What does it mean to be working class in Britain today? A concept as ingrained as it is slippery among the British, class can be judged as much on what you call dinner (tea, or supper?) as your salary and educational background.
As part of the New Statesman’s exclusive polling project on attitudes towards class in the UK today we discovered that the British public believes social class is based chiefly on earnings. When asked what most indicates someone’s class, the top answer among a weighted sample of adult Britons was income level (chosen by a third of respondents), followed by 23 per cent who chose inherited wealth, 13 per cent education, and 12 per cent profession (19 per cent didn’t know).
In a follow-up poll, carried out exclusively for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies*, 47 per cent of the British public said that an individual’s class was inherited from their parents, and 41 per cent said it was not.
Of course, the idea that money equals class is a controversial one, in England in particular. Known worldwide for its mysterious social codes, England is a country where Kate Middleton was deemed “nouveau riche” because she had her school PE kit nametags sewn in (instead of hastily written in felt-tip pen as, of course, is the true posh way), and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s contrasting mug collections were said to reveal their Old Etonian/scholarship boy credentials (a random assortment including a cheap Cadbury Mini Egg one versus matching Emma Bridgewaters).
“Class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation,” writes the Oxford University anthropologist and author Kate Fox in her bestselling 2004 book Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour.
“A person with an upper-class accent, using upper-class terminology, will be recognised as upper class even if he or she is earning poverty-line wages, doing grubby menial work and living in a run-down council flat… Equally, a person with working-class pronunciation, who calls his sofa a ‘settee’, and his midday meal ‘dinner’, will be identified as working class even if he is a multi-millionaire living in a grand country house.”
Nearly two decades on, some of this holds true in our polling. When asked if someone who has a low-paying job can be upper class, more people responded yes (41 per cent) than no (36 per cent), while 23 per cent didn’t know. When asked if someone with a high-paying job can be working class, 60 per cent said yes, while 21 per cent said no.
This appears to be changing, however. Younger people link the idea of being upper class more to being rich or demonstrations of wealth than their older counterparts. Generation Z and millennials are more likely to see income as indicative of class than Generation X, baby boomers and beyond. For example, footballers are viewed as “upper class” by 57 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, compared with just 6 per cent of those aged 65 and over. (Alternatively, this could mean our perception of class simply changes with age.)
Many of Britain’s wealthiest people and homeowners still consider themselves working class. More than one in five of those earning between £75,000 and £100,000 identify as working class.
For context, a salary of £75,000 would have put you in the top 6 per cent of taxpayers in 2019-20, according to HMRC figures published last month.
As Fox does in Watching the English, these results suggest the public does not link class neatly to income.
They could also indicate that people are not particularly aware of how much the average person earns. In our previous poll in this project we discovered that while the top guess for the average salary -- chosen by a third of respondents -- was not far off (they chose £20,001-£30,000, when it's actually £31,285), still 8 per cent thought it was £40,001-£50,000, 2 per cent £50,001-£60,000 and 1 per cent £60,001-£70,000.
Our latest results also show that half of those who own their house outright consider themselves working class, as do 48 per cent of those with a mortgage. This is partly a legacy of Right to Buy, the Thatcher-era policy that allowed people living in social housing to purchase their homes at below market rates. Outright owners are pretty evenly spread across the income scale, and the average person (plus partner) who owns a house outright earns £29,168 a year (the greater proportion of pensioners in this category drags the average down).
Yet 8.3 million people in England own their homes outright, and only two million homes have been sold through Right to Buy since the scheme began (not all of which will be owned outright). So the majority of outright homeowners will have earned or inherited that money and won't have got a discount -- indeed, outright homeowners are far more likely than any other group to fit the “comfortable communities” and “affluent achievers” demographic categories.
These results, then, suggest that class is not linked to one's housing situation in the minds of Britons despite inheritance (which half the British public sees as key to class) playing a greater role than ever before in the ability of millennials to own property.
Again, these results could also indicate a misconception among the public about the average level of household income. Recent figures on earnings show that people who own houses are more likely to have higher incomes.
The median average income for someone (and their partner) who socially rents in England was £16,195 in 2019-20, rising to £29,133 for those who rent privately. For those still paying off their mortgage, the figure was £50,827 a year. And yet nearly half of those who own their homes with a mortgage still consider themselves working class.
If your level of income or housing circumstances indicate your social class, this polling suggests the British public vastly over-estimates how working-class it is. But, as our class attitudes project is revealing with each new set of results, class is still about so much more than money in Britain today.
*Polling conducted on 2 March 2022 of a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain.