Monday, March 17, 2008

A working class hero is something to be

Here is a little poll. I shall put it at the top of the post so that you can participate in this vital research even if you can't be bothered to read the entire post. Thanks to Domino for reminding me about Pollhost.

What class do you identify yourself as belonging to?
Criminal Underclass
Working Class
Petit Borgeois
Middle Class
Upper Middle Class
Free polls from

When I was a child, I asked my Mum what social class we belonged to. She considered this for a moment and stated, quite seriously,

"I'd say we're basically a lower middle class family, who have fallen on hard times."

I have always been interested in the different ways that people identify themselves and class is a particularly weird area. Whilst I imagine most of us are rather uncertain on the matter, some people remain passionate about it - often people who wish to place themselves in a category where they don't really belong.

My parents hadn't fallen on hard times; they'd always been more or less hard-up, but not for lack of trying. Since then, my Dad has acquired a degree and taken management-level jobs and they're now very comfortable (not so it's worth kidnapping me or anything, but they're thinking of buying a dishwasher). They don't seem particularly chuffed with their hard-won success because they're now surrounded by people who had an easier ride and are thus better off than they are. However, they always aspired to be middle-class, even when Dad was unemployed and Mum was working in the hospital canteen.

Bonjour Monsieur Courbet by Gustave CourbetThen you meet those folks for whom working-class is a romantic identity that they have latched onto regardless of their life experience. Sometimes it's a family thing, sometimes to do with a place. Most often, I imagine, it is to do with an ethic, a perception of working-class morality, all about honesty, hard graft and a lack of pretension. Also it's the only cool class to be in; you can't be a middle-class rockstar.

Anyway, the BBC are having a White Season of television programmes about working-class white people. This whole enterprise seems highly suspicious to me for various reasons but despite a widely publicised survey in which they found that working class white people felt that they had no voice, nowhere on the BBC website, including a news article which asks Who are the white working-class? does it suggest exactly how this group of people have been defined for the purposes of that survey or this season of programmes. Working class white people undoubtedly exist, but nobody (at the BBC at least) is sure who they are. Only that they're defined by race and racism, apparently.

Throughout my lifetime, the old-fashioned class divisions have been largely redundant. Previously, there were a group of people who did predominantly manual, often unskilled and insecure work who were low paid, and another group of people who tended to work in offices or in the "professions", tended to be better educated and were better paid. Thus the working and middle class. All this has been long since been muddled up - more in some places and with some people than with others - but we don't have a new language to described genuine inequalities that still exist. It is no good saying, "We're all middle-class now," when, for example, there is a ten year difference in life-expectancy between Kensington and Glasgow.

A very obvious example I witnessed was with higher education. When I was eighteen, most of those of my peers I was in contact with aspired to go to university. However, if and how this happened depended on class. I shall label the two sides of the divide X and Y.

The X group got better A-Level results, for a kick off. Very few of the X group knew what they wanted to do with their lives, but most of them went to university at eighteen. The few exceptions who took a year out spent that year having an adventure; teaching English as a foreign language or traveling about the world trying to stop world hunger, AIDS and various conflicts in the world (I'm not sure any of my friends were wholly successful at this). Few of them had jobs during term time at university, but they did work during the summer; mostly clerical or research jobs, often things that had been arranged by their parents or family friends. Some of them even had time for voluntary work of various kinds.

For the Y group, not having a game plan was a major problem; parents were reluctant to help put them through university if they did not know exactly what they were doing it for. Most of them took a year out of education at eighteen to raise money for their studies, almost exclusively working in shops, fast-food restaurants and factories. All of them had term-time jobs to support their studies.

Some of the Y group dropped out of university altogether. None of the X group did. None of the Y group went further than graduation; no masters, no doctorates, no PGCEs.

It can't be all to do with money and even it was, that doesn't make it fair; the Y group inherited their situation, didn't and won't have the money-making opportunities that the X group enjoyed and their kids are likely to be in the same situation.

What's more, money wouldn't explain why I wasn't friends with anyone my age who had no interest in university? I had significantly friends older than myself who didn't go to university, but New Labour were already in power and wanting half of all eighteen year olds to go to university eventually. I believe that at the time it was only about a third, perhaps half of my generation who even stayed on for A-Levels. Most of my cousins didn't and my parents hadn't. But my parents were extremely aspirational, as I've said.

Anyway, I don't actually have an profound conclusions on this matter. I basically think we should own up to the fact that class does exist, but we need to find new language to talk about a far more nuanced state of affairs.

The best quote I can think of about class was by Jeremy Hardy (from memory, could be wrong); "When I was born, my parents lived on a council estate. But as soon as they'd named me Jeremy, we were forced to move."


Mary said...

I think I'd be anything from underclass to middle-class depending on who was doing the considering and at exactly which point of my life of the last ten years they looked at.

I drink tea from a mug with milk and two sugars, I spent most of the last 3 years on benefit, I'm a divorcee, I have no criminal record, I want kids but not just yet, I have good literacy and reasonable manners but I use swear words sometimes, in appropriate company... any guesses?

D Phoenix said...

As with everything, a nuanced approach to identity politics is the most useful. Class does not equal income alone. Education, geography, job,family history and many other factors influence class status. My parents were both working class but they both worked hard to achieve middle class levels of income. But my dad remained the harder edged farm boy he always was while my mother cultivated a more refined style. My siblings and I went to University but now on disability pension, I live below the poverty line. It is certainly complex.

It seems like class stuff is even more complicated in England, as far as I can tell from over here!I don't know why the BBC header asks if white working class Britain is becoming invisible. It seems a bit inflammatory.

Oh, my name is Donimo and not Domino! :)

The Goldfish said...

Mary, I guess I tend to think about these things being more about where you came from. The kind of circumstances, opportunities and attitudes you grew up with.

For example, I don't think you've ever mentioned going to university; whilst plenty of working class people go to university, few middle class people, especially of our generation, did not.

Donimo - it is strange how circumstances change people - and the way that circumstances can dramatically alter a person's perspective. Being unable to work because of a medical condition really does change everything.

I haven't seen any of the programmes, but judging by the advertising, the whole concept of the White Season seems to be about stirring up a sense of resentment.

Apologies for getting the name wrong, I was obviously thinking of the Bond Girl. ;-) I shall correct it next time I publish.

Anonymous said...

I think class is a relative concept. When I was at school I was constantly labelled as "posh" because my Dad had a job and I wasn't entitled to free school meals. When I was at uni, I then suffered from being labelled "common" by the parents of my then boyfriend who thought a Brummie wasn't good enough for their son :( As an accountant I guess I'm now officially middle class, but I was brought up in a two bedroomed terrace and spent my summers visiting the Irish relatives of my immigrant mother, some of whom lived in cottages without sanitation....

I think these days even in Britain the class divides are much more blurred than they once were, and it is hopefully no longer so terribly important to which strata of society one belongs.

marmiteboy said...

The demographic would undoubtedly consinder me to be Middle-class. I'm a civil servant and a manager to boot. I own my own flat (although technically the bank own it for tne next 20 odd years) but here is the rub.

I have worked for 25 years and I can't afford to buy a property big enough to house me, Lily and Sybil. Does this make me 'working class'. I work after all.

I have no real truck with the class system. It has always been a way of 'the powers that be' to pigeon hole people and also a way of some to believe they were better than others by way of birth right. I have always failed to understand why someone should believe they are better than someone else because they went to a better school than me or had more money than me.I have therefore answered the above poll by associating myself with the proletariat.

Up the workers and down with the ruling classes ;-)

Mary said...

Where I came from... well, at first, my parents were probably lower-middle-class, both "educated", both working in financial services industry. I came along, my mum stayed home to look after the kiddies, my dad started his own business and was moderately successful for a time. Middle class.

Then when I was about 10 dad went bankrupt and my parents split up, and I became a kid from a benefits-dependent single-parent family living in a crumbly house in the dodgy end of town. Underclass but for the lack of a criminal record...

I'm Mary-class :) confusion reigns triumphant!

Anonymous said...

This is very entertaining and fascinating for an American to read.

Incidentally, in my family my sister, who is 10 years older than I, was mostly in the X group, but by the time I graduated high school I was firmly in the Y group. Yes, it was totally about money, which my father had once made enough of to pay for at least half my sister's education, but which was all gone by the time I came along to claim the same privilege.

Also incidentally, my parents liked to tell us that we were Americans and therefore had no class system. They had lots of pet ideas about America that it was pointless to argue with them; they were quite convinced. I honestly don't know the truth on this one. I think money has much to do with it here, but then we don't really think in terms of class as much as we have social circles built around things like financial status, race, and level of education or some combination of the three.

Anthony said...


I'm a younger American, and never really thought of class too much. My parents had split while I was younger, one had never gone for further education, while the other received a Masters in musical performance (or something similar, not sure what the exact was). But neither made much money; I lived with my mother who ended up entering into low level clerical work, and my father played the organ for a church with little money, earning only enough for many years for a small garage apartment. As my brothers and I grew up, we were told from the start to gain education we had to work ourselves through it. But we were always told that we were lower middle class (huh?).

There's so many things to take into consideration for class. For example, I work as a host and server for well below median wage, but I also live in Florida which is a higher class place to live (usually) but also in an semi-urban environment (larger city, but not New York or London size). I am hoping to enter higher education, but haven't yet.

With talk here of the middle class being squeezed out into mostly lower and a few upper class there's a lot of talk about this intangible idea that I just don't see much, seeming to blur more and more. I mostly just see people who are trying to make it or have already made it.