Recently I visited some friends of my boyfriend’s parents in Wiltshire, who had a lovely country cottage with a garden and a huge fireplace. Normally I’d waste my time feeling envious of their home, but instead I, more productively, started perving on their vintage red fridge. I did a Google search and discovered that a model like the one I saw costs around £1,600 at John Lewis. There’s no imaginable scenario where I, on a journalist’s income, would be able to buy a country home unless I inherited wealth from some unknown source, which is unlikely. However, I can dream about an extraordinary string of events where I could one day own that fridge.
What this illustrates is that growing up today and identifying as middle class is a giant exercise in downsizing your dreams. According to New Statesman research published earlier this year, Brits are redefining what it means to be middle class with younger cohorts more likely to say that class is linked to income. What this ignores is the huge variable of inherited wealth. A person with a graduate degree earning 40k a year and renting with £35k in student loans is far worse off than someone on 28k with no debt and a house their parents helped him buy. In 2021 average UK salary was £31,285, and the average two-bedroom rental flat in Tory-despising Islington, north London, was £1,844 per month. Buying a two-bedroom flat in Islington averages around £760,000 for which the deposit is more than two years’ average salary. If a fictitious average earner needed childcare, that would knock them back another £800 a month. Let’s not even get started with heating.
Detractors will argue that Islington is not “middle class”. It’s either upper or lower, but the middle has been squeezed out – which is exactly the point. Middle class no longer means using only your income to buy a home or pay for childcare. Most of those things depend on some source of inherited wealth either in the form of a house deposit or free childcare from grandparents.
Middle class means something different from what it meant to previous generations, and whatever that new definition is, it fits somewhere between affording a house cleaner for your shared rental property and questioning whether you want to turn the heater up or be able to afford a night out with friends. Middle class might still mean well-educated with bourgeois tastes, but no matter how well graduates can use analytical skills to agree on the major takeaways from this season of White Lotus, a lucrative paying job can require the help of parents bankrolling a year or two of unpaid internships. It’s not being poor enough to have your survival is in question, but you’re not thriving either.
In Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the French economist provides clues from the past of what future generations might look like if inherited wealth, rather than salary, leads to a guaranteed place in the middle class. Using Balzac’s Le Père Goriot from 1835 as an example, Picketty describes how a young, impoverished lawyer debates whether or not it is better to achieve wealth by pursuing his career or by murdering the older brother of a female aristocrat and then marrying her so he can inherit her wealth. No spoilers, but Picketty’s argument was that murder was an easier avenue to the middle class than going to university and then working for a living. Fortunately, I don’t think I’ll have to resort to homicide to one day buy that John Lewis fridge.