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What does class in the UK even mean anymore?

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world

It’s an international joke that British people won’t shut up about class, but in fairness it’s inescapable. This tiny little island has a relationship to class that is both archaic and ever-evolving; trapped in an ancient framework that still includes a monarchy and a house full of unelected lords, dukes, baronesses and so on, whose titles give them sway over the political future of the UK, while also producing new stereotypes every year. 

See, for example: the working-class hero (a musician or sports personality, typically male); the “gammon”; the over-educated metropolitan leftist elite; the boomer climate activist with a passion for world music festivals and composting; the “rah where’s my baccy” student who buys their Amber Leaf with mummy’s Gold Amex. While these are cultural stereotypes rather than fixed (or even necessarily real) social categories that say anything about British society, they’re inherently bound up with our ideas of class. More often than not, they’re conjured as a way of defining who is or isn’t “working class”. And, more often than not, they’re used as a way of defining ourselves by opposition. Hence why young people renting in cities and older homeowners in post-industrial areas often find themselves at odds politically, regardless of how much they might have in common materially.

There’s an enduring caricature of the working-class person as a white, middle-aged, Leave-voting man who has a face full of broken capillaries and a skilled labour job. This image has been repeatedly weaponised by the far right to centre British identity around whiteness and ‘divide and conquer’ by ignoring the UK’s long history of Black and Asian migration into working-class jobs, areas and politics. In reality, these men are few and far between, let alone the homogenous ruddy face of working-class life in 2022. Nevertheless, he keeps rearing his head along with the notions of “British values” and “blitz spirit”, like a miserable whack-a-mole of things the UK has invented about itself.

What, then, defines your class in 2022? Is it your job? Your salary? Your education? The area you grew up in? The area you live in? Your accent? Where you go on holiday? How you vote? How many steps away you are from destitution? Is it an identity? All of the above and then some?

Earlier this year, polling by The New Statesman found that the British public hugely over-estimates how working-class it is, with a quarter of people earning £100k or more viewing themselves as “working class”. This suggests that class, rather than being seen as an economic status that’s constantly subject to change depending on your circumstances, comes down to personal experiences of the absolute minimum and the absolute most. If you grew up in a post-industrial town but you’re now sat on a fat pension with a house and two cars, you’re still likely to describe yourself as working class. Whereas a younger person who grew up in the suburbs with two professional parents, and now haemorrhages £850 a month in rent, would be more likely to view themselves as middle class.

Clearly, we view class as more than objective socioeconomic status. It cuts across everything. It’s humour, taste and emotion. It’s what’s normal to you and what’s not, how you see yourself and how you see society. It’s the expectations you feel, the pressures you feel, the way you talk to people. It informs how everything – from fashion to food to shops – are coded. Most discussions around class revolve around inane stuff like whether you drink oat milk flat whites or breakfast tea in a big mug; whether you go out in full glam and a bodycon dress or leggings and unbrushed hair; whether you say “pudding” or “afters”. I once did door-to-door sales and on the first day, the branch manager led a meeting in which she drew a line down a whiteboard, wrote ‘Prada, Gucci, Porsche’ on one side and ‘Primark, H&M, Ford’ on the other and then asked us, rhetorically, which side we wanted to be on. Day to day, that’s how class is often seen by people in the UK – it’s stuff, rather than structure. They’re pointless signifiers in the grand scheme of things, but they’re how we identify and relate to each other.

“Class cuts across everything. It’s humour, taste and emotion; it’s what’s normal to you and what’s not; how you see yourself and how you see society”

A part of this comes down to the fact that we’ve never been more aware of what everyone else has. It’s only recently that the mind-boggling wealth of the ultra-rich – itself a relatively new category – has become common knowledge, while our compulsion to document our lives on social media in their most enviable form constantly encourages discontent by comparison. When there’s a monarch or a Chancellor of the Exchequer’s wife to compare yourself to, perhaps it is possible to feel impoverished on £100k. And perhaps that’s the big delusion, now. That everyone – probably rightly – feels they are working hard for too little in return, while half the ruling class don’t even pay tax in the country they govern.

At the end of the day, the British public hate the rich. It may not seem like it, based on how much we love to elect them to make life-changing decisions for us, but we’re obsessed with the idea of hating them. “Rich” is the worst thing you could possibly be, and so nobody wants to accept their proximity to it. When you go over someone’s house for the first time and you thought you had loads in common and then you discover they have a tennis court? Betrayal. When you find out that an artist you like’s mother has a Wikipedia page? Scum. Being working class is romanticised as valorous even though most people living in working-class conditions are constantly striving for a better quality of life, and being rich is seen as a deeply evil, individualised feature, even though it’s rich people that we constantly celebrate in pop culture across film, TV, music and fashion because they dominate those fields now. It’s not surprising, then, that under this strange moral binary we’ve seen everyone from artists to moguls clinging on to their working-class credentials with a vice grip. It’s a never-ending contest of who’s had it the worst, who’s been through the most, who’s triumphed against the bigger odds. Who has what? And how much do they deserve it?

“Everyone clings to their working-class credentials with a vice grip. It’s a never-ending contest of who’s had it the worst, who’s been through the most, who’s triumphed against the bigger odds”

The way we talk about class is so bound up in personal experience it’s hard to untangle from reality, which tells a convoluted story. Attempts to redefine class along generational lines have often come at the expense of cultural and regional history – the things that shape our identities in the first place. As well worn as the ‘greedy landlord boomers vs avocado toast millennial’ trope is, it doesn’t really hold up without resting on broad stereotypes. Meanwhile, in politics, definitions of class have historically come from voting habits, and now that doesn’t hold up either. After the collapse of industry in the 70s, UK Labour has struggled to reflect the face of modern working-class Britain, instead leaning into a non-partisan dialogue of acceptability, law and order, and ‘bootstraps’. Now the fate of the party is mostly discussed in relation to the Red Wall, which, depending on your version of history, has either been completely alienated or never existed in the first place.

As inequality deepens and the UK begins to experience the worst drop in living standards (which, let’s be honest, weren’t very high to begin with) since the 1970s, a simple signifier of class at this moment would be how gravely the cost of living crisis affects you. Within that, there are endless complex and curious ways that class functions within British culture, society and power. So, over the next few days, in a series of articles, Dazed will try to unpack what class means to young people now (if anything) and how it affects our daily lives – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general outlook on the world. 

It’s clear that class is less fixed and less easily defined now than it once was, but how will we adapt to that? Will we keep referring back to the mid-late 1900s? Or, with the pandemic ushering in a ‘golden age’ of trade unions and worker activism, will we see the emergence of a new working class that isn’t represented by the face of one kind of man, but by the faceless force of community? Maybe the whole idea of class is completely redundant now, and we’d be better off looking at things through another framework. Embedded as it is in cultural consciousness and sense of personal identity, is class something the UK could ever be free from?

See more of the Class Ceiling series here