Seven new social classes – really?

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The BBC has a story about the results of a “huge survey” they undertook (and then again, on a smaller, more scientific scale), which, they say, leads to the conclusion that there are (now) seven social classes.

Personally, I’m not happy with their use of the word “class” here – it’s playing to the British obsession with class, but I think these are classifications rather than classes.

I also think that the BBC appear to have inadvertently (re)invented the classic Young and Rubicam international market segmentation (cross-cultural consumer characterisations) known as the 4Cs.

My students will remember from class that the 4Cs match social classification against values in coming up with seven groups, which are:

Resigned, Struggler, Mainstream, Aspirer, Succeeder, Explorer, and Reformer.

I’ve always liked the 4Cs, not least because they factor in values as well as income, meaning (for example) that Explorers and Reformers may have less money than Succeeders, but are more adventurous consumers of both goods and media.

The new survey has also factored in forms of “wealth” other than the economic capital that separates the 1% from the rest of us. They call these social and cultural capital respectively. Young and Rubicam bundled these together as “values”, which seems both more vague and simpler.

Here’s a flavour of what the BBC’s survey has concluded:

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

(See BBC News – Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK)

The groups are divided as follows: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and Precariat, or Precarious Proletariat.

It seems to be that, unlike the 4Cs with their emphasis on values, these new classifications still give more weight to economic wealth, and also hint that it’s quite hard to shift between groups. In economic terms, this is probably true. The Emergent Service Workers of today are unlikely to ever have the economic capital of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who have wealth locked up in pension funds and savings.

In fact, the “hidden” economic capital of pensions, savings, and investments is what separates the bottom four groups from the top four – far more than their so-called social and cultural capital.

Marx would dismiss social and cultural capital, of course, as comforting illusions. Follow the money is always the main message.

Which brings us back to that nebulous idea of values, which is something I prefer: rather than the clumsy “precariat”, for example, I understand the terms resigned and struggler. We all know what a succeeder looks like, and also aspirers. I think that values are a more powerful idea, in the end, and tell you far more about a person and their likely patterns of consumption and lifestyle.

I think there’s a lot more nuance than the seven new groups imply. I think “Emergent Service Workers”, with their high cultural and social capital and low economic capital will map quite effectively to reformers but also to explorers. Sometimes, these people will be leading hedonistic exploratory lifestyles; but others within the group will be trying to change the world.

And when it comes to changing the world, it’s far more important that people recognise the values they share in common than it is for people to envy those who have more economic capital.

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