and 7% rely on subsidised social housing. The steep rise in property prices in the last decades, especially in the South East, has started to price many young middle class professionals out of the property market. Homeownership has started to fall from over 70% in 2003 to 67% in 2010. Even in the statistical middle – the middle fifth around median income – there are sharp contrasts in living conditions. A Trade Union study in 2009 found that one quarter of families in “middle England” could not afford to go on holiday, and one in ten could not give their teenage daughter a bedroom separate from her brothers – something long identified by middle-class reformers as how the “uncivilised” working classes live. Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that many middle earners do not see themselves as belonging to a particular class, and, when they do, pick working class (40%) rather than middle class (14%) or lower middle class (20%).

Notwithstanding these centrifugal forces, there are opposite factors at work that continue to give the middle class shape. One is a pronounced investment in education as the ticket to a better future. In Europe – and often in England, too – this subject is sometimes reduced to the peculiar status of “public schools” (i.e. private, fee-paying schools). Although true for certain professions like barristers, this is unhelpful more generally. Less than 10% of English children attend private schools – fewer than in France – , and those who do overwhelmingly come from the richest 25% families in the land; interestingly, too, one fifth comes from the bottom half of income. In other words, most middle class families send their children to state schools. Compared to other European countries, however, middle class families in England invest a disproportionate amount of time and energy in choosing the best school for their child. In London, parents attend church or move neighbourhoods in competition for a place in a “good” school. The effects of choice on class, however, must not be exaggerated. International comparisons suggest that the English school system – notwithstanding the popular fixation with public schools – is fairly average and less polarizing than the state-dominated system in Germany and Belgium where there is greater selection and tracking, although segregation in England is higher than in Nordic countries and Scotland, which has its own education system.

The school system, however, does not recycle the middle class at Eton or Rugby but through a general hierarchical system which vitally includes elite state schools that are in more affluent areas or that use modes of selection that reward the talents and capabilities acquired in professional middle class homes. Again, the middle class benefits from a special position in the public sector, not outside it.

The most detailed and far-reaching analysis of class and taste in Britain was undertaken by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) at Manchester in 2006-09. This study set out to test whether the link between class and culture, which Pierre Bourdieu originally explored for France in the 1960s, still held for Britain today. Looking at music, art, film and reading, the team at CRESC found that particular sets of tastes were not the exclusive property of classes. People from different backgrounds shared some tastes. In that sense, there was no such thing as a middle class taste. Since the 1960s “legitimate culture” has lost importance. Since the working class no longer has its own particular tastes, the middle class no longer needs to define its own culture in opposition. Put differently, the British middle classes today lack the distinctive habitus which, according to Bourdieu, was jointly recycling social and cultural hierarchies. Nonetheless, taste has not become classless. The researchers found a strong link between taste and class in particular settings. Not one of their working-class interviewees, for example, had significant knowledge of classical music or attended classical concerts. For members of the professional executive class, listening and going to the opera was a common, shared practice. Classical music was part of the cultural capital crucial for reproducing their privileged position.

In 2012 Britain, “class” continues to be a regular topic of conversation, much more so than in other European countries. This is not because Britain is a more hierarchical, less mobile society but, in no small part, because of the dominant position of the middle class in political and cultural life. Historically, the positive values associated with belonging to the middle class derived their strength from offering an alternative to a powerful aristocratic elite. Commerce, industry and democracy marginalised the latter. The growth of the public sector after 1945 and the shift from industry to finance and services since the 1960s gave the middle classes a boost of unprecedented proportion. The decades since have seen spectacular fortunes emerge within the middle class. Whether its identity can withstand the rise of this new elite within its midst has yet to be seen.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright. Culture, Class, Distinction. London, 2009 (CRESC).
  • Goldthorpe, J. and Erikson, R. (1992) The Constant Flux, (Clarendon Press).
  • Goldthorpe, J. and Jackson, M. (2007) ‘Intergenerational class mobility in contemporary Britain’ British Journal of Sociology, 58(4): 525-546
  • Jenkins, S.P. et al. (2006) Social segregation in secondary schools: how does England compare with other countries? Working Paper 2006–2, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.
  • Langford, Paul. A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Lansley, S. (2009) Life in the Middle: the untold story of Britain’s average earners, Trades Union Congress (TUC), Touchstone Pamphlet 6, TUC, London.
  • Saunders, P. (2012) Social Mobility Delusions, CIVITAS Paper, London
  • Savage, M., (2007) ‘Changing social class identities in post-war Britain: Perspectives from mass-observation’ Sociological Research Online, 12, 3, May 29
  • Wahrman, Dror. Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
  • Watt, P. (2005) Housing histories and fragmented middle-class careers: the case of marginal professionals in London council housing, Housing Studies 20(3): 359-381.
  • Yaojun Li and Fiona Devine (2011) ‘Is social mobility really declining?’ Sociological Research Online, vol.16, August.
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Classe moyenne en Grande Bretagne : Berceau de la classe moyenne, qui y occupe traditionnellement une place importante, le pays voit aujourd'hui se creuser au sein de celle-ci des écarts qui pourraient modifier sensiblement son identité.