For more than a decade, we have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe, and that it is falling. In North America, Japan and much of the rest of the world, a revolution or invasion abruptly disrupted the traditional class systems and social mobility was greater after those events. This is also true in the US, where income inequalities, and class and race divides are even greater than in Britain. Class is always there — it is all-pervasive but also always changing.
Upper Class Defined
Our current classes — working, middle and upper — originally defined along occupational lines, were born out of the machine age and in newly expanded towns and cities. The older social classes that predated our current hierarchy we now call castes. Not long after the start of industrialisation we recognised that it was the machines that made current class systems so different from the older agricultural caste systems.
As societies industrialised, economic relationships began to be more clearly ordered, primarily around the connections between people and the machine, and between the interests of those who owned the machines and those who were forced to operate them.
Then, at home, more precarious classes emerge, and what class means and what class you are changes — because capitalism is changing. Our social classes now are often seen as classes of free-market capitalism — but it is not the market that is important in defining them. Markets have existed for millennia , as have bosses and servants, slaves and masters.
Out of the machine age
What was new was industrial capitalism — and what made that capitalism so new was its machines. Without machines being built to harness the power of carbon, initially through coal, we would not have been able to transform our world so much in such a short time, and in doing so reorder our societies so dramatically. That reordering has not ended.
It groups people as bundles, and sets them against each other. This wealth is beginning to matter more than income in the UK in determining everything from where you might live , to how you are educated.
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Now, the classes that best define us are changing as we change and as the political, economic and social structures that surround us change. Machine-based capitalism, which has been around for just over half a dozen generations, appears to be slowing down.
It is stunning to discover that such a short period of time has been long enough to form the bedrock of the working, middle and upper class labels we most commonly allocate each other today.
The greatest change under our current system is the class position of women. Almost everywhere in the world today, women live longer than men. Before our current class system was established this was not the case. Across Britain, and in many similar countries, young women are now far better qualified than young men. Moving out of our current class system will see a further transformation of the position of women. Middle-class identification is surprisingly constant across all levels of education.
Less than half identify as working class at any educational level.
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The biggest impact of age comes among those who are 65 and older, who are more likely to identify with a higher social class compared with younger people. There is an impact of race.
Everything else being equal, whites are more likely than nonwhites to identify with a higher social class. People living in rural areas are less likely to identify in a higher social class compared with those living in urban and suburban areas. While in many minds there may be a lower class and an upper class in American society today, relatively few Americans at any income or education level like to think of themselves as being in those classes. Americans with very low socioeconomic status are just as likely to see themselves in the working or middle class as in the lower class, while Americans with very high socioeconomic status view themselves in the upper-middle class rather than the upper class.
The data support, to some degree, the popular conception of a dividing point at the college graduate level between those who are working class and those who are not. For those with a high school degree or some college education, middle class edges out working class, while for those with less than high school education, the majority identify as either middle or lower class. In short, Americans' resonance with the label "working class" is not as substantial as might have been expected, even for those without college degrees.
The fact that political identity doesn't affect subjective social class is important, given the extraordinary importance of partisanship on so much else that shows up in our data. In other words, for people with the same socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, being a Democrat doesn't make one more likely than being a Republican to identify as working class.
Nor does being a Republican make one more likely than being a Democrat to identify as upper-middle or upper class. Subscribe to receive weekly Gallup News alerts. Never miss our latest insights. Globalization has become a scapegoat for rising inequality and weak economic performance, but the evidence for this is weaker than commonly believed.
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