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Britain needs a new approach to class if inequalities are to be addressed

SocialClass1Politicians and policy-makers must take a new approach to class if the unacceptable rise in inequalities that have characterized the opening decades of the 21st century are to be addressed.

This is one of the calls made in a new book by academics from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), The University of Manchester and University of York. Social Class in the 21st Century, which  launches with a public debate at LSE tonight (Monday 2 Nov),charts the rise of a new class system in Britain and examines why existing thinking about class, which tends to focus on the divide between middle and working classes, is outdated.

SocialClassMikeSavageBookCover1The book draws on data from the Great British Class Survey of 2013 conducted by LSE and The University of Manchester for the BBC. One of the largest studies of its kind, the survey elicited 325,000 from the British public and charted the emergence of a new class system.

The results revealed that the majority of Britons no longer fit into the working, middle or upper class stereotypes. Instead, seven new classes have emerged: a wealth elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent works, traditional working class, emergent service workers and precariat, or precarious proletariat.

These new social classes are a result of spiralling levels of inequality in Britain, the book argues. Britons now live in a more polarized world, with the wealth elite standing clearly above the rest while those at the bottom of the social hierarchy - the precariat – live precarious lives as they struggle to get by on a daily basis.

People who fall into the middle categories are able to move more easily between the new classes. However this fluidity might contribute to the hardening of stigmatizationof those at the bottom reaches of society with no one wanting to be seen as positioned at the bottom of the heap.

The book argues that class should no longer be defined according to occupation, and calls for politicians and policy-makers to take a multidimensional approach, arguing that social classes are now the result of three distinctive kinds of capital: economic capital (a person’s wealth and income); cultural capital (their tastes, interests and activities), and social capital (their social networks, friendships and associations).

Professor Mike Savage, lead author of the book and Head of the Department of Sociology at LSE, said: “We like to think of ourselves as living in a democratic society where individuals are supposed to have equal rights. Yet we also know that people’s economic fortunes can be strikingly different. Symbolically class is a lightning conductor for the anxieties this discrepancy between economic realities and our beliefs provokes.

"Our findings reveal that the class system in Britain has been fundamentally remade. Where there used to be longstanding differences between the middle and working classes, we have now moved towards a class order which is more hierarchical in differentiating the ‘wealth elite’ at the top from ‘the precariat’ at the bottom, but which is more fuzzy and complex in its middle layers. We hope the book will open up debate about the meaning of class today and allow us to meaningfully confront the contemporary challenges inequalities in today’s society have created.”  

Professor Fiona Devine, University of Manchester, said: “The Great British Class Study reminds us that the class divisions of the early 20th century have been superseded.  The old manual/non manual divide has long gone as has the hard division between the middle and working classes. The boundaries between these classes are now more porous. 

"The old aristocratic upper middle class has been replaced with a business elite with considerable wealth and income which the overwhelming majority of the population could never attain in their lifetime.  At the other end of the spectrum, we can see a precariart living on low pay and struggling to get by.  Our book shows that people’s chances in life remain very unequal.  The challenge is to do something about it.”            

Social Class in the 21st Century is launched with a public event today (Monday 2 November) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

To mark the book's launch, the LSE Review of Books has published a reading list of 6 books about class in the 21st century.  



Professor Mike Savage, LSE,  020 7955 6578, m.a.savage@lse.ac.uk

Jess Winterstein, LSE Press Office, 020 7955 7060, j.winterstein@lse.ac.uk

Deborah Linton, The University of Manchester Media Relations Officer, tel: 0161 275 8257, deborah.linton@manchester.ac.uk

Notes for editors

Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage, Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa Mckenzie, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee and Paul Wakeling is published by Pelican. 

The launch event is on Monday 2 November at 6.30-8pm in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building. Experts discussing the book’s findings are Dr Niall Cunningham, Professor Fiona Devine, Dr Sam Friedman, Dr Daniel Laurison, Dr Lisa McKenzie, Dr Andrew Miles, Professor Mike Savage, Dr Helene Snee, and Dr Paul Wakeling

The seven new classes identified in the Great British Class Survey and examined in details in the book are the:

  • Wealth elite - the most privileged group in the UK, distinct from the other six classes through its wealth. This group has the highest levels of all three capitals
  • Established middle class - the second wealthiest, scoring highly on all three capitals. The largest and most gregarious group, scoring second highest for cultural capital
  • Technical middle class - a small, distinctive new class group which is prosperous but scores low for social and cultural capital. Distinguished by its social isolation and cultural apathy
  • New affluent workers - a young class group which is socially and culturally active, with middling levels of economic capital
  • Traditional working class - scores low on all forms of capital, but is not completely deprived. Its members have reasonably high house values, explained by this group having the oldest average age at 66
  • Emergent service workers - a new, young, urban group which is relatively poor but has high social and cultural capital
  • Precariat, or precarious proletariat - the poorest, most deprived class, scoring low for social and cultural capital.

 2 November 2015