Because I grew up in a working class world, I never questioned my middle class position. My mum was a nurse, then a primary school teacher. My dad was a junior then middle manager in a manufacturing company. When the Coalition government increased university tuition fees, I could have taken a year out — I wanted to take a year out — before moving away from the town I’d lived in for most of my life. But we felt that was a senseless thing to do, when going to university a year later would cost three times as much. Still, there was a choice: I could face the risk of a bigger loan.
Of my friends who did A-Levels, most needed to resit exams, and university ceased being an option. The prospect of £9,000 fees for the children of parents who earned barely more than that in a year was unfathomable: my friends’ parents were hairdressers, cleaners, electricians, receptionists, or they worked at Hinkley Point. Decent jobs — the kind that ensure full-time hours — had been ravaged by the financial crisis. Almost everyone stayed in Bridgwater.
There were other reasons for choosing to do that, of course. There was a beauty in the town and its estates and pubs that they could see but that regretfully had been conditioned out of me by the time I was eighteen. I couldn’t wait to get away. I felt claustrophobic; I wanted something more, and the belief that more could be found far far away from the friends I’d grown up with, rather than with them in the place we were rooted in, is, I think, emblematic of being middle class. (Perhaps, for others of the Blair generation, it’s part of wanting to be middle class.)
In the final year before I moved away, a distance had developed between us. I think I was a snob. I knew, no matter what it took, I was getting out. We all studied at the same further education college in the town, the biggest in the county. Every year, thousands of students took BTECs and apprenticeships, A-levels, evening access-to-HE courses. Usually three or four would get into Oxbridge, and one or two would get the grades to go. A few hundred others would be accepted at other universities, mostly the local ones, like Bristol UWE and Plymouth.
The first time I questioned my middle classness (even if I didn’t yet think in these terms) was at my Oxford interview. I’d applied to Wadham College, because I’d read online that they accepted a lot of state school kids. Well, that wasn’t at all obvious from the conversations that took place over the grand dining room tables, under the pale oil-painted faces of the knights and ladies who’d graced the corridors before us. They all knew each other! If they weren’t at the same private or grammar school, they’d transferred from one to a comp sixth form to increase their odds of admission. They’d played hockey together. They’d met at expensive summer training grounds for Oxbridge applications. Hardly anyone was like anyone I knew. Neither did I get that impression from the professor who interviewed me first: why, he asked, couldn’t I guess what the Spanish word olfatear meant, given its late Latin etymology? On the final night of my interviews, I called my mum, balling. I’d never felt so alien.
When I received my offer letter a month later, I turned the place down. There were arguments, of course, with my parents and college lecturers about this, but in hindsight, the ability to do so in the end, the belief that I didn’t need to put myself through the disorienting hell of my imagined Oxford education to escape my roots was entirely middle class. In adulthood, I’ve met numerous working class Oxbridge graduates who found the whole experience bewildering, even if they did well. They, too, had felt conflicted about going, but the option not to was never on the table.
In any case, Leeds, which I put as my first choice, was not much better. I chose to go there because I wanted to be somewhere with hardworking people and underground clubs and freedom. Half my family lived in or near the city, and they were more normal than the people I’d met in Oxford. I applied to live at Bodington Halls, because it was the cheapest accommodation. When I arrived, the blocks were full of rich kids who’d chosen it because their older siblings had told them it had a good party scene. Once again, many of them knew each other — from private school, from posh grammar schools et cetera, et cetera. From gap year full moon raves in Thailand. Once again, I questioned my middle classness: if these people were ‘normal’, and I had nothing in common with them, what was I? When they talked about how many drugs they’d tried before, how they’d worked part-time for a whole summer to save for travelling, I talked about how shit my schools had been. Their idea of what it meant to be common was grimy, was druggy. They wanted to prove they were poorer than they were; I wouldn’t let them. I felt defensive of a world I had never really seen as glorious either; so I occasionally shared the parts of my upbringing that weren’t the reason I’d made it to a Russell group university. My first boyfriend’s mum introduced him to ecstasy when we were fourteen, after she got out of prison. A kid shot up a class at my school with metal BB gun pellets in year 9. I’d got to know too many homeless teenagers during Friday nights at the YMCA. These were the darker parts of my town, of my friends’ lives, stories that weren’t mine to tell, but I claimed them because if these people were not the elite, then I was not middle class. Working class history was my history.
Except, of course, it wasn’t. I had always been middle class. Just because these privately educated rich kids were cosplaying a life less privileged than their own didn’t change my own position. Apparently, this is common: today we find books by “able-bodied, white, privately educated” influencers on what they claim are “middle class anxieties”. That my idea of what it meant to be working class was perhaps more accurate than theirs didn’t unpick the middle class material security that had carried me to university.
There have been many times in adulthood when I’ve felt — and materially have been — precarious. I had to work part-time throughout my undergraduate degree to make ends meet, to pay for food and rent. When a back injury forced me out of work for two months the year after I graduated and my employer refused to cover sick pay, I ended up in a lot of debt. Being middle class — not rich — in the age of precarity didn’t give me a free pass. But it did give me a safety net: I would never have been homeless. In a worst case scenario I could have “moved home” — as in, to the spare room at my mum and dad’s. And I suppose they might even — could even — have stepped in before that. When I was off sick, I borrowed money from them for private physiotherapy at £40 an hour so I could get back to work, while I waited for my NHS referral to go through. I think a condition of being rich or middle class is not realising that borrowing £120 for emergency medical treatment is not an option for many people.
I think a lot of middle class millennials think of themselves as working class because they feel precarious. Because often, they are in materially precarious positions. Their relationship to where they work and where they live — to capital — is precarious. They rent an apartment without knowing if they’ll be able to afford it next year. They take fixed-term contracts in historically middle class workplaces, suffer for low-paid internships without knowing if it will ever lead to liveably-paid work (the middle class, it turns out, have done a terrible job of organising). In the age of precarity, the middle class works harder than their parents did, but it isn’t working out like it did for their parents. So unlike them, unlike the comfortable who grace our television screens and write for our newspapers, we must be working class. Everything sucks!
Precarity is a condition for most of us under late capitalism: but that doesn’t mean we experience it equally. It doesn’t mean most of us are working class. What precarity unveils is that class is structural (and is intergenerational) as much as it is about one’s labour. Today, perhaps as always, it makes more sense to think about class in terms of the risks we are able to take as individuals and as social groups. The rich can risk a houseparty during the pandemic, because an £800 fine is pennies to them. They can risk the fees of studying classics at university in a world where jobs requiring that degree basically don’t exist. They can risk posting their opinions online, because if it puts one employer off, their school alumni group can fix them up with another. They can risk everything for a political campaign (is it any wonder so many left-wing movements today are disproportionately led by rich kids?) They can risk an unpaid journalism internship leading to nothing, because they didn’t pay their own rent anyway. They can risk shares on the stock exchange.
Being middle class means being able to take some risks; means if everything completely goes to shit, everything won’t go completely to shit. Hopefully I won’t inherit my parents’ mortgaged house for decades — their wealth is not mine — but as long as I have a relationship with them their asset in a roundabout way is my collateral, as well. This isn’t the same as being rich — being able to risk it all because your parents actively make money from money (are landlords, own shares, inherited enough to pay for your private education). At some point along the sliding scale of risk (of class, of precarity) is being working class. Being working class means it is very difficult or impossible to take the risks that could threaten the ability to pay for the things we all need to live, no matter how far in perpetuity those risks might materialise.
To think about class in terms of a sliding scale of risk implies the obvious: that class is messy, and that one’s class position is not necessarily a static point on a line but a constantly shifting nexus of relations to capital. Marx didn’t write about the middle class, and the binary of bourgeoisie and industrial proletariat that has been with us ever since perhaps has something to answer for the middle class’s failure to recognise themselves in what it denotes: if I am not ‘rich’, I must be ‘poor’ — I must be working class! The reality today is that a great many working class people in the UK also have a tight relation to capital, in the form of mortgages and access to credit card debt; a great many people are not piss poor, but can’t take the risks of the richer, even with the strings of capital attached to them. We are not all middle class, but what middle and working classness have in common is a burden of risk that the rich could never understand. This is not to say that the middle-working class distinction is obsolete, but that by lumping the middle with the rich as “the privileged” perhaps hinders more than helps our understanding of inequality in late capitalism. If nothing else, it is a heuristic that could help the non-dangerously precarious ‘middle’ to recognise a fat chunk of the population has it worse than they do.
Last week sociologists Sam Friedman, Dave O’Brien and Ian McDonald published a fascinating study that suggested “47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class”. As the above discussion would suggest, in the age of precarity, I think there are some real issues with defining class primarily in terms of the nature of one’s employment, as is common in academia. Class (as opposed to class identity) reaches not only back into the past lives of our parents and grandparents, but also our future — our ability and our willingness to access finance that offsets the risk of everything going to shit. But the study nonetheless included numerous cases of individuals claiming a working class identity based on their parents’ or grandparents’ origins, who were themselves very clearly middle class if not actually very rich. The paper doesn’t really differentiate between who is middle class and who is rich in the study — probably because the study was not about the cooptation of middle classness but about non-working class people — “the privileged” — assuming working class identities.
Nonetheless, I think to understand why this happens at all, it’s critical to recognise that the concept of ‘middle class’ has also been thoroughly butchered by people too afraid to face their own elite class identity, to confront themselves (and their parents) as the rich that lurk behind the scenes, behind the screens of trading floors and property development companies. Politicians with multi-million pound homes in Chelsea are not middle class. The great majority of privately-educated people are, by definition, absolutely not middle class — they are 7% of the population! The middle class identity crafted by London-based newspaper columnists whose parents got them their first job in journalism is not middle class.
This butchering of middle classness — the conflation of an idea of middle class identity with middle class position — matters because a significant proportion of the UK population actually is middle class, and it encourages their cooptation of working class identity — a phenomenon documented in the study. And that is a real problem: wielding “hard work” and sidestepping their parental safety net, middle class identitarians are sliding into positions that have been carved out for working class people, making political claims on their behalf. A solution, then, is perhaps to reclaim what middle class actually means from the rich: precarious, perhaps, but not at risk of impoverishment.