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Social Class in the United Kingdom

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Social Class in the United Kingdom

We've all heard of the upper, middle, and lower classes, but did you know there are now seven economic classes? Read on to find out more!

Class division: meaning

Defining the class system is not simple. Social classes are often subjective and their division isn’t as clear today as it was in the Victorian period. Traditionally, classes have been split into ‘upper’, ‘middle’, and ‘lower’ but as time has progressed, these lines have blurred.

The class divide in Victorian Britain

The Victorian era was dictated by Queen Victoria's reign, beginning in 1837 and ending in 1901. During this time, the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire made Britain a world trailblazer but also served to entrench inequality at home.

ClassWho belonged to it?
UpperAristocracy or royalty. These people were the wealthiest and most elite in society.
MiddleDefining the middle class, even in Victorian times can be problematic. The upper-middle classes tended to be merchants, businessmen, and financiers. Public services grew so shopkeepers, doctors, and teachers were also part of the middle class but didn't always earn a lot of money. The lower-middle classes were often office clerks, who didn't earn a good wage either.
Lower/workingA ‘skilled’ lower or working-class worker like a coachmaker would earn more than an office clerk. Other working-class occupations included street sellers who would provide food, waste products, or kitchenware for their communities. ‘Unskilled’ workers worked in workhouses and sweatshops under awful conditions for little payment. ‘Mud-larks’ waded through the filthy River Thames in London to scavenge for waste material to sell. Prostitution was rife in London and would allow young women to save money but came with the issues of sexually transmitted infections and vulnerability.

The class divide in Europe

Many European countries were much further along in challenging the elite during the nineteenth century than Victorian Britain. The French Revolution of 1789 demonstrated the possibility of taking rights and developing democracy through force.

In 1848, there were widespread revolutions against the monarchy in Austria, Germany, France, and Italy. Whilst these were not all successful, they demonstrated that the voice of the ordinary people was, in many cases, united against the existing class system.

Social Class in the United Kingdom, La liberte guidant le peuple, StudySmarter1830 painting by Eugene Delacroix titled ‘La liberté guidant le peuple’, Wikimedia Commons.

The class divide in Britain (1912)

In 1912, just before the First World War began, the British Empire was the dominant world power. 25% of the globe was under its rule and the Industrial Revolution coupled with the wealth from the countries Britain had colonised gave the country immense economic power. However, there were still huge inequalities at home. Britain was male-dominated and made up of an 80% working-class population.

The social and political inequalities became clearer and made their way to the forefront of public consciousness. This was in part due to the support of the ordinary workers from trade unions and German political philosopher Karl Marx’s influence. In his 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx said:

Karl Marx, 1875. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians (workers) have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Working men of all countries unite!

Trade unions are organisations with the primary function of ensuring that workers have acceptable salaries, working conditions, and hours. When legalised in Britain in 1871, the Trade Union Act gave workers a voice and an organisation with which to improve their working lives.

Trade unions were particularly active in the coal mining industry. Coal mining was a profitable business for Britain and for a time, its most valuable export. Therefore, the Coal Miner's Strike of 1912 is a fantastic example of the growing voices against inequality in the British class system and the growing power of the ordinary worker against the lawmakers and the elite.

The Coal Miner's Strike of 1912

  • Until 1912 there were inconsistencies in coal miners' wages.
  • Each mine or colliery had its own price list. They measured their prices by task or amount of coal extracted. This led to different wages at different collieries.
  • At the end of February 1912 at Alfreton Colliery, Derbyshire the first strikes against this method of payment began.
  • This spread to other mines in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and then nationally.
  • Strikes were illegal so the miners claimed that they were on ‘holiday’.
  • Coal was the petrol of Britain and there were disruptions to its transportation around the country.
  • After over a month of strikes from almost a million miners, the government introduced the Coal Miners Minimum Wage Act later that year.

How was the middle class established?

As we have already mentioned, in 1912 the British working-class population was around 80%. The transformation of British social class divisions from then to now is largely due to the emergence of a middle class. There were many events in the twentieth century that contributed to the changing face of the class system in the UK. What were those events?

Years

Event

1914–18

The First World War gave Britain a sense of unity against a common enemy. The war created a sense of nationalism as ordinary boys and men were now heroes.

1917

Lenin's Revolution in Russia brought Marxist doctrine into practice. Now the world's largest country was following Communist ideals.

Communism

The practical application of Marxist theory. A political system that focuses on equality of all workers and a centralised government that controls the economy.

1918

The establishment of the Labour Party was vital in making class political. Now working-class people would have a political mouthpiece.

1928

Women in England, Scotland, and Wales were provided equal voting rights to men thanks to the continued campaigning of the Suffragette movement and the Pankhursts.

1939–45

The Second World War had a similar effect to World War I, unifying Britain. The country experienced mass bombing in the Blitz.

1948

A Labour government created the National Health Service. A renewed emphasis on social welfare aimed to provide free and equal healthcare to all.

1950s and 1960s

British decolonisation around the world led to a greater microscope on class issues at home. Technology began to accelerate with refrigerators, telephones, and TVs becoming more available for all. In 1967, BBC 2 aired the first colour TV program. A rise in consumerism coincided with the growing service industry.

Decolonisation

The withdrawal of the coloniser (Britain) from their colonised country and declaration of that country's independence. In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain withdrew from many of its colonies in Africa.

Service industry

An industry that focuses on serving a customer. Examples include retail, hospitality, communications, and banking.

1974

Another successful Coal Miner's Strike cost the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath his job and gave a pay rise and other concessions to miners. Deindustrialisation was firmly in motion. In 1970 there were 9 million industrial workers in the UK, by 1990 there were only 4 million.

Deindustrialisation

The process by which manufacturing decreased as Britain moved to become a service industry economy as it was more profitable.

1979

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rose to power.

1980s

A series of measures by Thatcher such as increased deindustrialisation, crushing the Miner's Strike of 1984 and privatisation increased the gap between rich and poor. This government favoured profitability over welfare. This gave rise to the North-South divide.

Privatisation

Selling of government-owned companies to private buyers. A huge amount of privatisation occurred under Thatcher leading to around half a million government-provided jobs being lost.

2011

Continued declines in manufacturing meant that it only accounted for 9% of workers in comparison with 81% in the expanding service industry.

Manufacturing industry

An industry that focuses on the production and creation of goods that are sold at home or exported abroad.

There are two key themes that ran through this century:

  • The growth of marginalised voices such as British colonists, miners, and women.

  • The rapid increase of the service industry replaced the emphasis on manufacturing in Victorian times.

During the Victorian period, only the elite could control their destiny. However, significant events such as decolonisation, the Miner's Strikes, and the advancement of women's rights disrupted this status quo during the twentieth century. The empowerment of marginalised voices led to greater confidence and belief within the working classes to advance their situation.

Also, thanks to deindustrialisation and the rise of a customer orientated service industry to boost the economy, there simply weren't enough jobs for traditional manufacturing workers. They had to diversify sectors and consequently earned a better wage. As we will see below, this established a far larger middle-class group.

Social class in the UK: statistics

Today, many of the Victorian concerns about the British class system remain the same but now the lower classes and marginalised sections of society have a far louder voice. Crucially though, the landscape of social class has completely changed. We are now advised to split the class system into seven different categories. How does this work?

Well, we usually define class by factors such as job, wealth, and education but a BBC Lab Study in 2011 known as The Great British Class Survey1 looked at economic, social, and cultural factors and only 39% of the population fitted into traditional ‘upper’, ‘middle’, and ‘lower’ categories. 161,000 people took part and it is the biggest study of its kind to date.

ClassPercentage of populationAverage ageExplanation
1. Elite6%57Members of the elite score very highly in economic, social, and cultural categories.
2. Established middle class25%46This group also scores high in all categories and half of the members have a university education.
3. Technical middle class6%52A new class group characterised by a high economic score but lower social and cultural scores.
4. New affluent workers15%44A younger group with medium economic power but much greater social and cultural understanding. Often the children of group 5.
5. Traditional working class14%66The oldest group score low in all categories but have economic capital from owning their houses.
6. Emergent service workers19%32The youngest group and the highest proportion of ethnic minorities. Members tend to live in the city. They are comparatively poor but score highly on social and cultural awareness. Often the children of group 5.
7. Precariat15%50The ‘precarious’ proletariat scores low in all three categories: economic, social, and cultural.

Whilst these figures may be slightly skewed because more elites took part in the survey and the precariats may not have had internet access, they clearly demonstrate a more complex class landscape.

We can see that the established middle class is the largest category, completing the transformation from 1912 when 80% of the population was working class. The traditional working class has begun to disperse as their children fit into new categories.

This suggests that class is also generational. The opportunities for social mobility (changing social group) are now greater with chances to gain economic capital quickly, through social media influencing or sports such as football. Increased travel has also led to increased social and cultural awareness from almost all groups.

Social Class in the United Kingdom - Key takeaways

  • Traditionally, we define class by job, wealth, and occupation.
  • Nowadays economic, social, and cultural awareness are more important in defining class.
  • Victorian Britain had three clear class tiers: upper, middle, and lower.
  • In 1912, 80% of the British population was working class.
  • A series of changes including political growth for the working classes and a shift from manufacturing to the service industry occurred in the twentieth century.
  • Now we can split the British class system into seven categories with the established middle class as the largest group (25%).

Sources

1. Paul Kerley, 'What is your 21st Century social class?' BBC News Magazine, 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions about Social Class in the United Kingdom

The growing political voice of the ordinary worker and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy contributed to the change in class divisions in Britain during the twentieth century.

The Great British Class Survey of 2011 splits the UK into seven class tiers. The largest number of people belong to the established middle class category (25%).

Working class is a term that refers to people of lower social, cultural, and economic status in the UK.

Upper class is a term that refers to people of higher social, cultural, and economic status in the UK.

Social class today is measured by looking at economic, social, and cultural factors and the relationship between them.

Final Social Class in the United Kingdom Quiz

Question

What were the three categories of class in Victorian Britain?

Show answer

Answer

Upper, middle and lower class.

Show question

Question

What are the seven categories of class in the UK today?

Show answer

Answer

Elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers and the preceriat.

Show question

Question

What is a mud-lark?

Show answer

Answer

A person who scavenges in a river to find waste materials to sell.

Show question

Question

Why did coal miners go on strike in 1912?

Show answer

Answer

Inequality in wages

Show question

Question

What percentage of Britain was working class in 1912?

Show answer

Answer

80%

Show question

Question

What percentage of the UK was established middle class in 2011?

Show answer

Answer

25%

Show question

Question

What kind of jobs did middle class people have in Victorian Britain?

Show answer

Answer

Middle class workers were merchants, businessmen, teachers, doctors, financiers or clerks.

Show question

Question

What was the most valuable export for Britain in 1912?

Show answer

Answer

Coal

Show question

Question

What happened in 1948?

Show answer

Answer

Creation of the NHS

Show question

Question

When did women get the same voting rights as men?

Show answer

Answer

1928

Show question

Question

Which of these sectors is NOT in the service industry?

Show answer

Answer

Mining

Show question

Question

What did Thatcher do to increase class divisions in the 1980s?

Show answer

Answer

Thatcher's policies of deindustrialisation, privatisation and her reaction to the Miner's Strike in 1984 increased divisions between higher and lower classes.

Show question

Question

When was the Labour party created?

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Answer

1918

Show question

Question

What percentage of people worked in manufacturing in 2011?

Show answer

Answer

9%

Show question

Question

Which event in the 18th century challenged the elite in Europe?

Show answer

Answer

The French Revolution in 1789 challenged the monarchy and helped develop the rights of ordinary people and democracy.

Show question

Question

What was the reaction of the government to the 1912 Miner's Strike?

Show answer

Answer

The Coal Miner's Minimum Wage Act was introduced to tackle inequality in wages.

Show question

Question

What happened in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s?

Show answer

Answer

Technological advances and a rise in the service industry contributed to growing consumerism.

Show question

Question

Who are often the children of the traditional working classes today?

Show answer

Answer

The new affluent workers and the emergent service workers?

Show question

Question

In the Great British Class Survey, which class tier has high house prices but low social and cultural scores?

Show answer

Answer

Traditional working class

Show question

Question

How much of the world did Britain rule over in 1912?

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Answer

25%

Show question

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