Disgruntled Townie or Student Spirit?

Decca Aitkenhead seeks herself in the maze of socio-economic labels
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The Independent Online
IDENTITY, id, ego, self ... just who do you think you are? For the past 90 years the Government has believed that you came in one of just six flavours. You were professional, managerial, skilled non-manual, skilled manual, partly skilled or unskilled. But this week it announced that it would be scrapping the system and exploring new ways to classify us all.

Market researchers have always known that six flavours were insufficient to satisfy the tastes of such a class-ridden country. So they have long since dreamed up more. A quick trip with your Self around the ad agencies of London reveals a host of new-born personae to choose from. Everyone from Ethnic Kinsmen to Disgruntled Townies are there.

My new identity is just a phone call away, so I set about making its acquaintance. First, I check out myself in the Government's discarded system. The encounter is brief. I'm asked (via a form from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys) what I do, and I say that I'm a professional. It processes this data, then gives me my classification. I am - a Professional.

In search of enlightenment, I introduce myself to the more sophisticated classification systems on the market. Advertising often uses the traditional ABC approach, but I will need something more if I'm to find out who I really am.

The first port of call is market researchers CACI. Its computer system, ACORN (A Classification Of Residential Neighbourhoods) produces detailed demographic information. All it requires is your postcode.

"Right, give us your code. We'll tap it in, pull your profile off and fax it over. Okay?"

All of a sudden I'm not sure it is okay. "Pull my profile off"? I feel I'm disclosing the combination number of the safe to my inner soul.

I guard the fax machine with mounting panic. My secret being is spewing out in front of the entire office! I pounce. "You are 65 per cent more likely than average to be vegetarian. You do 30 per cent of your grocery shopping on foot. Popular products include fresh pasta."

I also drink more vodka than most, I learn, and take my holidays off the beaten track.

This is geo-demographics, the sober end of the social segmentation industry. Richard Piggott at CACI explains: "Research shows that people in the same neighbourhoods tend to lead the same kind of lives."

It may not yield insights of any Freudian depth, but it did just give a pretty fair account of my preferences, in exchange for just six letters and numbers.

At advertising agency Leo Burnett I gaze into the geo-demographic looking- glass, and this time a name stares back. I am, I learn, an Articulate Metropolitan.

Within this London "tribe" there are seven permutations - I could be a Student Spirit (no need to be a student - merely go to the pub a lot), an Affluent Opinion Former, or a Monied Emigre. ("That means rich Arab.")

There are 10 other tribes. We have Disgruntled Townies (distinguishing features: bulldog estates and multi-ethnic terraces), New Home Starters

(hooked on Ikea charge-card adrenalin), and Ethnic Kinsmen. Some tribes are no longer with us - Working-Class Die Hards are extinct.

At Carat Research, Colin MacLeod holds a different key to my soul. He doesn't want my postcode, just details of my media diet. Within instants I am reborn as a Broadsheet Browser.

"Classification according to what you read and view, rather than what you do, is more personalised," says Mr MacLeod.

The majority of people are Telly Addicts, and a big chunk are Maggies ("read a lot of women's magazines but not newspapers). There is a slightly confusing category, Tabloids Not Telly, but Mr MacLeod explains: "These are Sun readers with satellite dishes - they just watch Sky."

To the advertising agency Young and Rubicam next, for a "value segmentation" classification. The process is oddly familiar, and I remember - it's just like filling in those personality tests in the backs of women's magazines. The kind that ask: "Are You Good In Bed?" The consultant, Charlotte Mordin, tentatively agrees: "Ye-es. This certainly has the same sort of fascination."

You are offered 30 statements, such as "There is too much sex on television today" and "I can't bear untidiness in the home". You respond, tot up your score, check the total against a handy guide and - well - that's who you are. There are several possible outcomes. You could be Struggling Poor (buzzwords: disorganised, aggression, luck, pub, Sugar Puffs); Golden Oldie (community, health, Old Spice); or Transitional (individual, new frontiers, Marmite).

Other outcomes look considerably more attractive: Succeeder is characterised by Gucci, Mastercard and stability. As with the "Are You Good in Bed?" exercise, I wonder how to cheat to arrive at this outcome.

"I don't really think the Government's going to go for our scheme. It would be a lovely way to run a country," sighs Ms Mordin.

I feel I am now reaching the duskier end of this industry. Arriving at Semiotic Solutions, I realise I have fallen off the edge. The managing director, Valerie Valentine, tells me: "Most demographic segmentations, you see, are 'etic'. They are imposed from the outside. Our system, PLUS ( for People Like Us), is 'emic', meaning that it's spontaneous, from within."

To locate myself in this dubious schema, I must cast my mind back to the age of 17, recall portentous world events, and analyse their impact on my psyche.

"We haven't got any labels yet. We're still working on that. But I expect you're a Post-Thatcherite Centrist," Ms Valentine murmurs.

I sit down with my new selves and take a long, hard look. A vodka-drinking vegetarian, an Articulate Metropolitan, a Post-Thatcherite Broadsheet Browser, a wannabe Succeeder.

It is like being at a party and not recognising a single soul. I had set out in search of myself, and ended up in the company of strangers. That Professional being shown the back door had more to her than met the eye.

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