In one of my first ever lectures at university the professor asked “who here considers themselves to be upper class?” About three out of the hundred and fifty odd people raised their hands. She then asked “who thinks they’re middle class?” About twenty people rather sheepishly raised their hands. Her final question “and who here would call themselves working class?” was received with about fifty raised arms. She grunted, “well congratulations, now that you’re at university, you’re all middle class.”
That five minutes has stuck with me for the past three years. I am consistently reminded of, not only the social divisions in our society but the apparent embarrassment of being middle class. I recently did some work in television and a cameraman recounted that when filming for a government broadcast, his instructions were “whatever you do, don’t make it look middle class.” I have attended a number of small comedy shows and the question of class repeatedly comes up and is met with the same response as in my university lecture. Of course there are negative stereotypes of all the classes and I can understand the worry of appearing to gloat at one’s luck in life. Yet it just seems bizarre that the majority class is embarrassed to admit to it.
The middle class’ lack of economic boundary and abundant diversity means that a satisfactory definition of who is “middle class” can never really be identified. However, these days it seems as though there is a worry that if one admits to being middle class, then they admit to an aspiration to be a 17th century noble with desire to see a return to the feudal system. The impression I get is that if you’re aware of your wealth and happy to admit to it, you’re deemed upper class; but if you’re aware of your wealth but self conscious of it, you’re middle class.
In modern sociological terms, “middle class” refers to a wide range of people: those who attended state school, and those that attended public school; those holding relatively unskilled service industry positions, and those with senior management positions. The consensus is that if you have achieved a good level of education, hold a white-collar job and own or aspire to own a house then you are a member of the middle class.
The UK population is over 62 million. Last year more than 430 thousand UK residents were welcomed into the middle class as they accepted university places. In 2007 a survey showed that over 30% of us held a degree level qualification meaning that almost a third of the population have middle class attributes. In 2011, the BBC reported that nearly three quarters of the UK identified themselves as middle class. So why won’t we admit to it off record?
All social groups have attributes of which they should be proud. Equally, they all have negative exceptions. Although we can’t eradicate the notion of social hierarchy in Britain, we can learn to ignore the bad stereotypes and focus on what there is to make us proud of our class. Members of the middle class seem to have forgotten any reason to raise their arm at a comedy club.
Nowadays, although it is not always reached, equality and diversity are strived for politically, socially and culturally. During the Victorian period, it was the growing middle class that fought for a society based on merit and self-reliance rather than inheritance. This ideology was what enabled social diversity and the modern aspiration for equal opportunities. Historians have contended that it was the industrious middle class that turned their economic success during the Industrial Revolution into political power, challenging aristocratic privilege and corruption. This resulted in the1832 Reform Act which made the first step towards political and electoral equality – ensuring the government acted for the masses, not just the elite. It was reforms like these that mean we enjoy an open society that strives for equality and aims to give everyone the opportunity to improve their lot.
The middle class is the fruit of a historically active and industrious working class. It represents the opportunities democratic society can provide us with and that is something to be proud of.