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Defining Class

What we mean when we talk about "working class".

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A couple of months ago on LBC, Keir Starmer was asked to define “Working Class”. A simple enough question, for someone who claims to be from that very class, perhaps, but one which had him floundering. He couldn’t answer with any conviction or certainty. It was almost as if he had never had to grapple with this question before. The fact that the leader of a party which was founded upon working class rights and improvements to working conditions couldn’t actually define “working class” should be a clear indicator of a deeper issue. 

The average person has less responsibility to have the answer to this question ready and waiting than the leader of the opposition. Many people going about their lives don’t feel the need to think about their personal class, or even develop class consciousness outside of themselves. We can all see the material differences between a king and a factory worker, but the lines defining the classes have blurred as mass production makes “luxuries” more affordable, and prestige professions lose status. 

Despite these class lines being blurred, we’ve seen so clearly in our lives and careers that there is still an ongoing class war in this country, and possibly always will be. We care about class. It’s right there in our name: Working Classicists. In the last few years we’ve had dozens of messages from people asking if they “count” as a Working Classicist. We’d like to clear up at least where we stand, so that when we harp on about access and equity for the working classes, or when we speak up against inequality and privilege, you know where we’re coming from. 

In the interests of transparency, it is important that you know where we come from. George’s dad was a prison guard and his mum took menial jobs, ultimately landing as a care home nurse in her fifties. He grew up in either “quarters” provided by the prison service, or else in council houses. He went to state schools, and was the last of that lucky generation to receive tuition free, rather than tuition fees. The Scottish government paid his fees to become a teacher.

Since then, he has earned enough to have a mortgage and a car, and he works in a skilled job as a teacher, albeit a job which commands less and less status. His interests are in cinema, video games, writing, and campaigning for better state education.

Likewise, Miri was born in a small flat in Birmingham to parents who worked in an electronics shop. Her parents worked many jobs as she was growing up, including in administration, food preparation, and factory work. Their mum worked hard during these years to achieve a degree (and then postgrad degrees) from the Open University in psychology, and now works in the field, but neither parent had gone to university prior to this. 

There was never any spare money, sometimes not even enough, but her parents shielded her pretty well from this reality. Miri was taken to museums and art galleries, went on cultural trips, and was encouraged to study hard at school – an upbringing they describe as ‘middle class culture on a working class budget’. Class consciousness and solidarity was always very important.

You will make your own mind up whether we are working class, but we would both certainly claim a working class background.

In the past, class distinctions were clearer. The working class did a lot of unskilled, and skilled, labouring work, while the middle classes did skilled non-labouring work. The upper classes were the property and business-owning class. That distinction has become less and less applicable over time as our society has changed. Today, the middle class are as likely to own property, or businesses, as the upper class. The scale may be different but the ownership of these things does not flow to only the upper class.

Many would seek to separate the classes by economic income. Up to about £30,000 per year a person may be working class; from £30,001 to £90,000 one may be middle class; above that threshold, you may be upper class. These divisions are crude, though. A person on the median income of £32,300 per year has a wildly different experience to one on £62,600, yet they are bracketed together. One may be able to own a car, the other less so. The median, of course, is skewed by the class pyramid. In population-size, the working class is much larger than the middle class, which in turn is much larger than the upper class. 

There are cultural markers to class, too. How one dresses, how one talks, how comfortable one is with the pronoun “one”. These are harder to nail down because culture is very fluid, and the hidebound markers of cultural class in the past (e.g. pudding = upper class; dessert = middle class; afters = working class) no longer apply in the same way.

Codes of behaviour still exist, however, and classes are still able to look down on one another according to the codes by which they behave. Glottal stops, “correct” clothing, and high/low culture can all be types of demarcation. Despite no clear cut lines between the classes, many are still so keen to distinguish themselves from those they consider “lower” in class than they are.

What seems absolutely clear is that the “middle class”, whatever its cultural descriptors, is either much bigger than most think, or else is used as a catch-all to encompass elements of all classes.

All of which may point us to the idea that class as a way of looking at society is too vague to be useful, too inconsistent to be relied upon. What is the point of saying a person is working class anyway? If they work hard, they can better their position. This whole class nonsense is irrelevant.

To that we say: nah.

At Working Classicists, we believe that class is mostly determined by privilege, rather than anything so simple as money in your account or whether you’ve been to the theatre. The more privilege you have, the further up the social scale you go. Hence, the more money you earn, the more access to privilege you have, therefore the “higher” your class status.

Let’s consider two cases. Forgive some of the cliches, but these are merely methods of thinking.

The first is a nuclear household earning £42,000 per year. That sum may be enough to own a house, albeit in a not-particularly pleasant part of town. It’s not enough to send the kids to a private school. They rely on the NHS for their healthcare, and public transport to get around. Perhaps there is one family holiday a year, but with the cost of living where it is, that holiday is likely to be in the UK, and perhaps for a week, tops. One unexpected bill – perhaps energy prices are hiked again – is enough to rule out that holiday. Two unexpected bills could mean a missed mortgage payment. In order to cope with these unexpected bills, this family is more likely to need to take on debt, which means they are more afraid of losing their jobs, and more likely to stay in work which delivers no sense of personal fulfilment. They are wage slaves, who just get by, and do not have the extra to have savings.

The second family is also a nuclear family earning £130,000 per year. Their house is more likely to be in a nicer place, and they are more likely to send their children to one of the smaller private schools. Private healthcare, and shorter waiting times when health emergencies occur, are viable. More than one overseas holiday per year may be a given, regardless of the cost of living – it may be a matter of Italy rather than Bali if costs are being cut. An unexpected bill can be absorbed into the disposable income of the household, and while irritating, it is not the end of the world. A healthy savings account – and perhaps share portfolio - means that taking time off work to search for something more inspiring is an option. Children in this family are likely to inherit money and/or property, and thus extend their privilege across generations.

The latter family is earning more because of the relative position of the parents, and this can go back generations. Whether they are GPs at a family practice or successful small business owners, these parents have contacts. Their children will mix with children of other mid-wealthy middle class parents, with good jobs, and aspirations for their retirement. If they want an internship at their father’s firm, they can get one. If not, their parents probably know someone in some kind of business that will give their child a boost. If their kid moves out and wants to get onto the property ladder, they more than likely can get a small gift or loan from their parents. Even if they work for their money and pride themselves on “no handouts”, they can often find a place to comfortably stay in their parents’ home while they save up a deposit. This family has a network, and whether they realise it as part of their privilege or not, it ensures their safety and the safety of future generations. In the case of the former family, there is no such safety net.

We know from both experience and research that children become what they see. The latter family, with two parents who either went to university or made their money through workplace success, has within its four walls a ready-made example. If a child’s parents went to Oxford, Oxford is a viable option. It’s almost commonplace, expected. They might even know someone who works there, an old professor, an old school chum. They could put in a good word, perhaps. Even if no good words are available, their child still feels that “going to Oxford” is a thing that regular people can do. Having been to private school, they studied Classics and Latin, and know what to expect when they see those options on an intake form.

In the former family, it’s likely neither parent went to an Oxbridge university, and perhaps neither went to university at all. They certainly wouldn’t have any strings to pull. If their child works hard and presents well, of course they can go to university, but it feels so much further away. If neither parent went, they can’t help with things like interview preparation, writing a personal statement, or even choosing the right clothes for open days. There is a massively reduced chance that this child will look at the word “Classics” on an intake form for university and do more than skim over it looking for something they recognise. They could take a leap of faith, and many do, but they don’t have the same safety net underneath. The doors are not closed to this child, but the steps to get there are far more numerous and perilous. 

You can use your own thoughts to imagine poorer and richer families than these outlined, and the consequences of those kinds of privilege and deprivation, but it’s more than just money – it’s about connection, access, and networking. We believe that class is in the details. In the upbringing, in what children see, in how they are helped to achieve financial and cultural success. Far, far more than simply categorising them based on the salary of their father, or the quality of their education in and of itself. 

The kind of life each of these illustrated families has access to is dramatically different and, importantly, defined by a level of stress and need. Working class people live in a world where they do not have the resources to easily alleviate the stress imposed by their working lives. We’re not saying that middle class people live stress-free lives, but we’re suggesting that a middle-class family has more leeway before reaching the breadline. The speed with which the family reaches breaking point is a better measure.

So, for Working Classicists, this is where we want our energies to go. To provide children in state schools the same opportunities as those in private schools. To give access to subjects which over the last forty years have become a plaything for privilege in the UK. To provide support to people in love with the ancient world, who are only a surprise bill away from having the electricity turned off or who can’t just follow in their parents’ footsteps. 


If you would like to know more, or have any questions, please send us an email.

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