Christina Patterson: Are we really all middle class now?

We may all sip our Colombia roast but more than a million of our young are not in any kind of training

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When I meet people who are upper-middle class, I start worrying about cutlery. I worry that I'll pick the wrong knife, or hold it with the wrong fingers, or drop it. I worry that I'll suddenly refer to my supper – or is it dinner? – as tea, or ask for a serviette, or what's for sweet.

Since I'm rarely invited to lunch (or is it dinner?) with upper-middle-class people, or to dinner parties, or whatever they call an evening meal with people who aren't part of the family and aren't exactly friends, the cutlery is largely metaphorical. The anxiety, however, isn't. I hear my voice, and it sounds prissy and earnest. I see a body pitched at an angle that appears to me like languid ease, and eyes that flicker with something – boredom? amusement? contempt? – and I feel myself tensing up. I feel as if I've just been entered for a test I know I'll fail. I know that the person I think is going to watch me fail it couldn't give a flying foxhound, that the test, in fact, is in my head. But I still feel tense. Because I'm middle-middle class and I'm programmed to be scared of the next rung up from me.

That fear – fuelled, I should say, by Enid Blyton and then Jane Austen, but not by a Swedish mother who found the English class system an ongoing source of hilarity – appears to be on the wane. We are all middle class now.

It's not just that we have a sweet young heir to the throne who's trying very hard to appear like a nice, middle-class bloke who's marrying a nice, middle-class girl, and who has said, at a time when the real middle classes couldn't begin to manage without their Polish cleaners, that he and his bride will clean their own loo. Or that we have an Old Etonian Prime Minister married to the daughter of a baronet, who describes himself as a member of the "sharp-elbowed" middle classes. It's that we really do all, or nearly all, now call ourselves middle class.

According to a new survey, 71 per cent of Britons now regard themselves as middle class. A generation ago, it was a quarter. Twenty-four per cent now describe themselves as working class. No one describes themselves as upper class. Seven per cent describe themselves as upper-middle class (which is exactly the same percentage as go to private schools), 21 per cent as lower-middle class and 44 per cent as middle class, which I suppose means middle-middle, like me.

The people who took part in the study were encouraged to bring along objects that they felt represented their class. There were, apparently, an awful lot of cafetières. They also, poor darlings, had to make collages. Not nice collages of the Tudors, like I did at primary school, when I wasn't making dinosaurs out of toilet (or is it lavatory?) rolls, but collages that reflected their thoughts about the working classes. The result was an explosion of obesity, booze and bling.

In this sense, the message was clear. If the working classes were ever worthy of respect, they sure as hell aren't now. In another sense, it was slightly less clear. You can, according to the participants in the survey, and the pollsters who had fun dreaming up the labels, be middle class if you're a "squeezed struggler", or a "deserving downtimer", or a "Daily Mail disciplinarian". But you can also be middle class if you elude alliteration as a "bargain hunter", "urban networker" or "comfortable green". You can, in other words, earn pretty much anything. You are what you think you are. You are the kind of coffee you drink.

No wonder politicians are so obsessed with the "squeezed middle", and so unable to pin it down. Although it's hard to see how Ed Miliband managed not to commit hara-kiri after that horrendous Today programme interview, where he seemed, while sounding like someone who had just been introduced to the English language and was marvelling at its flexibility, to imply that the "squeezed middle" was everyone who earned less than the 50p top tax rate, you can see why he wanted to keep it vague. You can see, too, why Nick Clegg should pick a phrase like "alarm clock Britain", which, even though it makes him sound like someone hoping for a second career (which he may well need) as a children's TV presenter, is a label that can be successfully applied to anyone who ever has to get out of bed.

And no wonder George Osborne has decided to use today's Budget to announce a freeze in air-passenger duty. Most people can – or, until recently, could – muster the cash (and even sometimes the stamina) for the odd Ryanair flight to somewhere hotter. Even "comfortable greens" like a holiday, and no one except politicians, whose holidays you can't really call holidays, wants to brave British rain.

It all started, of course, with Margaret Thatcher. It was she who decided that an Englishman's home could, and should, be a castle even if it was an ex-council flat in Peckham. It was she who decided that we should batten down the hatches and do our best for kith and kin. And that as customers at the giant retail park that you might (if you were allowed to use the word) call "society", we should sharpen our resolve, and our elbows, to fight for the best, so that others got the rest. It was she who redefined the classes as consumers, and where she led, New Labour was happy to follow.

But if Britain is one big, happy, cafetière-clutching society, it's one where standards of living are likely to drop. Research commissioned by the Insitute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the current squeeze on living standards will turn out to be the longest since the 1920s, and that's before you begin to think about the impact of globalisation and demographics. And before you begin to think about social mobility, or perhaps I should say the lack of it.

Britain is the most unequal nation among developed countries after the US and Singapore. We may all sip our Colombia roast with our cornflakes, or our croissants, but the level of our children's achievement is more likely to be tied to their parents' than in almost any other country in the Western world. More than a million of our young people are not in any kind of training or employment. It's this generation that will shape the social and economic structures of this country we call middle class.

At a time when work placements in the City and the media aren't just being offered to the children of friends or colleagues, but are actually being auctioned off to the highest bidder, it's good, I suppose, that George Osborne is planning to rustle up a few apprenticeships. But it's going to take an awful lot more than that to fill the big, and growing, gap between the largely privately educated upper-middle classes who seem to have a stranglehold on the power structures of this country, and the Nescafé-sipping souls who still insist on a label that defines them by the work they often lack.

And it's going to take an awful lot more than a pruned deficit, or even the end of a recession, to solve the problem of an ageing population whose pensions we can't sustain, or of property that growing numbers of the population can't afford, or of graduates who can't get jobs, or of school-leavers who aren't equipped for anything except a life on benefits that no one wants to fund.

If we really are all middle class, I'll raise a nice (Habitat) glass of chilled Chablis and cheer. I'll cheer that the thing that has marred, and scarred, this land for centuries has finally faded, and that we can start thinking less about where people come from, and more about who they are. And I'll read Jane Austen with even greater pleasure. But at least with Jane Austen, you know it's fiction. There's another kind of fiction you can only call a lie.;

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