The British obsession with class appears to be changing. A majority of the public now says that a person’s salary is the key sign of their social class. The younger the voter, the more emphasis they put on economic, rather than cultural, factors in whether someone can be described as working class, middle class, or upper class.
In exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies* 54 per cent of people said that economic factors determined class, compared with 46 per cent who said cultural factors.
The three largest determinants for one’s class, according to British voters, are one’s salary (56 per cent), family background (50 per cent) and education (41 per cent). These are followed by inherited wealth (37 per cent), occupation (35 per cent), housing situation (25 per cent), taste and lifestyle (16 per cent), where you’re from (15 per cent), hobbies and interests (7 per cent), and accent and word choices (6 per cent).
The most significant split is by age. Among 18 to 34-year-olds 65 per cent said salary was the most important factor, compared with just 46 per cent of 55-plus respondents, who instead chose family background as the top determinant, at 58 per cent.
This could be read two ways: that our view of class changes as we age, or that British attitudes towards class are changing with new generations. The latter is the most likely trend, according to research by academic experts. Jonathan Mijs, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, has found that younger generations have a stronger belief in meritocracy, and therefore in the power to change one’s material circumstances.
Chris Rojek, professor of sociology at City University, London, and a specialist in the study of celebrity, told the New Statesman that "class hierarchy is perceived by young people in the present tense”. Younger people, he found, “appear to identify membership of the upper class with power and social impact” rather than "accent, schooling, parental occupation or ancestry".
This apparently rising emphasis on an “economic” view of class is a drastic departure from traditional British neuroses and judgements of social status. These results are a long way from the “U and non-U” (upper class and middle class) vocabulary distinctions popularised by Nancy Mitford in the Fifties. Saying “loo” instead of “toilet”, “sitting room” over “lounge” and “looking-glass” rather than “mirror” were considered sure-fire giveaways of a member of the English aristocracy.
This idea of language and other cultural and social tells being the true signals of class in Britain stuck for over half a century, captured in Oxford University anthropologist Kate Fox’s bestselling 2004 book, updated in 2014, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. “Class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation,” she wrote. “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.”
Accent and word choice, however, were only chosen as a class signifier by 6 per cent of those surveyed – barely fluctuating between age groups. “If this reflects a genuine shift, I find it quite encouraging, in the sense that the system as it was just made things that much more difficult,” says Fox.
“In a sense, it added social insult to economic injury, in that if you were working-class, wealth acquisition would only move you up the economic ladder; to change your perceived social class, you’d have to acquire a load of social and cultural capital as well. Although we rather prided ourselves, hypocritically, on the fact that we didn't judge a person’s social class by anything so ‘vulgar’ as wealth in this country, that actually meant there were three ladders to climb instead of just one.”
If this attitude is truly changing, Fox believes the shift is towards “what you might call a more American view of class, as being essentially indistinguishable from money, wealth, income, occupation, that sort of thing” – something that “might be a good sign”, she says. “It might mean that the younger generations will focus more on demanding a reduction of wealth inequality rather than worrying about their social or cultural capital.”
As part of the New Statesman’s ongoing investigation into modern British attitudes towards class, income, wealth and inequality, we have previously discovered starkly different stances on what class means between age groups. Millennials and Generation Z are more likely to link class to income than Generation X, baby boomers and beyond.
British celebrity perceptions illustrate the trend away from cultural class factors to economic ones. For example, the footballer Marcus Rashford – who has been open about the poverty of his youth – is seen as upper class by 56 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds but just 10.3 per cent of those aged 55-64. The businessman Alan Sugar, a well-known “self-made man”, is seen as upper class by 63 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24 and just 29 per cent of 55 to 64-year-olds.
This age discrepancy extends to perceptions of people’s jobs. In previous surveys we have identified a so-called Footballer Gap: 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. There is a Sparky Gap too: 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.
This economic versus cultural split isn't just seen along age lines. Our research shows parents of young children are also far more likely to view economic factors as driving class (64 per cent) than non-parents (48 per cent), and are similarly less likely to view cultural factors as determining class. This could suggest that proximity to young people, or the economic pressures associated with parenthood, may affect people's understanding of class.
There is also a large split by region, with Londoners having differing views to those in Scotland. In the capital 63 per cent of people say economic factors are the main determinant of class, compared with just 42 per cent of Scots. Again, the financial strain of life in the capital may be an influence here.
Perhaps the economic reality of modern-day Britain is holding a mirror – sorry, a looking-glass – up to our perceptions of status, and we are beginning to question those norms.
*A weighted sample of 2,000 eligible voters in Great Britain were surveyed on 15 June 2022.