Date finished: January 13th 2017
I’m a sucker for a political book. Whether we like it or not, politics underlies all the problems and successes in our society, and a strong knowledge of the machinations and history of politics is necessary for anyone to understand how our society operates and how we can improve it.
Social Class in the 21st Century analyses the data accumulated during the Great British Class Survey conducted by the BBC in 2013 (you can still use their class calculator here), in which 161,000 people took part, making it the largest class survey in the country’s history. A lot of quantitative and qualitative data was gathered from this study and others, and in this volume, Mike Savage puts together the findings of the team who analysed the data in order to build a new portrait of class structure in modern Britain.
Their argument is relatively straightforward: that the reductive idea of a working, middle and upper class no longer applies in the 21st century. By investigating, economic (wealth and income), social (social networks, friendships and associations) and cultural capital (tastes, interests and activities) we can produce a more comprehensive look at modern class divisions, showing a clear divide between a wealthy elite and a “precariat” of people who struggle to get by paycheck to paycheck. Between them are several middle classes, the borders between which are somewhat blurred, but all of whom are distinctly different to the elite and precariat.
Mixing statistical analyses with personal interviews allows Social Class in the 21st Century to build up a broader, less stereotypical view of class. For example, in one early chapter there is a comparison of two women with annual money of around £11,000. However, one is a divorced forklift driver who identifies as working class, rents a flat and looks after her two teenage sons, and the other is a divorced homeowner living on her pension who identifies tentatively as middle class. Despite having the same income, the first woman very much struggles to make end meets, whilst the other is relatively comfortable living within her meagre means. It’s Savage et al.’s ability to look at the nuances between seemingly similar groups, as well as the broader differences that makes their analysis more comprehensive and valuable than other more superficial readings.
It’s also the study’s ability to dive beyond purely economic matters which makes it more readable than the average, dry academic study. The discussion of cultural capital is of particular interest, highlighting the divide between the older generation’s love affair with “highbrow” culture and the younger generation’s emerging cultural capital which emphasises not the culture being enjoyed, but how it’s being enjoyed. And on social capital – our social networks – the exclusivity of our friendship groups is enlightening, with people often only mixing with their “own people” and if they do associate with people outside their normal circle, they often feel a need to justify this, or the people. This was especially interesting when contrasted with the last book I read, The Year of Living Danishly, which recounted the tendency for all Danes to attend extracurricular clubs funded by the state, and for it to be totally normal for, for example, a cleaner to play tennis with the CEO of a company. This clearly isn’t the case in Britain, where problems of class division still abound.
Social Class in the 21st Century is an important and timely resource which forces us to reevaluate our attitudes towards class in modern Britain. The old problems are still around, but the goalposts have changed. Far from being a purely sociological paper, it’s an engagingly written polemic with a knowing, sometimes ironic tone, and an unequivocal message about the many problems raised by the GBCS. Class is not a communist concept, as Mrs Thatcher once stated, and, contrary to her belief, there is such a thing as society, and we need to stand back and take a good long look at what ours has become.