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.
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.
Then 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."