Stay Classy, Britain – Social Class in the 21st Century

Social Class in the 21st Century – Mike Savage [probably fairer to say Mike Savage et al] (Pelican, 2015).

I am getting through a veritable flock of Pelicans at this point. This time it’s another new one (as you can probably tell by the title). For some, the concept of a social class has gone the way of large union membership and nationalised railways, for others – guilty as charged – it remains a huge part of our identities. Coming off the back of Family and Kinship in East London, a fascinating exploration of working-class life in London in the 1950s, I was keen to see how a modern team of scholars would tackle the thorny issue of class.

Social class (as per this)

For Savage and his fellow social scientists, class is alive and well in contemporary Britain, a place where inequalities have never been starker. We read much about this in popular political discourse, but what Savage and co. try to do is problematise the way we think about social class, so that we can better understand how it operates in the present day. Their findings come from the Great British Class Survey, which was hosted on the BBC’s website a few years back, as well as a couple of other sources to balance out the skewed responses that survey received, and they make for grim reading.

The foundation of the book’s understanding of contemporary social class is based around three different types of ‘capital’ that can be accumulated. This approach seeks to move beyond narrower analyses of class focused solely on occupations or household income to gain a more holistic appreciation of what social class actually means to us in Britain today. The three types of capital (along with a brief explanation) are as follows:

  1. Economic Capital – not just earnings, but also ‘wealth’ in the form of savings and, particularly in present-day Britain, assets such as property. Savage and co. point out that older people, with their foot on the property ladder, have a distinct advantage over the young in this area.
  2. Cultural Capital – perhaps rather arbitrarily divided into two things – traditional ‘highbrow’ culture (the theatre, the opera etc) and ’emerging cultural capital’ (computer games, hipster irony etc). Cultural capital lubricates the gears of opportunity and helps mark out social distinction. I have a great deal of experience of this in academia, where mentioning Latin, French, or the classics apparently conveys some kind of special expertise. The authors note how Cultural Capital is less exclusive, with ‘elites’ subscribing both to older forms of ‘high culture’ but also emerging culture too. The young are also usually at less of a disadvantage here, being at the vanguard of ’emerging cultural capital’ developments.
  3. Social Capital – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. People who know a CEO are more likely to know an aristocrat and less likely to know a bin man – who saw that coming? The people you hobnob with can improve your opportunities accordingly.

These three strands of capital interweave to help define a person’s social class. Having lots of one is not necessarily indicative of doing well in the others. I would say I had a decent amount of cultural capital, an above average amount of social capital, and basically no economic capital. However, the ‘elite’ – defined by Savage et al as the top 6% of society, what they call the ‘ordinary’ elite to distinguish it from the more sensationalist ‘1%’, have distinct advantages across the spectrum where capital is concerned.

Another key part of Savage’s argument is to reconsider social class from the old, and still commonly articulated, ‘upper > middle > working’ class (see the sketch above). Instead, the authors identify no less than seven new social classes:

  1. Elite
  2. Established Middle Class
  3. Technical Middle Class
  4. New Affluent Workers
  5. Traditional Working Class
  6. Emerging Service Workers
  7. Precariat

The authors are primarily concerned with those at the very top and the very bottom (roughly 6% and 15% of the population respectively) arguing that things are much more amorphous and fluid in the five other classes. Their key point is that the Elite is so far above everyone else as to be the major cause of concern about social inequality in Britain today.

Within this wider study, and having established how they understand class to operate, the authors go on to show how social class continues to permeate every aspect of British life in ways that some readers (I flatter myself) will no doubt recognise. I certainly did. Particularly resonant for me was the identity crises provoked by social mobility. I came from a working-class background and went to an elite University (the most elite University, according to the authors), and now I have a history PhD. Consequently I can find it hard to identify with the culture and background that I come from and to an extent grew up in, and also the one in which I now presumably reside. The authors are right to highlight what they call the emotional impact of social mobility, which can sometimes balance out the impression of it as a universally positive thing (one of the many reasons that the elite are better equipped to deal with higher class lifestyles).

Given my educational background, the way which university rivalries manifest themselves between ‘established’ universities and former polytechnics was also particularly close to home. Here, the rivalries discussed are mainly between Bristol University students and those from University of the West of England. My own experience was of the rivalries between the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam, and the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores. This could be expressed not just through chants, or the cringeworthy University memes pages on Facebook, but in the graffiti on the toilet walls above the loo-roll holders saying “John Moores Degrees”.

From University of Liverpool Memes on Facebook – it took me literally seconds to find this.

Living in London makes these inequalities starker than ever too. On my way to lunch walking through Westminster, the pinnacle of power, opportunity, and wealth in the country, I regularly walk past old ‘tradesman’s entrances’ (doors through which manual labourers were expected to pass so they didn’t offend the everyday inhabitants of a building). This is a city where people struggle day-in, day-out to make ends meet; a city where shining new tower blocks rise over a population groaning under a huge housing crisis; a city where, coming full circle from the old tradesman’s entrances, we have the appalling phenomenon of ‘poor doors’ or separate entrances for richer and poorer inhabitants in new luxury apartment buildings.

The Tradesman’s Entrance (not a euphemism).

Nationwide, the Equality trust tells us that the UK “has a very wide level of income inequality compared to other developed countries”. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, made inequality and social mobility a central part of her maiden speech to the country after emerging relatively unscathed from a bloody Tory leadership contest. Both leadership contenders for the Labour Party claim to be dedicated to stopping the ills of social inequality in modern-day Britain. This all suggests that social mobility and, by association, class have never been higher on the agenda in the UK. Savage et al show that it isn’t enough simply to hope that we finally start to reverse the, frankly, disgraceful levels of inequality that exist in our country today. Before we can do that we have to start thinking about class more intelligently. Not just the 1% versus the 99%, or even the 6% versus the 94%, but rather the people working together against a system and economy which has ossified class differences at a greater level than ever before.

In conclusion, I found the book to be urgent and important, informative yet easy-to-understand. It would make a good introductory text for readers who, like me, have a sense of social class but nothing more than gut feeling to back it up. In short, the book was everything I expected a Pelican should be, and it was doubly important because it applied to a problem facing us today, rather than in the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s. I give it five pounds £££££, ensuring it gets some all important economic capital.


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