Britain’s middle-class meritocracy

Peter KellnerPresident
June 24, 2013, 8:23 AM GMT+0

We all know that ours is becoming a more unequal society; but what role does social class play in determining today’s winners and losers?

I have both good and bad news for those who yearn for a classless society. The good news, according to YouGov’s latest survey for Prospect, is that most of us think that hard work and talent matter more than going to the right school or having rich parents. The bad news is that we regard today’s Britain as essentially a meritocracy for the middle classes, not yet a meritocracy for all.

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Social class is a tricky subject, not least because we don’t all agree on what the labels “middle class” and “working class” mean. The conventional measurements – as recorded by the white-collar “ABC1” (middle class) and blue-collar “C2DE” (working class) headings in pollsters’ tables – relate to the type of job done by the head of each household. If the main breadwinner works in an office or has a professional qualification or is a senior or middle manager, then s/he is deemed middle-class. Families whose breadwinner has a manual job or relies on state benefits are deemed working class.

These were pretty clear-cut classifications half a century ago, when two-thirds of jobs involved manual labour, typically in factories, mines, shipyards or on the land. These divisions are less relevant in today’s vastly different landscape, where white collars are often frayed and many blue collars have designer labels.

Formally, the ABC1 middle classes now outnumber the C2DE working classes by four to three. However, when we asked people to say which class they belonged to, we found a huge mismatch between people’s “objective” social class and how they defined themselves. Overall, people divide themselves evenly between working class and middle class. But fully one-third of ABC1 respondents say that they are working-class – and one-third of C2DE respondents insist they are middle class.

We also asked people which social class their parents belonged to. These figures confirm that the shift from a working-class to middle-class majority is not just the product of the traditional system of social classification; many people feel that that it reflects what has happened to their own family. Altogether, 15% of the public – equivalent to seven million adults – say they are middle-class themselves but have working class parents.

However, we should not overstate the degree of mobility. Seven out of ten people – more than 30 million – reckon they belong to the same social class as their parents (19 million working class, 13 million middle class). And only 2%, or around one million adults, say they were born into middle class families but are now, themselves, members of the working class. These figures confirm that social mobility depends on congenial jobs becoming more numerous – not on the children of better-placed parents suffering the pains of outright relegation from the ranks of the middle classes if they are not up to the mark.

This helps to explain why most people still think social class influences life chances. 56% say that it affects a teenager’s prospects of doing well in adult life “a great deal” or a fair amount”. Our perception is that it used to matter even more: 85% say that teenagers fifty years ago needed the turbo-boost of better-placed parents to do well in life. But we are far from becoming a society in which people think success is purely a matter of merit, and nothing to do with the kind of family into which we were born.

This might not matter too much if we thought that the progress towards a fully meritocratic society would continue, with steadily increasing opportunities for people to enjoy the benefits of a middle-class life. In fact, we tend to think the opposite. Just 25% think that today’s teenagers will find it easier than their parents to be middle class. Many more, 40%, think they will find it harder. And by a margin of more than two-to-one, we fear that today’s teenagers overall will be worse off than their parents rather than better off.

The gloomiest of all are those with no direct experience of working class life. Among the (subjectively) middle-class children of middle-class parents, pessimists outnumber optimists by more than three-to-one. Our age of austerity may be causing some retreat not only in living standards, but also in our journey towards a society in which the benefits of being middle class are open to all.

This article appears in the July edition of Prospect

See the full social mobility results

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