Seven new social classes – really?



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.


It’s that graph again


Watching the BBC News at 6 o’clock tonight, I was amused by the number of times they showed an animated graphic with a downward thrust arrow apparently falling off the edge of a cliff.

It’s an economic downturn, a slowdown, a decline, but is it a recession? Officially, two quarters of negative growth means we’re in a recession. But the BBC and other news outlets don’t want to wait a whole three months, so they’re reporting the downturn, the slowdown, the decline as the confirmation that “we’re in a recession.”

It was wall-to-wall bad news tonight, with the first 15 minutes of the 30-minute bulletin dedicated to the downturn, the slowdown, the decline. The BBC even have a special logo for the word downturn, with a cleverly placed downward arrow on the letter n.

The bulletin ended with a reminder that we’ve had 63 quarters of economic growth, followed by one quarter of negative (that’s -0.5%) growth, or – what’s the opposite of growth? Shrinkage, which means the economy’s “been in the pool!” as George from Seinfeld might say.

Now, I ask you. What does 63 quarters of growth followed by one quarter of -0.5% shrinkage look like? Does it look like this?:



Seduced by Appearances


Which would you trust more? A flashy web site written by a 14-year-old, or a book written by someone with a PhD, checked by someone else with a PhD, and published by a publisher whose logo says they were founded in 1793? How about this: a high-tech library, full of brand-new computers, everything squeaky clean, but with hardly any actual books — or a dusty old library stuffed to the ceilings with books, ancient and modern?

Tough call? Here’s another. You book a driving lesson with a local driving school, and when the time comes for the first lesson, a brand-new Ford Fiesta pulls up outside your house, covered with logos and L-plates, but with an instructor who looks about a year older than you. Confident? Or would you prefer a middle-aged instructor, possibly wearing a chunky jumper and glasses? How about a driving instructor with prison tattoos and a pony tail?

We often judge people and objects by appearances. Antiques are supposed to look, you know, old. New gadgets are supposed to be shiny and intriguing. Most of us probably feel safer if the driver of the car isn’t wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, and checking his look in the rear view mirror every two minutes.

In the good old days, when you opened your first bank account, often the place you turned to first was the bank your parents had been using for 20 years or so. There might have been a long-term relationship between your family and the local branch. (My wife’s bank manager in France knows loads about her and her family.) But in the internet age, we’re always being encouraged to look for the best deal. We choose banks at several removes from our local circumstances. We look at bank web sites and choose the bank because we like the logo, the site design, the look-and-feel of the thing.

First Direct are all about black and white, right? Barclays are cool blue; Natwest have their own, distinctive, font; Egg go for a distinctive green, and their logo on their credit card is at a jaunty angle – it looks cool.

I could go on.

In The Guardian yesterday, Naomi Alderman writes about how she was seduced by the web site of the Icelandic bank IceSave, which made other banks look “clunky and old-fashioned.”

The site has fast response times and is laid out intuitively, with a helpful and extensive list of FAQs and an easy to find Contact Us button which leads to an actual telephone number, rather than funnelling me to an online feedback system. Yes, IceSave’s website is a model of customer-friendly design; it’s a pity they don’t have any money left


Scary Stuff


The photo above is one of a selection of scary vintage hallowe’en photos, posted by this bloke on Flickr. He’s got an annoying habit of posting his pics to too many groups, but I’ll forgive him this once. This photo reminds me of all the bags-on-head horror movies we’ve seen this year. It dates from 1911.

That link was found by my favourite major-league blogging site, BoingBoing. Also on BoingBoing today, guest blogger Rushkoff signs off with a plug for his forthcoming book, which is his view on how we came to allow corporations to take over the world.

What I conclude is that our society didn’t just end up this way. This landscape was cultivated over time. We are living on a playing field sloped towards corporate interests. Every day, we negotiate the slope to the best of our ability. Still, many of us fail to measure up to the people we’d like to be, and succumb to the tilt of the landscape. We buy from Wal-Mart and supermarket instead of the local druggist and farmer who they put out of business. We save to send our kids to private school instead of investing our time to make the public ones better. We spend our money insulating ourselves from the crime in our neighborhoods instead of our energy reducing the poverty and resentment feeding it. When things are tough, it’s every man for himself.

Also also via BoingBoing, I found this interesting video of the design stages on the way to a New Yorker magazine cover. It’s easy to forget that some of the most iconic magazine covers in history were created with quite primitive software and hardware, and this particular designer is the graphic design equivalent of the author who still uses a manual typewriter (Don Delillo, for example).

A designer I used to know refused to upgrade his hardware and software because it worked, and he wasn’t going to risk missed deadlines by meddling with his system. Bob Staake uses very old hardware indeed – running Mac OS 7 (which dates back to 1994 or so) and Adobe Photoshop 3! This is a little reminder that lacking the latest and greatest software tools should be no barrier to your success. Another BoingBoing link today suggests that paper and pen are better thinking tools than computers, anyway: which is why you should take notes in class!

Finally, here’s an interesting comment piece from the Guardian about values and ideology – about the mythological basis of the quasi-religious faith some people have in free market economics. It’s all in the language — which you should listen out for on the news: faith, hope, belief, confidence — very little of which contains hard factual information. The global panic on the stock markets today outdid the panic that ensued following the 9/11 attacks. As someone pointed out on 5Live this afternoon, the weeks are starting to follow a familiar pattern: stocks fall on Monday; legislation by Thursday; stocks rally on Friday. And so on.

Monday’s Media


1. Max Mosely’s defamation case has hit the high court. What’s at stake here? There’s often an argument with (invasion of) privacy cases that “the public interest” is a valid defence for the newspaper that has poked around in somebody’s private life. The News of the World is arguing that the fact that the son of a fascist politician dresses up as a German, speaks German, and is called “Aryan” during a “sick Nazi orgy” is something that the public deserves to know, especially as Mosely is one of the top dogs in one of the world’s most popular (and profitable) sports.

Mosely is arguing that the News of the World is simply in the business of titillating readers with sex stories (remember: this is a News Group publication, closely related to The Sun). He’s denying the Nazi overtones.

This is a case that’s not just about seeking damages because of unfair or untrue reporting. Mosely is also seeking punitive damages – wants to make an example of the News of the World, to discourage them from printing this kind of story in the first place. “The public interest” here refers not to what the public might be interested in (and why they might indeed be attracted to titillating news stories) but to what the public deserves or needs to know about those in power or authority in our society.

2. O2’s web server crashes in a “frenzy” of interest in new iPhone.

3. Guardian carries an interview with RTD, in which he explains why the Doctor should never be a woman… which didn’t stop the Guardian’s sub-editor suggesting exactly the opposite idea in the headline. A bit like that headline in the environment vs. economy survey we looked at the other day. The headline of that story indicated that people cared more about the environment than they do the economy, but the most telling data (scroll down to the bottom graphic) is about what people will actually do when faced with a choice: buy cheaper or buy greener? The answer to that question is the reason why the government are hinting that they’ll pull a U-turn over the next rise in fuel duty.

4. As politicians get nervous about elections and economies, the rhetoric over climate change is likely to get ever more extreme: “The real problem is that climate change really does read like a disaster novel, and one that everyone needs to read sooner rather than later.” My favourite climate change disaster novels are Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting by Kim Stanley Robinson. He’s actually really good on the fraught relationship between science and politics.

5. What do you think was going through this bloke’s head as he lay face down on the floor in Bournemouth train station, with police guns pointed at his head? The “related links” on this story tell you exactly what he was thinking.

6. The Telegraph opens a debate on the “moral neutrality” question. You can almost hear the Telegraph’s readers’ knuckles cracking as they prepared to type their comments in response to the quesiton, has political correctness obscured moral judgements? Of course, the use of the pejorative term political correctness reveals what the Telegraph believes. My favourite reader response is as follows:

I was just discussing this very question in bed this morning with my neigbour’s wife, yes, our morals are going down hill and we need a man with courage (not Dave) to get them back again.

Now, that’s comedy.

7. Actually, so is this!

Thursday’s interesting stories


1. According to the World Bank, biofuels are causing the price of food to rise. No credit crunch was hurt in the making of this headline.

2. In the twisted fantasy of the Old Media in their battle against the New, they’re at that bit in Lord of the Rings when all seems lost, but then Gandalf (US court) forces Sauron (Google) to reveal the identity of all his orcs. They really think they’re going to hold back the tide, forcing Google to release YouTube data.

3. Oh Lord, now they’re applying the word “crunch” to other things as well. What’s next? Climate Crunch?

4. According to the Telegraph, the Bear Market is on its way. Market crunch, I mean.

5. World of Warcraft: 11 million users – this article examines the phenomenon.

6. The Independent offers some great photography from the past 7 days.