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Class exclusive: Seven in 10 of us belong to Middle Britain

A major new survey into social attitudes identifies six tribes among the nation's aspirational classes. John Rentoul and Matt Chorley examine the report's fascinating and provocative findings

Sunday 20 March 2011 01:00 GMT

An unprecedented shift in public attitudes heralding a huge rise in the nation's middle classes is revealed today by the most comprehensive study of British society ever conducted. The report shows a huge rise in the country's aspirations, with seven in 10 Britons now viewing themselves as middle class, compared with a quarter a generation ago.

The survey, carried out by the new research company BritainThinks and published exclusively by The Independent on Sunday, also discloses that only 24 per cent of people now describe themselves as working class – and no one labels him or herself upper class any more.

This explosion in the size of Middle Britain – with six distinct tribes of the middle class identified through detailed focus group and statistical analysis – has profound implications for economic and public policy and for how politicians frame their pitch to the electorate, particularly to the three groups of swing voters who decide elections.

So vast is the cohort now describing itself as middle class that it ranges from cafetière-pouring, Telegraph-reading retirees, more prone to voting Conservative and with annual household income of almost £47,000, to the aspirant soap addicts struggling to make ends meet on less than £30,000. The average working-class household income is £24,000.

But while the vast majority of the nation sees itself as middle class, it seems that aspirant lifestyles are in peril, with people's anxiety about jobs, housing and the environment leading to fears that their children's future will be bleaker than their own.

The comprehensive analysis, of everything from Marks & Spencer to The X Factor, reveals widely differing views about the realities of being middle class in Britain. BritainThinks conducted an opinion poll of 2,003 people, backed up by focus groups to probe attitudes in more depth. The research paints a picture of a large middle class, some parts of which fear that their recent rise will be reversed in hard economic times, but which is still mostly optimistic.

It shines a spotlight on the major political battleground of the next four years, with middle-class people most likely to vote. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, is targeting what he calls the "squeezed middle" that is feeling the pinch. Nick Clegg has characterised this group as Alarm Clock Britons – lower-paid workers who cannot afford private healthcare or education. So far, the Conservatives have struggled to persuade voters the Government is on their side. The survey found that David Cameron is regarded as the poshest of a list of 29 famous people.

People who define themselves as middle class are more likely than the working class to choose the words "hopeful" and "proud" to describe how they feel about their family's future. By contrast, the shrinking working class seems to feel beleaguered, and people who describe themselves as working class are more likely to choose words such as "worried", "fearful" and "depressed" to describe how they feel.

Those who describe themselves as middle class have an average household income of £37,000 a year. Almost half of the middle class say that they have over £10,000 in savings, compared with one-fifth of the working class.

But the new middle class encompasses wide differences of income, wealth and attitudes. BritainThinks researchers used the data to identify six segments of the middle class. Their average household incomes range from £29,500 a year among the "Squeezed Strugglers" to £47,000 among the "Deserving Downtimers", the richest group of mainly older people, most of whom have retired.

Political attitudes are sharply divergent too, with two groups solidly Conservative (the Deserving Downtimers and the Daily Mail Disciplinarians), one strongly Labour (the Stretched Strugglers) and the other three described as "marginal". These three groups – the Comfortable Greens, Urban Networkers and Bargain Hunters – make up the prime electoral battleground. Those who call themselves middle class are much more likely to vote (69 per cent) than the working class (55 per cent).

The survey paints the fullest picture yet of changing attitudes towards class in Britain today, to which The Independent on Sunday devotes this special issue. The most important factor defining a person's class is "level of education", according to 23 per cent, followed by "their parents' class" (21 per cent), "the nature of their job" (20 per cent) and "their income" (20 per cent).

One of the most striking differences is that 51 per cent of working-class respondents agree with "I often have conversations with friends about shows like The X Factor", while only 29 per cent of the middle class do.

Deborah Mattinson, director of BritainThinks, asked middle-class participants in the focus groups to bring with them an object that they thought symbolised their class. The most popular was a cafetière, and other objects included a book about Mozart, theatre tickets, a Kindle e-reader, an expensive bottle of brandy, a box of speciality teas, a Cath Kidston bottle warmer and a ski hat. "I'm just a snob maybe. I won't have instant coffee," said one focus group member. Another said of a cafetière: "I take it with me when I travel. I like good coffee."

The opinion survey found that in a list of 29 well-known people, Mr Cameron was the only one whom more people described as upper class than middle class. The next poshest, Kate Middleton, is regarded as upper middle class, as are Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband. In one focus group Mr Miliband was called an Etonian, along with the Prime Minister. The most middle-class person on the list was Sir Trevor McDonald, the former newsreader.

The middle class, as defined by people's self-image, is much larger than that generated by the commonly used designations: the ABC1 social groups, categorised by occupation, are a little over half of the population, with skilled manual workers, shop workers and unemployed people (C2DE) described as working class.

The 71 per cent figure for the self-defined middle class is the highest recorded in an opinion survey, and includes 7 per cent who describe themselves as "upper middle" class, 43 per cent "middle" and 21 per cent "lower middle". Only 24 per cent of the sample described themselves as working class; 4 per cent were "not sure", and no respondents described themselves as "upper" class. In the 1980s, by contrast, 27 per cent described themselves as middle or upper middle class in annual British Social Attitudes surveys.

This shift is reflected in focus groups, according to Ms Mattinson. C1/C2 swing voters in the 1980s would "shrink from placing themselves" in the middle class; they tended to say that they wanted to "better themselves". Now, she says, many of them have done precisely that and are happy to describe themselves as middle class.

BritainThinks commissioned Populus Data Services to survey 2,003 British adults online, 11-14 December 2010. The six middle-class segments were identified using multivariate analysis, and six focus groups recruited to be representative of each group.

For more about BritainThinks,

Squeezed Strugglers

Michael Haydon, 22, organises events at Gatecrasher club nights in Birmingham and Nottingham. He's a season ticket holder for Aston Villa, and his first loves are urban UK music like drum and bass and dub step, Innocent Smoothies, German beer and the ubiquitous PlayStation. Michael lives with his parents in their three-bedroom terraced house in Birmingham. He has not been able to match the deposit asked for buying a property.

"I'm living with my parents, but I'm saving up a deposit to buy. But they are asking from 30 per cent and I'm paying rent to my parents, saving and living, so I can't see myself moving out in the next few years. Not until the banks start lending. Property prices are not the problem – five years ago the prices were so high that people could not afford a mortgage – but now it's the deposit.

"The recession is not really affecting us at the moment. But my parents are going to be retiring soon, so I am worried about them and their savings. I'm annoyed that whenever the Conservatives are challenged on the cuts they blame it on the legacy of Labour. The debt we are in is because of a banking crisis. It seems insane to get rid of child tax credit, and then place a minor levy on the bankers. The middle classes aren't poor enough that they have to worry every day about where money is coming from, but they still have to work hard to live comfortably. They can afford the distractions from the day to day. They can afford the season ticket, go to the cinema and go for a meal every now and then.

"I've got a season ticket for Aston Villa. I go every week when I'm not working. I'm terrible at football but I play basketball every now and again.

"I like music: drum and bass and dub step and urban UK music. I'm interested in politics, watch a lot of films, and read a lot of books. I like acting. I used to go to a theatre company and I am on the board of a registered children's charity. I help out with that. But I hate crap reality TV like I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. It's false advertising, because they are not celebrities any more. It's just desperate. I don't feel angry. I just feel sorry for them because it's pathetic. I hate the tabloids and the magazine stories about Jordan.

"I love travelling and I'd love to go to South America again. If I can't buy property in this country I am going to see if I can buy one in Brazil.

"The iPhone represents the middle class. It's excessively unnecessary, but really fun to use. But no one needs to go on to on their phone and request a film. You need it for maps, but you are never going to be lost or need to play Angry Birds. You don't need it, but it's good fun and you can afford it."

Bargain Hunters

Theresa Farmer, 45, is a mother from Leeds. She and her husband own a contract cleaning company that employs four full-time staff. They live in social housing in Moortown with their three daughters.

"I left school at 16 and went straight into work on a youth training scheme for a paltry £25 per week.

"Even in a time of recession, our business is doing fairly well. I am able to put food on my family's table without too much trouble. I am also helped enormously by working tax credits and child benefit.

"The Government needs to do more to help small businesses. Petrol prices continue to escalate and we have to turn work down from further afield because we cannot afford to get there.

"I tend to shop at Aldi and Sainsbury's. Iceland is also good.

"We are quite happy in social housing. There are some lovely townhouses being built under joint private-public enterprises that we have our eyes on.

"I regularly order from the Littlewoods catalogue. I have an account with them and they tend to offer excellent bargains. I am not loyal to any particular brand, but my husband tends to be loyal to Bench, Fred Perry and Penguin. The children are more into Nike and Adidas. One of the beauties of catalogue shopping is that you can pay for goods in regular instalments.

"My initial instinct was not to vote, but my husband advised that it is the only way I can get my views across. My children have lots of Asian friends and we're really fond of our curry house and Chinese takeaway, but I do sometimes feel like immigration needs some sort of cap. I often encounter huge queues of immigrants at the hospitals and that can sometimes be upsetting.

"We don't need a lot to be happy. We have a lot of friends and neighbours that we spend time with locally. During weekends we tend to get the family together, and on Saturday evenings we watch an array of programmes including Take Me Out and Ant and Dec.

"Soaps tend to be my form of escapism. I watch EastEnders, Emmerdale and Coronation Street. My husband keeps me up to date with news via his computer, while my favourite newspapers are the Express and the Mail.

"My children go to a local comprehensive. The only tricky expenses have been school trips, but we're keen for our children to explore new horizons. Donations from my parents have helped us to send them to Belgium and Barcelona."

Daily Mail Disciplinarians

Warren Gilmore, 66, is a semi-retired insurance broker, who lives in a flat in Leeds with his wife. He planned for a secure retirement, but his pension investments have not paid off as he would have hoped. He reads the Daily Mail and he aligns himself with many of the paper's views.

"I'm disturbed by unchecked immigration. That doesn't mean to say I am anti-immigration. We should certainly allow people in if they have something to offer the country, or if they are being persecuted. But not to come here purely because our benefits system is one of the best in Europe. I am strongly in favour of Europe as a trading bloc, but not as a political entity.

"I have concerns about people who choose to be long-term unemployed. I'd like to see the benefits increased for people who need them, but a little more selectively. There is an underclass of people whose whole outlook on life is what they can have for nothing, which is not to confuse them with the genuinely unemployed.

"Am I secure about my financial future? The answer is no because of the poor state of pensions. Because of the timing, my investments dropped considerably. Life for the middle classes is difficult because there are not enough jobs to go around. It is difficult to get an adequate return on savings, and we are going to have to work longer. And I worry about unemployment, more for my family than myself.

"I am not really certain there is an object which defines the middle class, but I would say owning your own home.

"My favourite food is lamb henry, braised in an oven, or roast chicken. Traditional English food, with potatoes, sprouts, broccoli and carrots. I principally shop at Sainsbury's. That's middle class, isn't it? Usually we buy Sainsbury's own-brand food.

"I watch TV and like wildlife, travel and historical documentaries. I watch Newsnight and Dispatches because they are informative. But I like programmes about animals and Monkey Life is interesting to watch.

"I've got two daughters and neither went to private school. At that point the ordinary school was very acceptable. But of my two grandchildren, one goes to a private school.

"I admire Joanna Lumley and David Beckham because they contribute to public life. Beckham made a big contribution to the World Cup bid and I admire Joanna for her stance on the Gurkhas."

Comfortable Greens

Julian Wates, 72, is a retired computer manager from Luton. He lives with his Ghanaian wife in a house that they have owned for 30 years. He worked as a teacher in a technical college, and went on to become a Liberal Democrat councillor for Stopsley, and later the mayor of Luton. Now retired, he has six grandchildren.

"Both my parents were teachers. When I started as a science teacher in a technical college in 1964, teaching was an attractive job. I was offered a salary, a pension and the security and assurance of a job for life.

"I am living comfortably and within my means. We regularly check our bank statements, and rarely make big purchases. We have never had much of a problem with money. Even as recently as two years ago, we used to be quite impulsive with our spending. Now that has changed. I have to be careful as I don't have much capacity to increase income, and am still reliant on my state pension.

"I wouldn't describe myself as middle class, more classless. I don't like the class side at all. My grandmother was Irish, and that heritage means that I don't view class structures as rigorously as in the UK. Having a wife from a different country means our friends come from all walks of life and different cultures.

"We brought our children up to be self-reliant and independent. Both have grown up to become adventurous with their choices. They have changed jobs a lot more frequently, but many of the principles that I instilled them with as children still hold. My son is a chartered accountant. He initially worked with Arthur Andersen, but didn't like their attitude, so he moved the finance department of Woolworths. He is now deputy chief executive of the Co-operative Group. My daughter used to work for Northern Foods but left to have two children.

"On television I love history programmes and documentaries. I recently watched a compelling documentary of Ireland presented by Fergal Keane. Classic FM is on regularly in our house, while I have quite a penchant for African music. Public figures I admired include Winston Churchill and Paddy Ashdown.

"I tend to buy ethical brands. Retailers like the Co-op and products that are endorsed by the Fairtrade foundation are favourites. I have a strong dislike towards brands, such as Tesco, that tend to be monopolistic and dominate the market at the expense of smaller players.

"The world my grandchildren are growing up in seems more affluent. But it also feels more unstable. The first 10 years of the 21st century have seen a cataclysmic series of terrorist attacks and natural disasters. But I have seen Europe transform after the Second World War. The early spreading of democracy across the Middle East has been extremely good to see. My biggest surprise is that it has taken this long to happen."

Deserving Downtimers

Allison Humble, 63, lives with her partner in a four-bedroom detached house, which they own, in Birmingham. Though she has retired, she remains busy with her grandchildren, children and her mother, for whom she provides lots of care. Now retired, she has three daughters aged 40, 37 and 31, one whom was recently made redundant. She went boarding school in Rhodesia and moved to the UK in 1965, when she was 17. With hindsight she would like to have sent one of her daughters, who narrowly missed out on a Cambridge place, to a private school.

"The recession has not affected us so much, although it has affected our children. I feel quite comfortable. But savings aren't making much money, and I'm concerned about the way pensions are going.

"I don't think being middle class is about possessions. You can be middle class without being wealthy. It is a state of mind. You can be intellectually middle class. It's also about living in a nice house in a nice area, being near good schools. My kids went to normal schools, but they were good ones because of the area.

"My favourite TV and radio are Faulks on Fiction, Law and Order UK, Waking the Dead and BBC Radio 2 and 4. I can't bear the way popular themes like celebrity and dancing are done to death on TV.

"I certainly think Kate Middleton is middle class. Colin Firth appears to be middle class. Whereas some celebrities have the money, they certainly don't have the class.

"Poetry and reading are my greatest loves. I run a poetry group. My favourite poem is 'The Road Not Taken'. I love flower gardening and am in two clubs. I like eating out and cooking, and my best night out is Italian pasta.

"I'm irritated by the ridiculously low threshold for inheritance tax, and taxation on fuel. But the Tories are doing the right thing. It's quite drastic and I don't go along with everything, but they mean business, which is what I like to see. I buy the Telegraph. It's a Conservative paper but they are fair and even-handed.

"I can afford a few weekend trips, and am planning holidays to Malta and the US. Mostly I shop at Sainsbury's, Tesco, occasionally Waitrose, M&S and the Co-op. The first thing in the shopping trolley is Douwe Egberts coffee, meal deals and own-brand basics. I look out for bargains."

Urban Networkers

Nawal Houghton is a 33-year-old lawyer from St Albans. Her husband is a UK general manager of a distribution company. She owns her own house and is expecting her second child next month.

"My career is very important to me simply because of how hard I have had to study to get here. I studied law at the University of Kent and then completed my practice course at the College of Law, London, before joining a shipping firm in the City. I am currently a visiting lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire for undergraduates and legal practice course students.

"Trying to find a successful work-life balance is particularly difficult. At the moment I am pregnant, and a few of my friends seem surprised that I'm working this close to my due date. But it's a way to secure my future and ensure that I am able to return back to work after I have had my next child.

"One of the brands I feel closest to is Apple. Having a resource that can house internet, email and phone all in one is really important. I am currently reading Stephen Fry's memoirs on my Kindle, simultaneously alongside another book in French. But it is not all work. I will read Grazia and Marie Claire to get my brain out of work mode and into trashy easy-read mode.

"In free time I enjoy meeting up with friends, spending time with family and going to dinner and the cinema – though often do not have enough time. In the winter we go skiing and the summer will be spent somewhere hot either in Florida or Greece.

"I feel my children are going to struggle more than we did and will perhaps find themselves under more strain financially.

"Times are tough, but I do believe that we're in a better place than where we were two years ago. Under New Labour, particularly Gordon Brown, we were hidden from the true reality of how things were. And if that had continued, the situation would only have got worse.

"That said, I think the Government is cutting too much too fast. It is quite strange that we've got to a stage where the core tenets of society such as children's centres and libraries are beginning to shrink."

Interviews by Kunal Dutta and Andrew McCorkell

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