How posh is Posh Spice? The answer, the New Statesman can reveal, very much depends on your age. The older you are, the less likely you are to see Victoria Beckham as “upper class”.
In a new poll, conducted exclusively for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies*, we asked the British public to categorise 25 famous Britons as working, middle or upper class. In previous research, we had already built a picture of how the public defines those labels – while most say the key indicator of class is income level, there are cultural and social factors at play in people’s minds too.
This latest survey shows just 15 per cent of those aged 55-64 would describe Beckham as upper class, compared with 68 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Beckham isn’t the only celebrity whose class status is seen differently by the young and the old. The pop star Harry Styles is seen as upper class by 78 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds, falling to just 7 per cent of those aged 55-64.
Even celebrities well known for their working-class upbringing are seen chiefly as upper class by younger respondents. For example, the footballer Marcus Rashford is seen as upper class by 56 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds compared with 10.3 per cent of those aged 55-64. The businessman Alan Sugar is seen as upper class by 63 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 34 and just 29 per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds.
“It is interesting to see how someone like Marcus Rashford is viewed,” said John Street, professor of politics at the University of East Anglia, who has researched younger citizens’ attitudes to celebrity politics.
“You might have expected, given the way that he [Rashford] has linked his own experience to his campaigns for school dinners etc, that he would be viewed as working class, which he is by older voters, but not by younger ones.”
This is a pattern that fits with most of the celebrities on our list:
Britain’s perceptions of class are changing among millennials and Generation Z, who are more likely to link class to income than Generation X, baby boomers and beyond, we have discovered.
For example, in previous surveys we have identified a so-called Footballer Gap: the occupation of being a footballer is 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. Plus, a Sparky Gap: 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.
The age disparity may partly be due to shifting views of different occupations in the UK as the world of work changes. “What might be playing out in these results is a shifting sense of how entertainers are viewed in terms of status, with entertainment being granted a higher status among the young, and a lower status by older generations who related to more traditional role models,” Street said.
“Nobody seems to allow for the fact that class is about relations of production and employment, and that all celebrities might be seen as members of the self-employed or entrepreneurial classes.”
Our data on celebrities in particular “seems to reveal that there are competing accounts of what might define class, as between wealth and social/cultural factors, with the young more inclined to see class in terms of wealth, and older generations in terms of background”, said Street.
This shift could be down to the different ways that younger Brits perceive power and influence, suggested Chris Rojek, professor of sociology at City University, London, and a specialist in the study of celebrity.
“Younger people appear to identify membership of the upper class with power and social impact,” he said. “This reflects the social media which prioritises celebrity coverage by attention capital, rather than accent, schooling or parental occupation.”
The findings also suggest that “class hierarchy is perceived by young people in the present tense, ie, the media and social media time that people have now: the more media time, the higher the class position,” Rojek added.
“The historical relationship of class to ancestry may be waning. A ‘now perspective’, based in power, social impact and online recognisability, seems to be growing in importance.”
This trend has been a long time in the making, he observed. “For many years, it has been evident to me that for most of my students ‘social media’ is ‘society’, ie, a source of belonging, community, identity and aspiration.”
Yet a view of celebrities as upper class was still rare in our polling. In general, out of the 25 celebrities listed, just six were perceived by most respondents as being upper class. Those most likely to be seen as upper class were the politicians, with Boris Johnson identified as such by 71 per cent of people, Theresa May by 49 per cent and Keir Starmer by 44 per cent:
For some of the celebrities on our list, there is a tendency for every section of society to see them as “one of our own”. Respondents in our survey who identify as working class, for example, say Ed Sheeran is working class, middle class respondents say he’s middle class, and upper class respondents say he’s upper class. The same goes for Adele and Harry Styles.
These results go some way to explaining why certain famous people have such favourable public images: we tend to believe they are like us.
Other notable patterns include a London divergence: respondents living in the capital have a different view of boxer Tyson Fury and Marcus Rashford’s class than the rest of the country. Just 22 per cent of people in the capital view them as working class, with every other region polling between 38-65 per cent for Fury and 32-58 per cent for Rashford.
Labour voters were slightly more likely than Conservatives to think that most celebrities were upper class – the exceptions being Keir Starmer and Lenny Henry. The same is true vice versa, with Conservative voters more likely to view celebrities as working class than Labour voters.
Here are the overall results, including those who picked “don’t know”:
A majority or plurality of respondents believe the following individuals are upper class: Boris Johnson (71 per cent), Theresa May (49 per cent), Keir Starmer (44 per cent), Alan Sugar (44 per cent), Nigella Lawson (42 per cent) and Victoria Beckham (38 per cent).
Pluralities believe Trevor McDonald (45 per cent), Tom Daley (44 per cent), Andy Murray (44 per cent), Jamie Oliver (43 per cent), JK Rowling (42 per cent), Nicola Sturgeon (41 per cent), Holly Willoughby (40 per cent), Nigel Farage (39 per cent), Jeremy Corbyn (37 per cent), Ed Sheeran (35 per cent), Harry Styles (33 per cent) and Paul McCartney (32 per cent) are middle class.
When it comes to the working class, pluralities feel Katie Price (50 per cent), Tyson Fury (42 per cent), Marcus Rashford (40 per cent), Cheryl Cole (38 per cent; respondents were surveyed with this name rather than Tweedy) and Adele (32 per cent) are in this class.
*Polling conducted on 2 March 2022 of a weighted sample of 1,500 eligible voters in Great Britain.