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

ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Infrastructure / Network Engineer (VMware, Windows, LAN/WAN)

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Primary teaching jobs in Thetford

£1036224 - £1513056 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Educatio...

Primary teaching jobs in the Swaffham area

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Are you a fully quali...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: Gordon Brown’s finest hour, a letter from Quebec and the problem of anti-politics

John Rentoul
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week