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25 January 2022

The British public is changing its concept of class

Gen Z and millennials are more likely to associate class with salary and income than the cultural perceptions of their older counterparts.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“England is the most class-ridden country under the sun,” George Orwell wrote in his 1941 essay “England Your England”. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.”

It appears, over eight decades later, that while this class obsession persists, younger generations tend to think differently to their older counterparts, silly or otherwise.

The Great British public’s concept of how one defines social classes is changing with age, according to an exclusive project by the New Statesman with polling by Redfield & Wilton Strategies investigating perceptions of salary, income and class.

[See also: Does your salary mean you’re rich? And what makes you upper, middle or working class? We ask the British public]

We have discovered that Gen Z and millennials are more likely to see income as indicative of class than Gen X, baby boomers and beyond – and are more likely to have a class-based view of the world in general.

For example, the younger you are, the more likely you are to define top footballers as “upper class” than those in older age brackets, simply because of their higher salaries.

Do old and young people feel differently about class?

On average, our respondents were most likely to say the greatest indicator of someone’s class in the UK is their level of income, at 33 per cent, while 23 per cent chose inherited wealth, 13 per cent education, and 12 per cent profession (19 per cent didn’t know).

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[See also: QUIZ: Which class are you, according to the Great British public?]

Yet the link between income and class appears to loosen with age: for younger and middle-aged people, class is more strongly linked to income than for older people.

These perceptions change in a linear fashion as you move up the age bands, suggesting either a gradually shifting perception of class in the UK, or that people’s ideas of class change as they move into different stages of life.

Data by Michael Goodier

This disparity means younger people tend to have a different view of which jobs count as “working”, “middle” or “upper class”.

Professional sportspeople are viewed as “upper class” by 57 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, placing footballers in that category, compared with just 6 per cent of those aged 65 and over.

On the other hand, electricians are viewed as “working class” by just 42 per cent of 18- to 24 year olds, but 68 per cent of those over the age of 65.

We also find that the younger you are, the more likely you are to consider going on at least one UK holiday a year a “middle-class” luxury (49 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 46 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds make this connection) – whereas older respondents tend towards saying this is not a class marker (as with 59 per cent of those 65 and over).

This is in keeping with the general trend discovered in our research that younger people are more likely to see different lifestyle habits and economic circumstances – like flying Easyjet, having savings, shopping at Waitrose and drinking at the local pub – as indicative of class than older people, who choose “not a class marker” far more often.

In most answers, younger people seem significantly more likely to bestow class connotations on to everyday life.

For example, flying with a budget airline like Easyjet or Ryanair is seen by 44 per cent of 65s and over as “not a class marker”, compared with just 13 per cent of 18- to 24 year olds – the majority of whom categorise it as “working class”, at 55 per cent.

Having a Netflix, Spotify or other entertainment subscription is seen by 69 per cent of 65s and over as “not a class marker”, compared with 34 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 33 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds (who mainly class this “middle class” and “working class”, respectively).

[See also: Does earning £80,000 make you rich?]

Both 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds are most likely of all age categories to characterise taking public transport as “working class”, at 56 per cent and 53 per cent, respectively, compared with 44 per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds and 45 per cent of those aged 65 and over.

Similarly, 18- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds are most likely of all age categories to characterise cycling as “working class”, at 41 per cent each, compared with 23 per cent of 35- to 44-year-olds, 29 per cent of 45- to 54-year-olds, 18 per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds and 12 per cent of those aged 65 or above.

[See also: Britain’s highest-earners are more likely to believe their salary is the result of “hard work”]

This chimes with the trend of younger people relating class to income. It seems that, to Gen Z and millennials, to be upper or middle class is to have money for more expensive lifestyle choices over other factors.

Perceptions of the average salary, however, are pretty similar across age brackets – for example, 35 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 33 per cent of 65 and older respondents said the median annual salary is in the £20,001-£30,000 range (the actual median annual full-time salary is £31,285).

Do men and women think differently about class?

A similar split on the income question can be seen between men and women responding to the survey.

However, men (28 per cent) are far more likely than women (18 per cent) to say that inherited wealth is the greatest indicator of class – perhaps suggesting they view class as something passed down rather than based solely on salary or wages.

Does where you live affect your opinion on income and class?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the higher wages and more expensive cost of living in the capital, Londoners think a “low income” salary begins at a higher point than respondents from other regions.

For example, a quarter of Londoners think it falls somewhere between the £30,001-£40,000 range, compared with just 5 per cent of those in the north-east (who are far more likely, at 68 per cent, to pitch it at “below £20,000”):

More than half of respondents in the north-east of England (51 per cent) think people in a low-paying job cannot be “upper class”, compared with just 32 per cent in London and 28 per cent in the West Midlands – suggesting class is linked less to income in the minds of voters in the latter two regions.

Perceptions of some occupations is also split down regional lines – for example, 52 per cent of people in the West Midlands view being a doctor as “upper class”, compared with just 18 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber.

Other regional variations have perhaps more obvious explanations. Londoners, for example, are far more likely – at 48 per cent – to categorise the lifestyle marker of owning more than one car as “upper class” than people in any other region. This is perhaps because rates of car ownership in London are far lower than in the rest of the country.

Do Labour voters have a different concept of class to Conservatives?

The results of our study show that Labour voters are more likely to find class significant.

For every occupation polled, Conservative voters are less likely than their Labour counterparts to view it as a class marker – suggesting those who vote Labour may be more sensitive to differences in social class.

The same difference can be seen when looking at different lifestyle markers, transportation habits and economic circumstances.

On every question, Labour voters are more likely to assign it a class (whether it is “upper class”, “middle class” or “working class”), and Conservative voters are more likely to say it isn’t a marker of class.

For example, when asked which class they associate politicians with, 29 per cent of Conservative voters say this isn’t a class marker, compared with just 15 per cent of Labour voters. Some 62 per cent of Labour voters say it is an “upper class” occupation, compared with 48 per cent of Tory ones.

Similarly, the lifestyle marker of buying furniture from a charity shop is deemed “working class” by 52 per cent of Labour voters, compared with 43 per cent of Conservative voters (who are most likely to say it isn’t a class marker, at 48 per cent).

At 49 per cent, Labour voters are most likely to see skiing holidays as an “upper class” pursuit, whereas Tory voters are most likely to see this as “middle class”, at 46 per cent. Some 27 per cent of Tories say it isn’t a class marker, compared with 18 per cent of Labour voters.

If men are more likely to believe class is inherited, Labour voters tend to read class into lifestyle habits, and younger generations associate class more with salary, what does this mean for our politics?

Is Britain’s common concept of class, if it ever had one, disintegrating? If so, what would this shift mean for policymakers pursuing future income and wealth taxes, and campaigns targeted at certain voter demographics?

Our research does not provide those answers, but gives the first indication since 2013’s Great British Class Survey of how fluid our perceptions of class and income have become in the UK today.

[See also: Who killed Silicon Valley bank?]

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