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14 February 2023

Are you an unsettled withstander or a hopeful struggler? Meet Britain’s new cost-of-living classes

These are the new social groups of the inflation age.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Ben Walker

Squeezed but coping? Worried and suffering? Perhaps you’re a cautiously hopeful struggler or an unsettled withstander? These are some of the new demographic labels the polling company YouGov has come up with to help us figure out how the cost-of-living crisis is dividing modern Britain.

Five distinct groups – a new cost-of-living crisis class system – are now said to make up British society, having emerged since inflation started eating into people’s wages and putting prices and bills up. Here they are:

Worried and suffering

Around one in five Brits are at the “extreme end of the struggle and worry” of the cost-of-living crisis, YouGov says. Having cut down on their outgoings, they are still finding it hard to cover the essentials. They worry about the future, their financial position, work and housing.

They are more likely than the average to work part-time or be unemployed, and have a relatively low average income. A third have household yearly incomes between £20,000 and £39,000, and two in five have £20,000 or less. Around a quarter rent privately, one in ten from the council or a housing association, and just one in five own their home outright. About half own their home, either with a mortgage or outright.

Cautiously hopeful strugglers

Around one in seven Brits have had to cut down their spending and are “feeling the pinch”. This group has a more positive outlook on the UK economy and their own personal financial future. This group skews young; it encompasses more students than the others.

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Households in this group have similar incomes to the worried and suffering: about a third have an income of £20,000 or less, and another third between £20,000 and £39,000. Around six in ten own their own home, either with a mortgage or outright.

Squeezed but coping

About a quarter of Brits are in this category. They are feeling the effects of the rising cost of living but are managing – they are able to afford the essentials. They are more likely to be middle-aged and homeowners.

A third of this group have annual incomes between £20,000 and £39,000, another quarter have between £40,000 and £60,000, and a further quarter above £60,000. Around three-quarters either own their home with a mortgage or outright.

[See also: How universal public services can end the cost-of-living crisis]

Unsettled withstanders

About one in five of the British public are unsettled withstanders, who skew highly-educated, well-paid and have savings. This means they haven’t felt the impact financially yet but are worried about the coming months – and they are particularly concerned about the UK’s future prospects in general. They haven’t had to cut back much, and can pay their bills.

Unsettled withstanders have the highest income of all five groups: around one-third have £60,000-plus coming in each year, and another quarter between £40,000 and £60,000. A similar proportion to those squeezed but coping are homeowners.

Calm and comfortable

The group least impacted by the cost-of-living crisis account for about one in five of the British public. Optimistic that they will remain unaffected in the next few years, they don’t expect they’ll have to cut back on spending and are confident they’ll manage in future.

There is a disproportionate number of retirees in this group, many of whom own their homes outright. Their yearly incomes are similar to those of the squeezed but coping, but over half of the calm and comfortable own their house outright and around a further quarter own with a mortgage. That means eight in ten of them are homeowners.

The groups with the highest support for Labour are the worried and suffering and the unsettled withstanders – both at 58 per cent. But there is bad news for the Tories among the other groups too. Only 17 per cent of people who are squeezed but coping back them, and they don’t have majority backing even among the two groups where they attract more support than Labour: cautiously hopeful strugglers and the calm and comfortable. These groups back Labour by 30 per cent and 26 per cent respectively.

Conservative support has dropped among voters who fit the worried and suffering and squeezed but coping demographics at the 2019 general election by 25 and 22 percentage points respectively. Of all the groups, Brits are most likely to be squeezed but coping, so this could be particularly good news for Keir Starmer's party.

A majority of all the groups apart from the calm and comfortable want the government to help more with the cost of living, which will be a further concern for Rishi Sunak.

Yet something that should give Labour pause for thought is that despite the struggles expressed by this new cost-of-living class system, everyone other than the worried and suffering is satisfied with their lives. This outlook will be why, as one senior Labour adviser put it to the New Statesman, the party fears being seen as “miserabilist”.

[See also: Inflation may have fallen, but the cost-of-living crisis is far from over]

Which cost-of-living crisis class are you in? YouGov arrived at the categories by asking what they call the “golden questions” – on changes to household spending, affordability of bills and food, and the future of the UK economy.

The key determinants of who is in each group appear to be home ownership and savings pots, however. “When looking at the positions people from each group are in, the main factors that appear to come into play is how asset rich one is and the finances they can fall back on to help them through the crisis,” says a YouGov spokesperson. “Ultimately, there is no one key demographic that determines which group someone sits in, but their financial history (ie assets, employment), stability and cushion certainly correlates strongly.”

The new cost-of-living classes reveal how financial inequality in the UK runs along the lines of property ownership and wealth – the value of assets, savings and pensions – rather than income alone. They also emphasise how political divides are not clear-cut: the highest earners are keener on the Labour Party than, say, cautiously hopeful strugglers, 59 per cent of whom voted Tory in 2019.

Yet ultimately, the YouGov spokesperson says, “what this segmentation shows us is that the cost-of-living crisis is widespread and indiscriminate, but affects different people to very different degrees”.

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