Britain’s Class System is Alive and Well — and Growing

The three-tiered system that has put Brits in their place for generations is just in need of an update.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Carnival Films

The British class system is something like a many-headed hydra: cut off one head, and two will grow in its place. According to a wide-ranging study conducted by the BBC, the three traditional classes — working, middle and upper — that have long kept Brits painfully aware of their place are now part of a seven-headed beast.

More than 161,000 people took part in what the BBC is calling the “largest study of class in the U.K.,” published on Wednesday. BBC Lab U.K., in cooperation with a team of sociologists, expanded the traditional features that define class – occupation, wealth and education – to include other influencing factors such as cultural activities and the social company people keep.

(MORE:  Stay Classy: Britain’s Newest Scandal Is All About The Country’s Oldest Obsession)

The results showed that only 39% of people can really be called working, middle or upper class. To reflect modern Britain, the authors of the study revised the entire system to include new groups, for example the “technical middle class” — people who are prosperous but less interested in traditional culture. They also created two new groups for the younger generation: the “new affluent workers” and the “emergent service workers”, the latter less well-off than the former, though with similar cultural capital.

According to researchers, the “elite” class, who have the most economic, social and cultural capital, are also a new breed. “It is striking that we have been able to discern a distinctive elite, whose sheer economic advantage sets it apart from other classes,” said Professor Mike Savage of the London School of Economics, one of the sociologists behind the study.

The study comes at a time when gap between the haves and have-nots have been tested by the recent economic crisis. The study classified the class with the lowest of all three kinds of capital (economic, social and cultural) as the “precariat” — the precarious proletariats on the bottom rung who have borne the brunt of the British government’s more controversial austerity measures.

(MORE: (1966) How the Tea Break Could Ruin England)

Those wishing to find out which category they fall into can play the BBC’s class calculator, which asks questions such as whether you like to stay in (perhaps to watch Downton Abbey) or enjoy visiting historic homes as part of your cultural activities, as well as who you know (artists? accountants? shop assistants?) and your financial savings.

Though some have dismissed the class system no matter how many groups it contains as irrelevant in modern Britain, others have welcomed the new system. Writing in the Spectator, journalist and self-described one-percenter Toby Young said: “One advantage of moving beyond the socio-economic definition of class is that you end up with a less inflammatory portrait of modern Britain. Yes, the social elite are quite numerous, but it’s better to belong to a four million-strong group than be bracketed with the dreaded ‘1 per cent.’”

MORE: Riots Redux? As British Economy Slips in Double-Dip Recession, Anniversary of Last Summer’s Unrest Looms