According to a new survey commissioned by the BBC, Britain is now divided into seven different social classes. The good news, dear reader, is that you’re almost certainly at the top of the pyramid in the class the BBC calls the ‘social elite’. Members of this group own houses worth, on average, £325,000 and their mean household income is £89,000 a year. The bad news is that it’s not a particularly exclusive club. The social elite accounts for 6 per cent of the UK population, which means you’re sharing the distinction with 3,790,920 others. That’s a pretty crowded VIP section.
It could be worse. At the bottom of the table is the ‘precariat’ — the precarious proletariat — who constitute 15 per cent of the population. They rent rather than own, are unlikely to have been to university and their mean household income is £8,000. They’re located in old industrial areas — places like Stoke-on-Trent, according to the survey. Expect the local Labour MP, the Honourable Tristram Hunt, to take issue with the BBC’s description of Stoke-on-Trent as the most lower-class city in Britain.
A more immediate threat to the social elite is the ‘established middle class’, the group just below them in the pecking order. On average, their homes are worth £177,000 and their mean household income is £47,000. They’re big consumers of ‘highbrow culture’, including listening to classical music, visiting museums, going to the theatre and eating in French restaurants (Café Rouge doesn’t count). The established middle class is the largest of the seven categories, encompassing nearly 16 million people. This is the group you’re most likely to end up in if you get made redundant from your social elite job. (Examples of such jobs are CEO, IT director, management consultant, barrister and — bizarrely — dentist.)
Loath though I am to admit it, I think there’s a good deal to be said for this new, seven-part taxonomy of the class system. The BBC has devised it in partnership with a group of distinguished sociologists and their main innovation is to take account of a person’s social and cultural capital when assigning them to a particular class. Traditionally, class has been defined according to income and/or occupation, without reference to less tangible factors, such as taste. This belies our commonsense understanding of the subject, which tells us that a person’s class is defined as much by how they decorate their home as what they do for a living.
In the BBC survey, which 161,000 people took part in, respondents were asked about their leisure interests, musical tastes and food preferences, in addition to more run-of-the-mill questions about their annual salaries and so forth. They were also asked how many people they knew and how often they interacted with them on social media. As the proud possessor of over 34,000 Twitter followers, not to mention 5,000 Facebook friends, I particularly like that yardstick.
One advantage of moving beyond the socio-economic definition of class is that you end up with a less inflammatory portrait of modern Britain. Yes, the social elite are quite numerous, but it’s better to belong to a four million-strong group than be bracketed with the dreaded ‘1 per cent’. It feels right, too. I am probably among the nation’s top 1 per cent of income earners, but I don’t think there’s a great gulf between me and the remaining 99 per cent. The cliff edge is somewhere else, lower down the socio-economic spectrum. In simple terms, I feel a stronger sense of belonging when I’m standing in the lobby of the National Theatre than I do when having dinner at the River Café.
Seven different classes also feels more accurate than the usual three, even allowing for such sub-categories as lower-upper-middle (the class George Orwell said he belonged to). The more there are, the easier it is to move between them and the harder it is to keep track of who is a member of which one. That chimes with the general sense that class has become less important in the past 25 years. Interviewed in the New Statesman last week, Denis Healey called this the most profound difference between politics in the 1970s and ’80s and today. ‘The big change is that the class system has totally disappeared,’ he said.
This new classification system will never catch on, of course. The belief that Britain is divided into three classes is hard-wired into the national consciousness. But the BBC should get a few column inches out of it, particularly in the Sentinel, the local paper in Stoke-on-Trent.