The chattering classes have come up with a list.
People in blightey now fit into new seven social classes, says the Great British Class Survey, the largest study of class in the UK. Going from the 6% elite at the top to the 15% “precariat”, the poor, precarious proletariat, at the bottom, it’s the “fuzzy” middle which the sociologists find exciting. In the blurred bandwidth between the traditional working class and traditional middle class stretch the emergent workers and the new affluent workers. These sections, the researchers say, appear to be the children of the traditional working class, which has been fragmented by de-industrialisation, immigration, mass unemployment, and the rearrangement of urban space.
Presented at a conference of the British Sociological Association on Wednesday, BBC Lab UK collaborated with Prof Mike Savage of the London School of Economics and Prof Fiona Devine at Manchester University to produce the survey. The study invited people to use its ‘class calculator’ on the BBC’s website. Aiming for a more nuanced picture of class in the 21st century, the findings claim to reflect modern occupations and lifestyles. Responses not only about income, house value, and savings, but also cultural and leisure activities and the occupations of friends signify a person’s economic, social and cultural capital scores to generate the survey’s own class system.
There can surely be no irony in that anybody reading this log is most likely a member of the liberal intelligentsia described by the nostaligist reactionary Auberon Waugh as the chattering classes. Often seen by conservatives as akin to prattling, chattering originally referred to idlers in the 1980s; they inhabited fast-gentrifying postcodes of London while furiously loathing Thatcher. In its American avatar, the term got allied to “the nattering nabobs of negativism” by William Safire, who did the language column of The New York Times. Safire— a speechwriter in the Nixon White House— also saw a continuing need “for a phrase that columnists, pundits, commentators and other harangutangs can use to flagellate themselves and one another.”
Does the burgeoning of the blogosphere and the teeming twittering perches, which democratise– at least in theory– admittance to the whole wired world appulse the chatterati? Is it safe to assume that the chatterers (don’t) care about being pigeon-holed somewhere along the posh scale? One of the questions asked of respondents to the survey is: “Do you socialise at home”? How does, one wonders, face-booking, emailing and texting now so easily availed— so much so that it is no longer aspirational— by the young precariat here, affect class positioning? Should it? Can it be just confined within the bounds of the nation? Is it because they live mainly online that the technical middle class with high economic capital but less cultural engagement— no opera or stately home visits for them— can be rendered by the survey as having relatively few social contacts?
Applying the principles of geo-demography, the Mosaic system, a commercial classification of the UK’s 1.7 million postcode areas (each of which holds about 15 households into 61 categories), susses out what you’ll buy, your inner fears, or for retail chains to tailor stock, or where to send junk mail. Mosaic’s developer Professor Richard Webber points to its multidimensional character. While many of its categories are concerned with job types (such as ‘Corporate Chieftains’), others focus on age, family structure, ethnicity (‘South Asian Industry’). While ‘Alpha Territories’ are cash-rich and time-poor and live in the trendy areas of London, ‘Motorway Magnets’ are in mid-level technical jobs, tend to read the Daily Mail and live near motorway junctions.
ACORN, yet another classification system, divides the population into five distinct groups. ‘Hard Pressed’, for, example, carries the following description: “Represent 22 per cent of the population. Live in overcrowded— typically high-rise or purpose-built— flats and property rented from local council or housing association. Travel to work by bus, Tube or on foot and often need a loan to tide them through. Tight budget encourages catalogue shopping to spread payments over time. Recreation: angling or gambling on horses or at the bingo hall. Preponderance of single-parent families”.
Some hold that people are not bound by class any more, that such stratification is not at all useful, and may just be a dream for sociologists as they strain to find the seven categories. All these maps— statistical, empirical constructs— of the country’s social divisions nevertheless pose challenges— for political parties on ways to localise their national campaigns. Benjamin Disraeli in his 1845 novel Sybil warned that Britain was becoming ‘two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets… the rich and the poor.’ The prediction resonated in Ed Miliband’s 2012 conference speech as he spoke of Labour’s task to create in Britain one nation. Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 published in the same year as the Tory prime minister’s Sybilwas also concerned, albeit differently, with the poor, precarious proletariat.
Global precariats, the new dangerous class, already have a 2011 book on them . Precariati only just entered the vernacular.