Beware the 'Squeezed middle' – they're not that squeezed, and not that middle

When the middle class feels pinched, politicians have to listen. But one person's poverty is another's trip to Aldi

In the grim economic circumstances of the past few years, one question has been asked again and again: who has borne the brunt of it? It's a complicated matter, and the answer sets the political agenda; surprising, then, that if you judge by column inches and the tenor of political rhetoric, there is a single view. The real victims of the great recession, our leaders and leader writers agree, have been the middle classes, also known as the squeezed middle. We're all in it together, but apparently some of us are more in it together than others.

We heard about the distressing fate of the squeezed middle in a piece in The Daily Telegraph last week that told the story of Guy Jackson, a financial compliance officer in the City. Guy is so darn squeezed it's a wonder his buttons aren't flying off. He's not asking for much: he just wants to maintain his and his family's standard of living. But the squeeze has "really hit" them. Trips to Tesco instead of Ocado deliveries. No city breaks. No new cars! It's no wonder: with two sons to keep at private schools, Guy and his wife Sharon must manage on his "basic salary" of £120,000 a year. (The article neglects to mention Sharon's contribution to the pot, which is mysterious, when LinkedIn reveals her ownership of what sounds like a thriving corporate training business.)

You might argue that this is just trolling: a fiendish bit of Samantha Brickery designed to draw the outraged hate-clicks of people who find it obscene. But I think there's more to it. Most people, it's true, would put someone on £120,000 a year outside of the article's excessively downbeat estimate of belonging to the "upper end of the squeezed middle". And yet the ballad of Guy Jackson is not being recited in a vacuum. Since Ed Miliband first started using the term in 2010, the squeezed middle has become accepted shorthand for … well, nobody knows what, exactly. The definition of "the squeezed middle", and indeed of the "middle class", is so loose as to be useless. Quite often, though, it seems to mean: people who think that their second car matters more than a poorer person's first job.

I don't really blame Ed Miliband for this. You can see why it's useful to sell your political wares to a group so nebulous that anyone who doesn't wear a monocle and a top hat can think himself a part of it. Also, at least the adjective "squeezed" is sort of honest, conveying as it does a sense of incredibly mild discomfort, like when you've eaten too much cheese, rather than suffocating constriction. For Miliband, the phrase also has the advantage of reassuring the cognoscenti that you're not going to do anything too radical. Refer instead to the crushed underclass or the moneyed elite and people are going to start getting alarmed.

There's something terribly British about the squeezed middle, at once polite and standoffish, reluctant to appear self-centred but also really irritated by chuggers. The squeezed middle conceives of itself as docile until the chips are down; the trouble is, its definition of what state the chips have to be in to qualify as "down" is a little hazy.

Self-defining members takes a scandalised pleasure in telling stories about shopping at Aldi, apparently viewing an adjustment to their grocery shopping as a defiant rearguard action that merits comparison with Dunkirk; they like to think of themselves as loath to make a fuss but are quite prepared to have a row with the waiter if that's what it takes to avoid eating halal.

Crucially, they view the trappings of the upper middle class as symbols of the whole vast category, even the bit without that vital prefix. But most members of the middle class aren't going on holiday to Tuscany. In that same Telegraph article that wept for the Jacksons, Janette Wallis of The Good Schools Guide remembered hearing someone say "you can tell the middle-class parents, because they will go to almost any lengths to send their child to an independent school". But only 7 per cent of British children go to private school.

Almost no one views themselves as upper middle class, perhaps because it seems conceited to do so, perhaps because of a sense that being upper middle class must be more fun than this. We are hard-wired to believe that other people are doing better than us. If our self-definition is to be trusted, which it isn't, upper middle class is a category that only counts for 7 per cent. Participants in the same 2011 study which gave that figure chose Kate Middleton as a representative of the upper middle classes. But if the term is to mean anything, it surely has to extend beyond a woman whose son will be king.

There is a squeezed middle – but the people who think they're in it are not. Take Guy Jackson. With his salary of £120,000, he feels as if he's in the middle, but instead, he's in the top 2 per cent. Lots of people who earn, say, £50,000 a year, think of themselves as slap in the middle of the curve – a fantasy in which they are enabled by our political leaders. If this is you, take a moment to guess what the median income in this country is – the salary at which half of people earn more than you, and half of people less. Got your number? The answer is £27,000. I bet you thought it was higher.

Partly this is because we all hang out with people like ourselves, and so come to think of our problems as universal. When the Joseph Rowntree Foundation did a class study a few years ago, it found participants in its focus groups "demonstrated a strong tendency to place themselves in the middle of the income distribution" wherever they truly stood. "For most of the participants it is people 'like them' … who seem to be undergoing a particularly difficult time," the study said. "In their words, it is the 'middle band' who 'get forgotten', who 'suffer the worse' and who are 'worse off', losing out to both top and bottom."

It's a strange old idea, that those in the middle are worse off than those worse off than them – and yet it seems to be persistent. The only way to really deal with it is to state unapologetically, that the people in the middle are not the ones suffering the most. But if you are poor and young, you are less likely to vote, and so unlikely to be heard. In contrast, the so-called squeezed middle might be a fiction, but it is a very influential one. To give it a hard time is to mess with the most influential and engaged people in the country. And where are the votes in that?

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