Sociology professor Mike Savage and his team ran the BBC’s Great British Class Survey of 2013, in which 160,000 people answered questions about their class. Their findings are at the heart of the revealing book Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican, £8.99), which suggests class may have changed but is no less important today.
You write that soaring inequality is “remaking social classes today”. How do the new social classes differ from the old ones?
Social class divisions used to be focused around the primary division between middle and working class, which could be interpreted as the difference between non-manual and manual employment, being paid a salary or wage, white collar or blue collar, and so on. Nowadays distinctions in the middle levels of the social structure are harder to draw – especially since the decline of manufacturing employment has dramatically reduced the number of manual workers. In Social Class in the 21st Century we argue that the main class divisions today separate out a small elite class at the top who are massively advantaged by their stock of economic capital, a relatively sizeable precariat class at the bottom, which has very few resources, and a set of more fragmented and differentiated classes in the middle.
Is class about income, behaviour or more?
We see class as a combination of economic capital (income, savings, assets), social capital (your social networks) and cultural capital (your capacity to engage with forms of leisure that set you apart from more popular forms of cultural activity). Classes are formed when these three capitals align, which is a sign that economic divisions also translate into the social and cultural worlds. Thus when the wealthy elite also have high status social networks, and tend to participate in exclusive forms of culture, then we can see how this class is pulling apart from other social groups on multiple dimensions.
What does it mean that chief executives were disproportionately keener to fill in the Great British Class Survey – whose results are at the heart of the book – than cleaners?
This was a fascinating finding that shows how deep rooted class divisions are in Britain. Badly paid cleaners don’t want to do a survey that will reinforce what they already know – that they are at the bottom of the pile. Well-paid executives flock in droves to a survey that they expect will use “scientific” methods to confirm them in their own view that they are an elite vanguard of contemporary society
How does class relate to where you live in the UK?
We found that class divisions take a very strong geographical form today, especially with the elite class being overwhelmingly located in London and the South East, where the pivots of economic capital are located. Class has always had a geography, but in the past this used to be focused around a north-south divide that distinguished a rough-and-tumble working class industrial northern England, Scotland and Wales from a soft and pastoral English south. Today, however we have more of an urban-rural divide, with all major cities – with London being paramount – becoming centres of wealth and elite living, and with the other social classes being more likely to live in suburbs or smaller towns. This process has been seen with dramatic intensity in Manchester, for instance, when hardly anyone lived in the centre of the city 30 years ago, but where there are now huge swathes of upmarket residences. We have moved a long way from the situation where the upper class was a landed class – today the elite class is a profoundly urban class.
Why has social mobility gone down?
Well, this is a contested issue. There is still a lot of social mobility in the middle ranges of the social structure, but our research indicates that at the top levels, amongst those getting into the most highly paid jobs, there are clear advantages for those who come from well off backgrounds. This is because our highly competitive education system means that those who are most likely to succeed are those who can bring all possible advantages into the frame,
Is the current government more class driven than previous ones?
Certainly, the current Conservative government is more nakedly class-driven than the Labour governments from 1997-2010. The “austerity” banner is used to justify public spending cuts, the burden of which falls disproportionately on those in the most vulnerable positions and there has been no concern to force the very wealthy to pay even a bit more to help resource public services. We are in a strange situation where the fortunes of billionaires have been soaring over recent years at the very same time that life for those at the bottom has deteriorated. This is not always deliberate class politics by the elite. One worry is that the elite class is now so insulated from most of society that they simply have very little awareness of the reality of most people’s lives and even when they are well meaning (which of course, is not always the case anyway!), they elaborate policies that embody elite assumptions. The bungled bedroom tax was only one example.
Mike Savage launches Social Class in the 21st Century at Blackwell’s bookshop (bookshop.blackwell.co.uk) in Manchester on 2 December