The Middle Class
If you had to pick one thing to characterise the middle class what would it be? Nice house on a new estate, new executive lease car on the drive, a professional job? Regardless of your answer odds are that plenty of people will pick something else, and that is part of the beauty of it. When someone says ‘middle class’ we automatically assume we are on the same page without stopping to confirm we’re talking about the same thing.
Welcome to the Middle class; a poorly defined group somewhere between the working and upper classes that, in a departure from the other social classes, apparently needs divided into upper and lower so it can fight amongst itself for social position.
I’m sorry if that sounds a tad cynical, but there isn’t a solid agreed upon definition for middle class. In 1997 John Prescott, proclaimed "we are all middle-class now”  removing the class structure in one fell swoop, but only two years later Tony Blair envisioned “A middle class that will include millions of people who traditionally may see themselves as working class, but whose ambitions are far broader than those of their parents and grandparents” , as though it was some aspirational destination, a ‘just over the horizon’ goal, for the working class that comes with comfort and security heretofore unimaginable.
While the upper class looks miles away, even from a stereotypical middle class standpoint, the middle class painted in the right light is achievable for anyone from a lower class.
Working class with ambition? Welcome to the middle class.
Senior Manager now? Upper middle class membership comes with that promotion.
It is this adaptable nature that makes the middle class a superb political tool. If you can convince people that it’s there for the taking you can encourage them to vote against their best interests. If you can convince people they will become a manager on a good salary, you can convince them to support erosion of workers rights and worry about higher rate tax brands. Remember you don’t want to pay for benefits, and employment tribunals are a waste of time, reserved for people who just want someone to blame because they can’t do their job properly. This kind of cognitive dissonance allows people to persecute themselves, ignoring their own situation in favour of one just around the corner. A future that may not be achievable without the benefits they are willing to lose today.
The effect of people ‘pulling up the ladder behind them’ is felt by the public, with a quarter of people in 2019 saying those born in the 60’s and 70’s had the most opportunity to move up. In addition 39% of people thought it was getting harder to move up in society, 44% thought where you ended up in society was mainly determined by your background, and 77% of respondents thought that there was a large gap between social classes . Not exactly a glowing report card for social mobility in the UK.
What people fail to mention is that in its current form social mobility relies on downward movement as well as upward, any advancement you make is also a loss to someone else. But in all likelihood that will be at the expense of someone doing just better than you, not the undeserving rich getting knocked down a peg. Most supposed middle class people are just an economic downturn, unfortunate accident, or bad boss away from being that downward movement. In 2020 6 million workers feared being out of work in 6 months, and 60% of workers were just 3 months or less away from defaulting on their rent or mortgage . Working class and middle class positions aren’t all that different, everyone still exchanges their time for money whether that’s with an employer in the picture or not, and few have any tangible financial independence.
The rhetoric around individual power and its ability to bring about a change in circumstances, people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, ignores both the need for structural change and the benefits conferred on those more fortunate. The current method of pursuing social mobility is ineffective at best and unfortunately the middle class is the hollow prize at the end for many.
As long as class is used to divide people the inequalities present in society today won’t disappear. By admitting that what we share is greater than what divides us, and that an attack on any of us is an attack on all of us, we can work together and change our relationship with power, politics, and money and start to address the large inequalities that disadvantage all of us.
Dave is a Working Class writer and activist, who can be found on twitter at @omniscientdave.