Defining Class: is it about what you earn or how you act?
By Jessica Wood
Society is ordered; people, places and possessions are constantly being put into boxes. Have you ever seen a movie and not had the desire to place it into a genre? It is a human instinct to name and sort things, that’s why we have an entire literary category called nouns. But what effect is this having on how we view the people around us? Does it explain why I was once told by a ‘friend’ that they would “only be friends with someone who went to a boarding school”? What defines this elusive term ‘class’? Why am I considered to have a lower status in society than them, even though my household income might actually be higher? This made me think that status in society is much more than what lands in your bank at the end of the month. It’s not about money. It’s something else.
Historically, the middle class took up a far smaller proportion of the population than it does now. There was the rich and powerful, and then the poor. The upper class were dominated by landowning aristocrats who inherited their wealth. Opposing that, the working class were the labourers, who had no opportunity for ownership and a much smaller voice. Previously, there was a significant barrier between these classes and little ability for the working class to progress and become more independent. However, the industrial revolution meant the working class were able to rise substantially. It meant an increasing number of ‘regular’ people were able to own property with greater disposable income for commercial goods. Post-war Britain saw the introduction of the NHS and the pension, with the later development of job seekers allowance and the benefits system. The middle class was rising, and the lower classes had a greater quality of life than ever before.
Class today is arguably less defined by how much money you make and more about how you present yourself in society. It is the small differences like whether you shop in Waitrose or Sainsburys, vote conservative or liberal, that greatly shape how people define class. Tony Blair’s introduction of the student loan system has opened the door for the working class to gain a higher education – further erasing the barrier between the classes. That being said, where you are educated is still very significant; for example, Oxbridge is considered more traditionally ‘upper class’ than Essex university. Privately educated students are better prepared for university and they are expected to attend certain institutions. They are also expected to enter certain career fields. For example, without attending Oxbridge, becoming a barrister is more difficult. Such white-collar jobs require a white-collar education whether you have 50k in the bank or not. Likewise, if you inherited a property, it is a greater indicator of a higher class than if you brought it through a government system. Professor Paul Piff explained that “class affects whether someone is going to be accepted into a particular kind of school, their likelihood of succeeding in that school, the kinds of jobs they have access to, the kinds of friends they make”. Class affects every aspect of our lives, but it is less about how much money you make and more about what you do with it. This is an important distinction I’m especially aware of when I’m in the same lessons as people who are noticeably more upper class than myself. But why do I consider them higher class when we are at the same university, with the same teachers?
Do you notice what characteristics you use to determine a person’s social status? Ultimately it is how we present ourselves that gives our peers an indication of class. What job you have, how you speak, how you dress and which restaurants you eat at. You cannot know what someone earns, but you can notice how they hold themselves and the clothes they wear. The phrase ‘the clothes make the man’ is key here and the connotations of white-collar vs blue-collar is significant, even though a skilled machine operator has the potential to earn more than a bank teller. I am not suggesting that we remove the class system, but probing you to think about what assumptions you make about a person based on how they pronounce “water”? And would you treat that person differently because of it?