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
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 of these households are thought to be in the middle of the income distribution. So a definition of the middle that includes families with children on the cusp of the higher rate of tax could be reasonable.
Britons are increasingly describing themselves as middle class
WHO IS MIDDLE CLASS?
What of the thornier question of class? In today’s Britain, more people still identify themselves as working class than middle class (see graph, opposite), though this is shifting over time. Research by the Future Foundation suggests the majority of the population will call itself middle class by 2020, as is already the case in the southeast and among younger people. But there is a grain of truth to the claim, made by various Labour politicians over the years, that we are all middle class now. What were once deemed to be quintessentially middle-class aspirations have now spread across society: 85 per cent of Britons want to own their own home, and a majority of young people from even our most deprived communities aspire to go to university (though most won’t get there).
So does middle income in today’s Britain imply middle-class? Not for many. The word “squeezed” resonates precisely because of the growing chasm between the reality of life on a middle income, and popular notions of what a middle-class lifestyle should involve. Given the relatively low level of average incomes in Britain, it is perhaps unsurprising that those on middle incomes think of themselves as coming from a wide spread of social classes (around four in ten of those on middle incomes think of themselves as working class).
But the link between income and class has also been confounded for more complex reasons. First, social mobility blurs boundaries as many people carry their class as a memento of their origins, often with little connection to their ultimate social destination. For that reason, a large number of people who describe themselves as working class are on above-average incomes, just as there are many members of the middle class getting by on a modest income.
Second, the very notion of the “middle class” is of course highly contested. Job status, family background, education and income combine in complex ways to forge class identity. For instance, a third of working-class people do a professional or technical job, traditionally middle-class occupations. In this respect, the social categories often used to underpin definitions of class have become increasingly out of kilter with the complex reality of 21st-century society. And while those who think of themselves as middle class typically earn more than the working class, income tends to play a smaller role than family background in forging class identity, and class inequalities in wealth are far greater than those in earnings.
Third, notions of what it is to be middle class have become so stretched they retain little shape. The usefulness of any social category capacious enough to encompass Kate Middleton and John Prescott is bound to be questioned. Part of the reason for this bagginess is that the category once called “upper class,” which helped to give the middle-class definition, appears to be near extinct. Research suggests a mere 1 per cent of the population thinks of itself as upper class, and they are a rather eccentric bunch, many of whom report to live off modest incomes.
Meanwhile, the top earners, whose incomes have raced away from the average in the past few decades, think of themselves as middle class. What’s more, this group has been formidably successful in ensuring the media frame its own preoccupations—from rising private school fees to extravagant homes and holidays—as being the shared concerns of “middle Britain,” further fuelling the sense for many families that the good life is out of reach.
WHO IS SQUEEZED?
So are those in the “real” middle being squeezed? Yes, but not only for the reasons most people think. At present the debate is focused on the impact of cuts. Although a large slice of the cuts will hit families on low-to-middle incomes—particularly those to tax credits—the real causes run deeper. Look back to the latter part of the boom years between 2003 and 2008 and wage growth was already stagnating: the challenge to living standards predates the recession, it’s just that for years the pressures were cloaked by rising tax credits and a flow of easy credit. Now that both those tides are receding, the pressures on living standards are being exposed: flat wages and higher inflation alone will mean that the average low-to-middle income household will be £720 worse off in 2012 than in 2009, in real terms. And the impact on living standards will be uneven—for instance, hitting working families with young children harder than baby boomers.
For politicians trying to understand the challenge facing the middle, this all amounts to a complicated picture. But considering class alongside income also helps to sharpen that challenge. Although in the short term the “squeeze” is felt as a daily battle with living costs, the much bigger question is how that struggle plays out over the life course. People don’t aspire to pay bills; they aspire to own a home, have good holidays and retire in comfort. These are supposed to be the bare essentials of middle-class life. Yet it would now take a household on an average income a staggering 40 years to save for the deposit required for a typical first home. That widening aspiration gap may capture better than anything else the squeeze that faces the next generation of true middle-income Britain.
This article draws on research undertaken by the Resolution Foundation, available here