Research suggests that most British people will call themselves middle class by 2020. But many will find it increasingly hard to achieve the lifestyle that is supposed to go with itby Gavin Kelly / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
The squeezed Middleton: where does Kate fit in?
It is one of the most famous sketches in comedy: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, lined up in descending height, dressed as the three tiers of the British class system: a pinstriped upper-class Cleese to the left; a middle-class Barker in suit and tie in the centre; and Corbett, meek and flat-capped, playing the role of the lower class, who sighs: “I know my place.”
Judging by the recent debate about the squeezed middle, things are no longer so clear cut. Labour has said it will work to relieve pressures on middle earners, but has struggled to pin a definition on the group. So what is middle income, and what is its relationship to class? And perhaps most important, who—if anyone—is being squeezed?
WHO EARNS WHAT?
The easiest answer to the first of these questions is also the most intuitive. A very large portion of Britain’s working-age population takes home incomes that mean they can be fairly described as “too rich and too poor.” Too affluent to rely heavily on state support, nor do they earn enough to thrive in the modern market economy. Most are in work, but on modest pay, bound together by a common set of pressures.
The media—as John Humphrys showed in November when needling Ed Miliband on the Today programme—wants not just concepts, but numbers. This is where the muddle starts. At first it was claimed that the middle included all but the poorest and those on “six-figure salaries.” Then this was tightened to households with an income of £16,000 to £50,000.
But can even this narrower definition be squared with the oft-cited fact that average individual earnings in Britain are £26,000? Yes, just about. First, because when talking about living standards, we need to deal in households—not individuals—and in Britain the average income for working-age households is around £33,000. And second, because we need to take account of a key determinant of living standards: household size. A family trying to raise several children on an income of, say, £30,000, has a very different standard of living from a single person on the same income. Statisticians deem a couple with three children on a pre-tax income of £48,500 to be “equivalent” to a childless couple with an income of £30,300, who in turn are on a par with a single person living on £20,300—and all…