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

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Lawyer - Cheshire

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHESHIRE MARKET TOWN - An exciting and rare o...

Austen Lloyd: Residential Property Solicitor - Hampshire

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE - SENIOR POSITION - An exciti...

Recruitment Genius: Gas Installation Engineer

£29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Gas Installation Engineer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Domestic Gas Technical Surveyor is req...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in August  

Ferguson: Sad truth is that Michael Brown was killed because he was a black man

Bonnie Greer
A protestor poses for a  

Ferguson verdict: This isn't a 'tragedy'. This is part of a long-running genocide of black men in America

Otamere Guobadia
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital