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Book review: Social class in the 21st century

Mike Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century.[1]

The emotions of class

The UK has long been interested in the subject of class and class divisions between members of society. Peasants and princes; gentry and tenants; old money, new money and the proletariat: there have always been divisions and rankings of people by wealth, power and ownership of land. The interest in this topic is, however, often kept muted. It is deemed unseemly, rude or divisive to talk about class, let alone to believe class still exists. Yet when the BBC unveiled its Great British Class Survey, people flocked to it. We might claim we live in a classless society; we might deny that we belong to a class; yet when given the opportunity, many of us jump right in.

The ordinary elite

Both poor and rich alike try to deny their position in a class ranking. At the top, people in the ‘ordinary elite’ – the top 6% - “were uniformly uncomfortable with the label”,[2] and sought to distance themselves from ideas of snobbery whilst finding ways to justify and explain their own wealth. It wasn’t that they were better than poorer people, in the sense of being morally or culturally superior. Nor were they lazy landed gentry who had their money delivered to them on a silver plate. It was just that they were good – better? – at working hard and making money. That, rather than luck, was what made them wealthy and meant that they deserved to keep hold of their wealth. They weren’t the ‘other’ elite who were lazy; they were morally superior, because they worked hard.

Amongst the elite who responded to the GBCS, “meritocratic justification ran deep. Many were somewhat defensive, emphasizing that their assets reflected ‘hard work’ and significant achievements. They were ‘just deserts’”.[3] Others would downplay their own wealth by comparing themselves to other, even wealthier people. It has been noted before that even people who have middle-class parents and are themselves in middle-class jobs may use “elaborate ‘origin stories’” to “downplay important aspects of their own, privileged, upbringings and instead emphasise affinities to working-class extended family histories”.[4]

Savage says of Bourdieu’s work that the ‘elite’ is not a homogenous group but rather “a scene of internal contestation and dispute between the most powerful and well-resourced agents from different sectors and professions… Powerful groups do not necessarily see themselves as a united or cohesive force”.[5] This may allow different members of the elite to each claim to not be part of the elite, because they’re not part of ‘that group over there’, which is also a member of the elite. Yet the fact that sub-group A of the elite is part of the elite does not mean that sub-group B of the elite can therefore claim to not be elite. Nevertheless, these differences allow members of the elite to deny their status by highlighting the contrasts between them and another subgroup of the elite.

The precariat

At the bottom end, people in poverty – the precariat – were “highly sensitive to the loaded classifications… and well-schooled in being on the receiving end of negative judgments”.[6] Many sought to distance themselves from the ‘other’ – the workless, scrounging, drug-addict poor – and to position themselves as the hard-working, family-oriented, worthy working-class. At the same time, they didn’t want to be pretentious by claiming to be middle-class. Like the elite, they were wary of being snobbish or being seen as snobbish. Like the elite, they defined a sub-group whom others would lump in with them, but who were in fact the morally inferior. They weren’t the ‘other’ working-class who were lazy; they were morally superior, because they worked hard.

Mike Savage writes that “what we see here is a very striking process, in which this reaction against class identity and the desire to proclaim ‘normality’ actually emphasize the symbolic focus upon those at the top and the bottom”.[7] People demonstrate their ‘ordinariness’ by reacting against those at the top and/or the bottom. The elite seek to distance themselves from their fellow elite by claiming that they, at least, got there by merit not background. The poor seek to distance themselves from their fellow poor by claiming that they are the deserving kind, whilst pointing out those of their neighbours whom they believe to be undeserving. Those in the middle may react against one or both of the extremes of the class ladder.

Interestingly, “the closer our respondents were to the real bottom of the class-structure order, the more explicit were the judgments they made about those whom they saw as beneath them – and the more emotional these judgments became. People’s anxieties about their proximity to the base of the social hierarchy were thus channelled not into drawing boundaries against those who were privileged, or into wider inequalities, but instead into resentment towards the ‘under-class’”.[8] Marx’s belief that the proletariat would feel solidarity with one another and band together to throw off their chains is broken when the proletariat instead side with the elite to point fingers at the other proletariat.

The divisions of class

Mike Savage’s book uses the wealth of data from the Great British Class Survey, carried out in the early 2010s in the UK, to construct a new class system. Latent class analysis was used to group respondents according to their position on financial, cultural and social factors. The results showed seven classes: (ordinary) elite; established middle class; technical middle class; new affluent workers; traditional working class; emerging service workers; and precariat.

The elite, comprising the top 6% of society, have far more money than everyone else. This is seen in their income, their savings and their house value, all of which easily out-strip the next level, the established middle class. They have a high level of ‘highbrow’ (opera, Shakespeare, theatre) culture, and also score well for the number and range of social connections that they have.

The established middle class (EMC) and technical middle class (TMC) are also comfortably off, with the TMC’s lower income buffered by a higher level of savings. The new affluent workers (NAW) have lower income but may still be in the top half of the population. They know a wide range of people, and are more interested in emerging culture than highbrow culture. An interest in emerging culture, however, does not render someone lower class: the higher classes demonstrate a rarefied knowledge and use of emerging culture that is not seen in the simpler appreciation of lower classes.

The traditional working class (TWC) would be seen as poor if it weren’t that they enjoy home values substantially higher than that of the emerging service workers (ESW) and precariat. But a home value of £127,000 at 66 years of age is very different from the £129,000 at 44 years enjoyed by the new affluent workers. The TWC are unlikely to progress into higher-value housing, and may only have that value of housing as a quirk of history: Right to Buy and previous low house prices combined with a higher prevalence of manufacturing jobs may have enabled these people to buy houses whilst young, which have now appreciated substantially in value and created an unexpected windfall for this group. The same conditions may not exist today for people entering traditional trades. The NAW, on the other hand, have the richer half of their working life ahead of them to progress into a more expensive home.

I find the Emerging Service Workers to be an interesting group. At an average age of only 32, it is not unsurprising that their incomes, savings, and home values are low. But will they remain low, or is it simply that these are early-career members of the middle-class? Savage describes this group as well-educated, which would likely place them in the middle- rather than lower- classes. They are positioned below the TWC in Savage’s ranking, but that is because of their finances, and on social and cultural factors they out-perform the TWC.

In ten- or twenty-years’ time, will the ESWs have moved into the technical and established middle classes as they consolidate their financial position? Or will their health have deteriorated, seeing them enter the precariat as their ability to earn disappears? There is a vast difference between the person starting on a low-ish income (but still above minimum wage) whose salary rises towards retirement, and the person starting on minimum wage who peaks at £25k/year in their forties before declining again as the physical toll of their work reduces their capacity to earn.

Down at the bottom, the 15% of people in the precariat are quite clearly in a very precarious financial position, with little income and little to no wealth to act as a buffer. They have a limited range of social contacts, and the people they do know are down near the bottom with them. They also have limited cultural engagement, which might reflect a lack of time and money, plus a reasonable response to such lack. When there isn’t much time or money, social and cultural engagement has to be home and family or neighbour based.

The precariat is a highly socially aware group; knowing both what is expected of them in terms of negative stereotypes, and how to parody those stereotypes. Community, collectivism, humour, and fun were important to this group – and who are the middle-class to say that this is wrong, and that people in the precariat should prioritise other things, like work over family? Provocative questions are raised, over whether the things that the precariat enjoy doing are despised because they are genuinely inferior, or despised because they are what the precariat like to do. The sophistication and level of engagement of the precariat with culture suggest that it is the latter, not the former, that is at play. And yet snobbery remains.

In London, much of the precarity is about the pace of change and the rapidly increasing rents, which are driving people out – including councils seeking to make people move away – and thus fracturing crucial family and support networks. In other areas, the story is one of decline and decay, with public services dwindling and failing. In either case, the position is precarious for people with limited income and poor social and structural resources around them.

I felt that the question of age was under-explored in this book. There are interesting avenues to explore. The ESW are young; what happens to them as they get older? Are they young members of the middle-class, or are they healthy members of the TWC who may, if they hit misfortune, enter the precariat? The TWC is at retirement age; is there a younger cohort coming up, or are the TWC dying out? What impact did the conditions pertaining to the young adulthood of the TWC have, and are there similar opportunities for home ownership for the poor today?

I have seen young middle-class professionals label themselves working-class because they are on what they think is a low income and are still living in shared rented accommodation. Yet they are in a secure graduate job with strong career and pension prospects, and their house-sharing is with friends, not strangers. This is very different from people in insecure, entry-level jobs, who share with strangers because they can’t afford even a studio flat in their forties.

Defending and denying class

What I find most interesting in this book is not the demonstration that class still exists, but that despite people’s attempts to deny their own position within the class system, there nevertheless is a class system and they still have a position in it. Not only that, but some of people’s strongest actions to deny their position in society or the reality of class in society actually act to confirm their position and the structure of society.

This was clearly seen in the difference and tension between ‘highbrow’ and ‘emerging’ cultural capital, and the role they play in class snobbery. Some higher-class people choose to engage in highbrow culture because of the social kudos that it brings, whether or not they personally enjoy Shakespeare and the opera. Others deliberately reject it precisely because they seek to deny any snobbery. They combine a reflexive, ironic disengagement from highbrow culture with a deliberate, knowledgeable and self-justified engagement with the emerging culture. But this is its own form of snobbery, with members of lower classes able to enjoy emerging culture without going to great lengths to explain and justify their taste in the way that richer people do.

From the GBCS and the Friedman et al paper, it seems that the more a person is seeking to establish their ‘ordinariness’ when they are in fact elite or established middle class, the more words they put into justifying their position – defending their income, job, family history, or cultural preferences. In contrast, people who accept their middle-class position, or who are genuinely working-class, do not go into such detail or elaborate discussion to justify where they position themselves on the social scale, what they earn, or what they like to do.

The emotions of class continue to run strongly in the UK. No-one wants to be at the bottom, and those of us in the precariat may therefore turn round and point our fingers at some ‘other’ ‘underclass’, than whom we are better. Nor do many people want to admit that they are at the top, and so those of us up in the higher echelons also seek to point our fingers at a richer elite than whom we, too, are better.

Overall, this book is a fascinating insight into both the structure and the emotion of class in the UK today. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand UK class structure. In particular, it may help those of us who are in the elite to stop pointing fingers at some ‘other’ elite who don’t deserve their wealth and status, enabling us both to deny our status and justify keeping hold of our wealth; and it may help those of us who are in the precariat to stop pointing fingers at some ‘other’ precariat who are the unworthy poor and who deserve to be impoverished and stigmatised, used as a way to strengthen our own right to the support that we need.

[1] Penguin Random House, 2015 [2] Pg 314 [3] Pg 316 [4] Friedman et al 2021 [5] Quote is Savage’s words, referencing Bourdieu’s ideas. Pg 309 [6] Pg 362 [7] Pg 381 [8] Pg 385

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1 Comment

Jun 21, 2023

Fascinating subject, and a very well-written & articulated post. Many thanks!

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