What makes you middle class?
From Katarina Hill – Intern in Politics and International Relations
What does it actually mean to be middle class?
Since moving to the UK from Denmark I am certainly aware that I am middle class – but why? I never thought about social classes much in the 19 years I lived in the supposedly happiest country on earth (do not believe it, it is an elaborate ruse). Being English and Danish (and some other heritages but let us not get into that) I grew up with two cultural influences, however the delightfully British concept of social class never snuck into the various cultural traits I adopted from my dual nationality. Three years of living in Britain and I am suddenly painfully aware of social classes and just how middle class I apparently am. The reality of my evidently middle class habits, and how they are not feasible on an undergraduate student income – even with a decent monthly educational grant (thank you, Denmark) – hit me during my first year of university. Shopping at Waitrose on a regular basis (they may overcharge for milk, but their veg is nicer) was no longer an option, and Nescafé Gold was now a luxury rather than a cheaper-but-still-nice alternative for my morning coffee. I am good at budgeting and bargain hunting so it was not a big adjustment, and hardly something that really bothered me. Yet, some of my friends did tease me with the odd comment about just how middle class I was. My boyfriend is also quick to point out and lovingly poke fun at my middle class traits; whether it is my taste in food, the way I dress and speak, or the fact that I tell him he cannot wear an un-ironed shirt to dinner with my family. But what does it actually mean to be middle class? Does it really come down to things such as our clothes, vocabulary, and general demeanour? The dictionary definition does not help clarify things. One quick Google search of “middle class” and the first thing that appears is “the social group between the upper and working classes, including professional and business people and their families”. That honestly does not offer much of an explanation… So upon seeing a quiz from the Telegraph entitled “11 signs you’re a middle class summer cliché” which I could not access without a premium subscription (oh, the irony), I decided to put my middle-classness to the test. Literally.
I searched the internet for some class quizzes and found a large variety from websites such as Buzzfeed, the Independent, and the Telegraph. Some of the questions were almost identical for a lot of the quizzes, such as whether you say ‘pardon’ or ‘what’ if you did not hear someone, or if you call it a ‘front room’, ‘parlour’, ‘sitting room’, etc. While some tests were based on vocabulary, others such as the Buzzfeed quiz, focused on slightly different traits. For one question, I was asked to “pick a Jennifer Lawrence”, and was presented with various pictures of the lovely actress with short descriptions of the moods she apparently displayed in each shot. I picked “just getting on with life Jennifer Lawrence” along with the Daily Mail as the paper that makes me angriest. The results of my answers to the various quizzes included “Not middle class at all”, “Just plain old sort-of middle class”, “Elite, if you eat more canapés”, and “You’re the bloody queen aren’t you?”. So that internet venture did not aid my quest to find what truly makes you middle class one bit.
I assume that most of us can agree on a few things that determine whether you are middle class. Financial capital for example; your job and income is probably one of the most defining factors of your social class. But what happens when you throw social capital into the mix? Who you know, what you know, and where you learned what you know seems to be even more defining than just your job and salary. The area you went to school in, and even more importantly which school you attended can quickly send you from lower to middle, or middle to upper class. Except these characteristics can then become contradictory. You do not have to come from a certain area or level of income to attend inherently middle and upper class institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge University. It certainly helps if you do, but it is not a prerequisite (they need to meet their quotas, and Eton simply does not represent all demographics). Coming back to the dictionary definition of ‘middle class’ stating that it includes “professional and business people and their families”. ‘Professional’ does not say much in terms of social class. Generally, if you are paid to carry out something you are a professional at that specific thing – it is your profession, you are a professional. But I doubt very many people would look at a professional builder and think he is middle class. So ‘professional’ is honestly a bit of a grey area. Further, to include the families of these professional and business people, is somewhat of an assumption as well. Just because your parents are middle class does not necessarily mean that you are. It may often be the case that people are, but I also know plenty of people who come from rather well off and very middle class families, yet they see themselves as working class – or vice versa. As the picture so eloquently illustrates, if you are middle class you are somewhere in the middle between rich and poor. Except these days middle class seems to mean upper class, and upper class means you own a lot of horses and go fox hunting. ‘Upper class’ is almost a filthy term now, which is why I think some people say middle class when really we mean upper – they do not want to admit that they are wealthy.
So really all I can seem to make sense of is that the middle class is in the middle. What your definition of that middle is may completely differ from mine. I do agree that although I do not have a substantial annual income, and I sometimes live in my overdraft for months at a time, I am middle class. I also have some preferences and habits that when I compare them to others, sometimes seem hilariously posh (my pinky occasionally pops up when I have a pint – who does that??). It does seem, however, that in the current financial and social climate in the UK it may be along while before we truly discover exactly what makes one middle class.