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.

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