Deborah Mattinson: From cloth caps to cafetières: you are what you buy

Share
Related Topics

I have been asking the same class question in focus groups since the late 1980s. Back then people would shrink from placing themselves in the middle. Some would be critical of friends or neighbours who were "above themselves". I could see them watching me nervously, almost as if they were afraid that, if they claimed to be middle class, I might turn around and say, "You're not, you know". It was what they aimed to become, but not what they were.

But while the "working class" tag might have been a badge of pride in previous decades it was already an association that they were moving away from: C1/C2 swing voters already talked of their aspiration to "better themselves" compared with their working-class parents.

Through the two decades that followed, many did just that. They became the first generation in their families to own their homes, to send their children to university, to holiday abroad on holiday and to have two cars. They had acquired many of the trappings of the middle class, and that is how they began to see themselves.

Just 21 per cent now believe that class is contingent on occupation. Other factors might include education, our parents' class, our home, our accent and vocabulary, and the clothes we wear. But focus groups reveal a more subtle qualification. I asked people who called themselves middle class to bring something with them to their groups that symbolised the middle class. The most popular item? A cafetière. Now our social class is part-determined by the everyday choices that we make.

Our survey found the middle classes are better off than those who describe themselves as working class, but being middle class is about much more than money. It's a different outlook. People who see themselves as middle class are more confident and optimistic about the future. They used words like "hopeful", "proud", "happy", or "excited" to describe their mood, while working class people were more likely to say they were "worried", "nervous", "fearful", "dissatisfied" or "depressed". Working-class people are also more likely to believe the Government doesn't do enough for people like them and more likely to feel they have no time for leisure and hobbies.

There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the "working class" tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as "chav". I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.

The survey shows that the 71 per cent "middle class" are not homogenous, but fall into the six distinct segments. They are by no means all as "squeezed" as some politicians fear and others hope.

Two of the groups, representing about a third of the total – Bargain Hunters and Squeezed Strugglers – are facing very tough times financially. Other groups, though, are managing to make ends meet. Comfortable Greens are relatively wealthy. Urban Networkers are young, often single, and, as you'd expect, urban. They are more likely to have middle-class parents and believe that fulfilling your career potential is really important.

Deserving Downtimers are the most affluent group. Older, they have substantial savings, take more foreign holidays and expect their children to be middle class, like them. The final group, Daily Mail Disciplinarians, is also older, and also more male. Disciplinarians are most likely to believe that Britain is a "soft touch for immigrants" and least likely to agree that "'gay people should have the same rights as heterosexuals".

In my first political focus groups in the 1980s the pen portraits participants drafted of politicians reflected their attitudes to class. Then, Labour Party supporters were expected to conform to a working-class stereotype: "wearing a cloth cap", "smoking a pipe", "drinking pale ale", "holidaying in Blackpool" and "travelling by bus". By contrast, Conservatives were upper class (no one describes themselves as "upper class" in the BritainThinks survey). Conservatives then "wore pin-striped suits, drank champagne, lived in a mansion and went to Eton".

Mrs Thatcher's triumph was to move away from this narrow deferential model. New Labour also moved to the middle. Voters did too, but it is a foolish politician who assumes that that means we're all the same.

The autor is co-founder of BritainThinks. For more about BritainThinks, britainthinks.com/

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: New Business Development Manager / Sales - UK New Business

£24000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

MBDA UK Ltd: Mission Planning and Control Solutions Systems Engineer

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? A pro-act...

MBDA UK Ltd: System Design Capability

Competitive salary & benefits: MBDA UK Ltd: What’s the opportunity? The small...

Recruitment Genius: Time Served Fabricator / Welders - Immediate Start

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fabricator welder required for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Under the current rate of progress, the UK will only reduce its carbon emissions by 21- 23 per cent between 2013 and 2025  

The Government's cosy relationship with big energy companies is killing thousands of people

Zachary Boren
 

Not only is Liz Kendall a shy Tory, but her words are also likely to appeal to racists

Charlie Brinkhurst Cuff
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific