All middle class now in this unequal land?

Now that 71 per cent of us believe we're middle class, are we moving towards a more flexible American mindset? Or are we just deluding ourselves, asks Peter York
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The Independent Online

This research raises great and disturbing questions for those two natural bedfellows, Ed Miliband and the Daily Mail. How can the "middle classes" be "squeezed" or even be middle if there is practically no one on either side to squeeze or persecute them? (I love those Daily Mail headlines exposing yet another Government plot to target the DM's Chosen People.)

No one here (or more precisely no statistically significant number in this survey of 2,000 people) will admit to thinking of themselves as "upper class" and only 24 per cent describe themselves as "working class". So the old Cleese/Barker/Corbett class and height hierarchy vanishes at a stroke. Or goes underground.

What that all shows is that our language and self-perceptions have changed further and faster than our real circumstances. And, in particular, that Margaret Thatcher's grand plan to make us more like the USA has worked, sort of.

The semantics of class in Britain are contradictory and confusing, but clearly this massive apparent expansion in self-perceived middle-classness reflects the adoption of an American way of thinking and talking. It is one where middle class means ordinary, "regular", decently employed and housed, not the mass of background and cultural baggage that older British definitions included – all that stuff of novels and any comedy of manners going. ("Respectable" "Milk in First", "medical family" etc.)

For reasons, both political and commercial, official America has been keen to banish the idea of old-fashioned hierarchical class from its national conversation. They think it's Marxist, Un-American and downright dangerous, even while America has become demonstrably much more unequal over the past 30 years.

Our circumstances in Britain have changed hugely and most of all in the kinds of jobs people do. The defining image of 1960s British realist films was the factory gate and all the mass "working class" identities it represented. Now there are call-centre jobs and fast-food McJobs and the office park world of The Office (it's back office actually, not head office – that's in London, that's where the big banana's – on a million a year basic plus share options – work). And a whole raft of new, exotic, highly paid sectors from digital marketing to collateralised debt obligation invention.

If the employment base has become altogether more fragmented, unclassifiable (and the setting for some embourgeoisement, to use a favourite bit of 1960s and 1970s sociology talk), then there are other factors closer to home which make people see themselves as middle class.

Fascinatingly, "middle-classness" almost precisely tracks owner-occupation (Halifax statistics have us as a 69 per cent owner-occupied nation now). At some instinctive level Margaret Thatcher recognised that owner-occupation, through council house sales and the easing of mortgage restrictions, would erode the old working-class identities and solidarities, and so help create a permanent Tory majority.

Then there are all the blurring effects of mass media and smart multiple retailing and the compelling idea that you are what you buy – lifestyle. There's hugely more access to smart clothes, food and interior decoration with people to tell you about it, people to sell it to you and people to lend you the money to buy it.

When I started work as a boy executive in market research the official taxonomies of class were clear enough. They were the advertising industry's NRS scales, from A to E, based on the occupation of the biggest earner in the household. They were clearly hierarchical, with category A being top people in the private and public sectors, plus the professions (barrister, senior surgeon, etc) and E being people who did poorly paid "unskilled" or casual work or lived on transfer incomes).

Clever-dick Young Turks in 1970s research land argued that this was increasingly out of date. What really mattered when you were defining "target markets" was what was going on in people's heads – their attitudes and identifications, their reference group, their "who do you think you are?" factor. And "aspirational" became a key word in marketing speak as well-paid unionised labour and sole-trader artisans started to earn more than lowest-rung middle-class types.

We were keen on clever segmentations based on people's inner lives and enabled by the new surge of computing power that let you cross-analyse everything by everything (your feelings about chilled convenience foods in relation to, say, your attitude to the Tories).

But, ultimately one had to admit a lot that one presented in snappily titled lifestyle-segment vignettes like Delta Dawn (a proto-Yuppie higher-educated junior female corporate executive type) could still be explained using the old measures – class, social background, region, education, income. Which was a lot less fun, and rather discouraging if you were in any way idealistic.

The six middle-class segments that the BritainThinks survey report presents so prettily as a sort of non-hierarchical colour-banded lifebuoy could be presented rather differently. As a hierarchy of status, wealth and power – as sub-classes within the great big middle-class, starting with the Deserving Downtimers at the top. They are the oldest, best-off, most secure and confident about their own and their children's future. And what's the betting they are precisely the kind of people that old-world snobs would have recognised as comfortable middle class? These are the solid burghers of Guildford and Harrogate, retired or retiring well from corporate or professional life with their mortgages long since paid off.

While at the bottom of the "middle class" pile are the Squeezed Strugglers. Would Mr and Mrs Burgher – Hugh and Hazel from Harrogate – really see them as middle class at all? In style and situation the SS group is pretty proletarianised. They don't have much higher education or private education for their children. Or retirement provision for themselves.

These differences aren't exactly lifestyle choices. They can't be explained by attitudes. But to what extent can they be explained by opportunities – by what, in another world, people called social determinism ("Oh Bondage, Up Yours!")?

Here, the evidence doesn't support the nice idea that we're all middlingly middle class now. The Prime Minister recently referred to himself and Mrs C as "sharp-elbowed middle-class" and I have no doubt he meant it. But the kind of middle-classness he represents – education, income, assets, status – represents less than 1 per cent of the population, rather than 71 per cent. And the recent evidence is that, on the Gini scale used to measure income inequality on a comparative basis around the world, we're getting more unequal, not less.

Among developed countries only the US (home of winner-takes-all thinking) and Singapore beat us to the title of most unequal Western nation. (It's a British achievement like being Europe's No 1 in teenage pregnancy.) And, as that most engagingly chippy, rich meritocrat Andrew Neil demonstrated on BBC2 recently, the percentage of top jobs going to state-educated, non-Oxbridge clever kids like him has declined.

The argument is that the Sixties and Seventies beneficiaries of the Butler Education Act of 1944, having made it from meritocrat to plutocrat, have drawn the ladder up behind them. They've hard-wired their children's' advantages with public school, private coaching, Balliol and Harvard Business School – and that's only the girls!

Whatever the truth of all those competing readings of Class UK 2011, its clear that there's quite a bit of false consciousness going on, both from the FTSE 100 board members with multi-million settlements who like to see themselves as middle class because they started life in a semi in Nottingham, to the Squeezed Strugglers on £19,500 pa, who still have a dream.

What is certain is that if we could eliminate the Seriously Rich and the Underclass at a stroke, what fun the middlingly middles could have with pure Lifestyle Games – spotting amusingly described types such as Loft Wingers, the Chaveau Riches, the Fair-to-Middlings and the Hornby Set (as in novelist Nick) in last year's wonderfully funny escapist Middle Class Handbook, where, for middle-class people with an 'ology in semiotics, they discuss at length the secret class meanings of Cheryl Cole.

Class and the sitcom

The Good Life

Middle-class Tom and Barbara Good opt out of the rat race to farm self-sufficiently. Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal star with Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington as the still aspiring Margot and Jerry.

Hancock's Half Hour

Tony Hancock, the downbeat resident of 23 Railway Cuttings, says: "All my life I've been looking forward to becoming middle class – just when my goal is in sight they put another tanner on the rates and I'm back where I started."

Are You Being Served

Set in the Grace Brothers department store. Class and social pretension permeated almost all staff interaction.

One Foot in the Grave

A sitcom where "normal" life is subverted by misfortune. Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) is frequently overwhelmed by life's vicissitudes before venting his spleen. The show mined a vein of black humour where polite society is punctured by life's vagaries.

Terry and June

A quintessential middle-class couple, Terry Scott and June Whitfield, aka the Medfords, were loved by audiences but panned by critics as bland.

The Rise and Fall of Reggie Perrin

Worn-out middle-class commuter Perrin (Leonard Rossiter) is driven to bizarre behaviour by the pointlessness of his sales job.

Keeping up appearances

Social-climbing snobbery featuring Hetty Wainthropp as bossy Hyacinth Bucket (that's pronounced "Bouquet").

Kunal Dutta