Britain’s disappearing middle class

Once the country’s crowning social achievement, the middle class faces a bleak new reality


Andy Drysdale / Rex Features / CP

Earlier this year when the BBC unveiled its Great British Class Calculator online, all of my London friends took the test. Surprisingly, we all scored in the top two categories—either “elite” or “established middle class,” on account of the fact that we went to university, attend the theatre, work in the arts, media or law and throw dinner parties at home. But in a town where oligarchs buy $16-million mansion blocks as a place to park their cash and Bentleys sit arrogantly double-parked in rush-hour traffic, the notion that my cohort qualified as “elite” seemed laughable. As the cost of living soars and wages flatline, even identifying as middle class is becoming a stretch for many of us.

This summer, the British middle class went from being temporarily “squeezed” to officially terminally ill—an observation made by historians, politicians and pundits across the political spectrum. In the Guardian, the columnist Suzanne Moore observed that class had been recast as a generational issue, with anyone born after 1985 denied access to what their parents had, “the traditional tools of social mobility—education, housing, steady income.” In the Daily Mail of all places, the historian Dominic Sandbrook declared that Karl Marx was right: Capitalism had begun to devour the middle class that made it seem so great in the first place. Thanks to soaring food and energy costs, disappearing pensions and lack of jobs, he predicted ominously that “in a few decades time it is perfectly plausible that the old-fashioned professional middle class will have virtually ceased to exist.”

This shift, which is occurring both in Britain and the United States (and to a much lesser extent in Canada), is the most profound and disturbing social and economic trend of our time and will undoubtedly dominate the psyche of the West for generations to come.

As the ladders of social mobility crumble, the middle-class values that are the foundation of modern democracy are also destabilized. What’s the point of thrift, hard work, patriotism and common decency if the system is stacked against you? Conversely, Moore writes, “the values that have actually enriched the wealthy, the bankers and the baronets, appear almost as opposites: greed, lust, ostentatious consumption, arrogance, dishonesty.”

Despite its iconic class system, Britain is a country that has long and rightly prided itself on social mobility. The rise of the middle class in the 20th century is this country’s greatest social achievement—one that is being swiftly eroded by a new and disturbing economic reality. Just look at the numbers: According to government statistics, the average British earner has seen her income drop by an average of 10 per cent in real terms since the 2008 downturn—a setback that has taken the middle class back to the mid-’90s in terms of earning power. Household spending has dropped five years in a row. A recent survey found that two out of three British families stayed at home this year for their summer holidays. The reasons for this, of course, are that energy, fuel and food prices have soared and unemployment remains high. Britain has the highest child care costs in western Europe. Real estate, particularly in the nation’s capital, is some of the most expensive in the world. Interest rates remain historically low, so even if you had anything to save, why bother? It’s a bleak new reality in which many educated, hard-working young people are having to readjust their basic economic expectations. As Spectator editor Fraser Nelson recently put it in an editorial, “The lifestyle that the average earner had half a century ago—reasonably sized house, dependable health care, a decent education for the children and a reliable pension—is becoming the preserve of the rich.”

Meanwhile, for the super rich the good times just keep on rolling. The top 0.1 per cent of British earners now take home an astonishing 7.5 per cent of national income, and that will hit 14 per cent in 2035. As Bank of England governor Mark Carney continues his policy of quantitative easing, the wealthiest citizens will stand to benefit most—for they are the ones who own the assets being inflated to speed economic recovery. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s strategy to fix the economy has so far made the rich far richer at the expense of the vast majority—a fact presumably not lost on the many millionaires in his cabinet.

While the U.S. pollster Rasmussen Reports early this year found that a whopping 65 per cent of working Americans still optimistically consider themselves middle class, Britons seem to be seeing things more clearly. According to a poll released last January, almost 60 per cent still define themselves as working class—a notion that flies in the face of New Labour’s declaration in the late ’90s that “We are all middle class now.”

The sad truth is, fewer and fewer of us are middle class now, a trend that shows no signs of abating. The Great British Class Calculator must be recalibrated. The future of democracy depends upon it.


Britain’s disappearing middle class

  1. It’s the fake-leftish Fabian ideological cult that dominates the establishment in Western academia, the media and the political elite, who are to blame for this. They took a thriving culture, destroyed it, and replaced it with nihilism, libertinism and juvenilism.
    You achieve a higher standard of living in the UK by being on the dole and living in a council house, than working at a full-time, living-wage, lower middle class job. Only suckers wouldn’t take that offer.
    Of course once other-people’s-money runs out, everyone will be devastated. But that’s the aim of the leftish all along. Not citizens, but human livestock to farm.
    “They’ll turn us all into beggars ’cause they’re easier to please”.

    Note – “leftish” not the left.

    • Gosh, you are so ignorant. I suggest you spend some time in UK to understand that society.

    • Isnt that insane.

      I never believed that welfare people were not allowed to make any money, over and above welfare; until I was forced onto ODSP. (its true!) Unless you have something steady enough to leave the system totally; most all extra money you can make for working….. is not yours.

      Big problem.

      P.s. It has nothing to do with horizontal things (like left n right) Its all about system ownership, it’s classism. (The Government class gets all your exra potatoes to do with as they wish, and you are quotad off of your own field produce)

  2. US, UK and Canada all having the same problem. A disappearing middle-class.

    So are other western countries….we just don’t hear about it in Canada

  3. Now we have elite upper class, upper lower class, middle lower class and no hope.

  4. Oh the perils of a fiat currency, debt based society, eventually the baby boomers bills have to be paid – by everyone. I can’t help believe that this stories underlying theme is; “look, it’s not just happening to us in Canada.”

    • I may have been syncoped DUE to having no debt. As if someone sees some non existant competition for the role of King of Court, Baron, Regent, or something similar…..in whatever twisted brain areas from which they function.

      Ever been to Victoria BC, or some of the other enclaves of Quebec etc?

      The feudal land owner, and private granted faily plot system, is “most”prevelant there. in Victoria, you OFTEN see one grand house….surrounded by many tiny shacks with gardens. (Next block…….same thing)

      There are Victorians among us….

  5. A shrinking middle class in the west is inevitable as globablization facilitates a race to the bottom. Over educated, over expectant western workers can’t (and often won’t) compete with those on this planet that are just happy to have a job. The ultra rich will continue to leverage this divide until… well until there isn’t one, it’s in their nature.

    • That is what the banksters and the 1% would like you to believe. It is not globalization, it is the financialization of the economy, where the profits are collected by the moneychangers and not the real economy, that is leading to wealth disparity.

      Ordinary people have to pay taxes and get their services paid for with taxes. The banksters and 1%’ers just need the central bank to print some more money, and their proximity to the money printers and control of the political system, which is the most advanced in the United States and Britain is the problem.

      In the economic rescue in the United States and Britain, there was/is unlimited money to bail out the banks, financial system, and the 1%.

      The share of profits in the S&P 500 from in the financial sector has grown from under 10% in the sixties to 25% today. The financial sector does produce anything. It is just suppose to facilitate economic activity in the real economy. That shift in where the profits are going from productive activity to speculative trading activity by the banksters and the 1% is the problem.

      The broader services sector is going to decide who they are going to ally themselves with. The producers or the banksters. If, in Canada, they follow the route of the US and Britain, and align themselves with the banksters instead of the producers, we will suffer the same fate.

  6. The middle class is being extinguished because their values are incompatible with the economic system.

  7. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer is the natural outcome of capitalism. Globalization with it’s free movement of capital and goods, but not people, has merely accelerated this.

    Such was the conclusion of Ho Chi Ming – born in an upper class family – but who became a Marxist. He declared that capitalism required a major war every 20 years to reset the counter.

    But now the “powers to be”, in this nuclear age, have concluded that this is not the way to continue to maximize their accumulation of wealth in the long term. So China for example must be just as dependent on the US (to sell their products) as the US is on China to keep the US from bankruptcy.

    Collateral damage is the loss of middle class in all countries. This of course will ultimately lead to a global “French Revolution” at some point. The ruling class will go any extent to put this off as long as possible.

    • Ever sell guillotines?

  8. Corporatism, mercantilism and crony capitalism are not the same as laissez faire. In the latter system, some rich people go broke and are not bailed out. Some poor people get rich. It’s a dynamic system.

    The middle class is shrinking because it is supporting at the same time: the welfare state; the warfare state; rich elites whom the government bails out when a bubble bursts.

    Under laissez faire, the middle class will rise again.

    • Exactly. Look around us. is it double speak when politicians saythey are for the middle class but then give our small businesses the added costs of obama care? Any business owner who wants to survive would make sure the added costs are minimized by either hiring someone part time as opposed to fulltime or raising prices. The middle class now has less work or more expensive products. In either scenario the middle class either earns less money to buy or the price has risen to high to buy. Now the business has less productive work or less sales. Businesses begin to fail. And then doesn’t this just make it easy for larger corporations to wait out the death of these smaller businesses by being able to absorb the costs or just buy out failing business? How is that a level playing field. Who loses in the end. Middle class.

      Or how about bailouts? obviously using someone else’s (taxpayer) money for risky loans will come back to bite you but it was touted by politicians as the american dream for everyone to own a home. I can bet you any legitimate bank or lender would think twice to give up hard earned money as risky loans but hey, politicians made sure it was easy, taxpayer backed money, so why not, its “insured”. Who takes the bigger hit? Again, the middle class.

      The politician tells the middle class its for them. They get votes. Who wins? The politicians not…the middle class.

      The politicians says they need money to regulate these corporations. They need more programs. They need more taxes for those programs to protect the middle class. The middle class gives freely because we trust them more with our money than ourselves. Who wins? The politicians

      At this point the middle class is exhausted. He needs that free health care and he needs that security and those loans because he looks at his bank account and realizes…theres not much left. Where did it all go? And why did he give it up so easy?

    • Accept that……the new elite, is Government employees, which is hardy laissez fairre.

      It started with th PUblic Sector unions under the Liberal Govt in BC (check out their growth about 10 years ago)

      Now….its here, in Ontario.

      Then came……HST. (as a perfectly duplicated business model…BC first> Ontario second)

  9. Great survey; designed to make ya think you’re at the best you’ll ever get, and are against the pleebs, when (in reality)you are a pleeb. Its arrogant that they think you will believe their test results more than your own eyes and sensabilities. It’s sad and pathetic that…..they’re often right in that assumption.

    “attending the theatre means youre elite” <—Doesn't a sportsbar night often cost more than a trip to the theatre or concert hall?

    "in a few decades time it is perfectly plausible that the old-fashioned
    professional middle class will have virtually ceased to exist.”" <—Leading to much war, famine, and fear fo all; including the "houses of the wealthy". (the term "pox on your house" had a real base you know)

    "What’s the point of thrift, hard work, patriotism and common decency if the system is stacked against you?" <–See the new hinderance to freedom of mobility and right to work; "syncope". Not only is it stacked against you, it "actively and aggressively" seeks to destabilize and offtrack you.

    "“The lifestyle that the average earner had half a century ago—reasonably
    sized house, dependable health care, a decent education for the
    children and a reliable pension—is becoming the preserve of the rich.”" <-Have you noticed the number of "how to live" seminars being presented by those who have had ther bags of cash left at their lots, or even, who are more broke than anyone? I trust that we will see Churches, where the rich can share their "morals", spout up more often too.

    P.s. I'm looking for an angel investor; product…..remot controled guillotines.

  10. The only way to fix this is Kevin O’Leary’s worst nightmare: unionization of the middle-class. There was a time when I thought of union members as lesser beings than myself – I was indoctrinated to think that way, to see my “salaried employee” status as somewhat higher on the ranking than the “hourly-rated” employees who were unionized and whose leaders my bosses met at the negotiating table every three years to pound out a new agreement. The reality is that my wages and benefits were always adjusted to remain just a little better than those negotiated for the unionized employees. It is my premise that this was done specifically to keep unions from gaining ground among salaried employees. I now feel quite differently then I did back then. I firmly believe that a renewed movement to unionize all salaried employees up to senior management levels is the only way the new “peasant” class, to which most of us now belong, is going to be properly rewarded for its contribution to the economic success of that 1% and is going to reap its proper share of the benefits accrued by that 1% from their use and enjoyment of the country’s resources. There is no room or time for snobbishness, like mine of the past: it is time for we of the poor and middle classes to demand an end to this very inequitable situation.

  11. One word: immigration. Oh, and white flight.

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