Whatever happened to the British working class?

Julian Gavaghan
The Likely Lads: Two working class men Terry Collier (James Bolam) and Bob Ferris (Rodney Bewes) featured in the popular '70s sitcom - there are fewer of their like now it would seem

One hundred years ago, Britain was a hive of industrial activity - with soot, smog and smoke choking the country’s crammed cities and burgeoning towns.

The vast majority of men (and rarely women) worked in mills, mines, docks and factories – and the flat caps they wore denoted their working class identity.

Few people then could envisage that a century later, this once dominant social group - the traditional working class - would have dwindled to represent just 14 per cent of the population.

Yet that is the startling figure revealed by a new BBC survey, which suggests that as a nation we have moved on from the three-tiered class system of yesteryear that was made up of the working class, the middle class and the upper classes.

The BBC's Great British Class Survey contends that things are now much more complex with no fewer than seven social classes.

Among the new groupings identified in the survey are "technical middle classes", which represents six per cent of Britons.

They are prosperous, tend to work in scientific professions, but more culturally apathetic than their "established middle class" social siblings, who are more highbrow and account for 25 per cent of the population (by far the biggest group).

The survey - in which 160,000 people participated - also acknowledged "new affluent workers", who tend to be from working class backgrounds but earn more than their parents did and are more culturally active, although with few highbrow interests. They make up 15 per cent of the population.

Socially and culturally active (but also poorer and almost always urban renters rather than homeowners) are the 19 per cent of Britons described as "emergent service workers".

The joint smallest social grouping - at just six per cent of the population - are the "elite", who are the richest, more likely to be privately educated than any other class and much more inclined to enjoy opera.

Fifteen per cent of Britons are said to be part of the most-deprived "precariat", who largely rent their homes and - if they are employed at all - are likely to be menial workers such as cleaners.

So, it begs the question: whatever happened to the traditional working classes?

One of the authors of the study, Professor Fiona Devine, of the University of Manchester, believes the decline of industry is the most crucial factor.

"In the second half of the 20th century in particular, jobs in factories, steelworks, mines and other manual places of work were very rapidly lost.

"They were replaced by jobs in services and the growth of managerial positions.

"So you have two effects taking place here.

"Many of the traditional working classes got jobs in the service sector, which are still low paid, but socially very different from traditional industrial jobs.

"No longer are working class people as likely to be a trade union member and work and mix with exclusively men from the same streets.

"They began to encounter a much broader range of people than they would before and household incomes were boosted by having two earners.

"Younger working class people in the post-war era took advantage of improved education to find themselves managerial positions.

"The result has been a great deal of social mobility over the last 50 years."

                                                           [So what makes you working class then?]

Professor Devine highlighted this trend by pointing out that her own father was a postal worker, while her mother worked as a cleaner.

She also pointed out the fact that the average age among the traditional working classes is 66.

"They represent the last people to who could expect to hold traditional manual jobs," Professor Devine explained.

What also differentiates the traditional working classes from the "precariats" – and even more educated groups such as "emerging service workers" - is that they are very likely to own their own homes.

This is a result of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy, which allowed 2.2million working class council tenants to purchase their homes between 1980 and 1996.

And this rise in home ownership – coupled with a huge decline in the proportion of social housing – has perhaps been the second most decisive factor in restructuring Britain’s social classes, according to Professor Roger Burrows from Goldsmiths College, University of London (whose father was a printer).

"Many traditional working class people during this era either seized the opportunity to buy their council homes or felt pushed into homeownership," explains the sociologist who contributed to the report while he worked at the University of York.

"The dwindling stock of social housing, combined with often poor build quality, suddenly meant they had become a place of last resort, reserved for only the poorest.

"This had a massive effect on those people who, for the first time in their lives, owned property – after all, only 20 per cent did during the 1950s.

"Many of these people had become more aspirational – and this had a big effect on their children, many of whom would now be considered new affluent workers or even members of the established middle class.

"It also had a big effect in breaking down working class communities and destroying working class power in the form of trade unions as people concentrated on paying off their mortgages rather than paying subs and striking."

Professor Burrows believes future changes to our class structures are likely to less revolutionary.

But in 100 years our multi-faceted society might look as just alien to future generations as the army of flat cap-wearing workers of 1913 look to us now.