It won’t be news to readers of The Spectator that one of the long-term effects of globalisation is the hollowing out of the middle class. In a study of wage growth in ten advanced economies published a few years ago, the Resolution Foundation found that median pay lagged behind growth in GDP, with the gap between the middle class and the highest-paid growing and the gap between them and the lowest-paid shrinking.
The phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the US. There, the top 10 per cent of income earners have seen their share of national income increase since the 2007-08 recession, while the remaining 90 per cent have seen their share fall, with middle-income groups hit the hardest.
This trend was all too apparent in the Austrian ski resort where Caroline and I spent last weekend thanks to the hospitality of a generous friend. I went to St Anton for a week in 1990 and, while it wasn’t exactly Southend-on-Skis, there were a few middle-class families dotted about, mainly taking advantage of package deals.
You’d spot them on the cable cars, wolfing down packed lunches so they could avoid spending money in the restaurants. Occasionally you’d see them arriving and departing in large estate cars with GB stickers on the back and their lovingly-maintained skis strapped to the roof. The point is that it was still possible 30 years ago for mid-ranking professionals to go skiing, provided they did it on a budget. It now feels as if those days are gone.
Admittedly, we were staying in a resort a few miles from St Anton, but we skied over on Sunday and I didn’t spot anyone eating a packed lunch. On the contrary, the restaurants were packed to the gills, with ice buckets sitting alongside most tables. When I was last here, a few of the mums and dads were in Day-Glo, one-piece outfits that dated back to the disco era — some of them were literally patched up like old inner tubes. But not this time. Nearly everyone was sporting on-trend, branded ski wear. I didn’t see any Ford Granada shooting brakes either, or whatever their 21st-century equivalents are. I did, however, spot a Lamborghini in the car park just below our apartment, alongside the fleet of top-of-the-range Mercedes SUVs.
One of the reasons county solicitors and local GPs can no longer afford to educate their children at private schools — having been replaced by what the bursars euphemistically call ‘first-time buyers’ — is that fees have risen so much faster than the rate of inflation in the past few decades. The same is true of ski resorts.
In the Ski Arlberg area, where St Anton is, the cost of a six-day lift pass in high season went up by 5 per cent between 2017 and 2018. That’s consistent with the rise in the cost of boarding-school fees in the UK, which have increased by 50 per cent in the last ten years.
Then again, the plutocrats on the Arlberg ski slopes didn’t look like first-time buyers — more like seasoned pros. On Saturday I got up early and tried to tag along with a group going ‘touring’, which involves trekking off the beaten track in search of virgin powder snow. It’s a bit more difficult that regular piste-bashing, and you have to wear a GPS tracking device in case you get buried in an avalanche, but I assured the Austrian guide I was strong enough to cope. Turns out, I wasn’t. After watching me do a couple of off-piste runs, he took me aside and said, ‘I think it vould be better if you joined a veaker group.’
The soaring cost of skiing isn’t all bad if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in somewhere like Arlberg. I was a packed-lunch skier in my youth and remember pulling on boots still wet from the night before and schlepping half-a-mile from some brutalist tower block to the bottom of the cable car. The apartment I stayed in last weekend, like most chalets these days, was only a few yards from the piste and had a room that dried your boots overnight. I noticed, too, that the seats of the chair lifts were heated, a hitherto unknown luxury. But the absence of country solicitors and local GPs, along with their well-behaved children, was a shame. Europe, like America, has become two nations, and the squeezed middle can no longer afford the lifestyle of their parents.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.