Author(s)Kirsten Birkett
Date 7 March 2023
Categories Christian Living and Class and Ministry

Traditionally, ‘working class’ referred to the manual workers, as opposed to the landowners who accepted their rents and paid their wages. That was the real division, and it no longer holds as a way of understanding British society in general. While the term ‘working class’ is still very much in use, it is a term that covers various different groups, and it is not the only way of understanding how society is divided.

Somewhere vs anywhere

For instance, a few years ago journalist David Goodhart introduced the idea of ‘somewhere people’ as opposed to ‘anywhere people’. These terms cover some of the distinctions we are trying to understand.

‘Somewhere people’ are that 50% of the population or so who think of themselves as attached to a certain place and a certain group within that place. They belong somewhere, whether that is Liverpool, the Scottish Highlands, or within earshot of the Bow Bells. They feel strong connections with their communities and the communities’ histories. Family ties with the place may go back generations. [1]

Goodhart calls this an ascribed identity; an identity given by the place and by their community. Family, security and community are generally very important to them, and are the basis of their loyalties, tastes, activities and political preferences. They are less likely to have a university degree and are more likely to settle in the same place as they grew up.

‘Anywhere people’, on the other hand, think of themselves not in terms of their place but in terms of their work and achievements. Their identity is achieved; they think of themselves in terms of life experience. They are the people who expect to be able to fit in anywhere, and they often do travel and move in order to gain new experience. They value freedom, diversity and fluidity.

They are more likely to be university graduates, and the experience of university is part of creating the sense of anywhere. Their identity becomes more tied to their life development than their place of birth, and may be suspicious of group attachments. Goodhart sees this group as about 25% of the UK.

While the two groups might be characterised by certain types of education, income and work, the real difference is how they see themselves in relation to the wider world. Somewhere people belong somewhere. Anywhere people can go anywhere. For Goodhart, this went some way to explaining the surprising result of the Brexit vote. The large group of Somewheres did not value the relationship with Europe nor the freedom to move between countries.

You do not need to meet with many communities across the UK to feel the resonance of this analysis. While Goodhart could be criticised in various details, there is a strong general truth to his description, and it ties very much into understanding modern class distinctions.

McConnell, for instance, writes of the choice as a distinction between working and middle class.

People from more affluent backgrounds can decide where they want to live, what job they’d like to take, and what school their children can be educated in. In short, they have choices. People who live in council estates have fewer choices, and often none.[2]

The lower you are on the class scale, too, the less chance you have of upward mobility; of improving your employment or education, and so having more choices of where to live, holiday and socialise. Also you may well likely have a family background or local culture that does not encourage or directly opposes working hard in school and achieving, regardless of the quality of the teaching or innate intelligence.

Different kinds of capital

It was probably the philosopher John Dewey who first used the term ‘social capital’, referring to the networks of relationships that help society run and which give individuals advantages in life. It functions as an asset, just as financial capital (having more money) does. How well you do in life, then, is not just a matter of your wealth in economic terms. There are other kinds of capital, and sometimes a wealth of social capital can help people more – and be more valued – than mere financial capital. Another kind of capital is cultural capital, referring to the kind of culture you can access and enjoy: opera, fine art and restaurants or movies, TV and football. When you are able to speak about and take part in ‘higher’ culture, you have access to a different group of people, and so gain a particular kind of social capital, that is not available to someone who can’t afford (and doesn’t like) such things.

In Britain, London and the southeast of England holds the people with the most social, economic and cultural capital. That is where they are concentrated and where they gravitate; it is where the jobs are with the highest of each kind of capital, and you can probably only afford to move there if you can access a variety of capitals. The North has traditionally, and still has, fewer such people and less access to those capitals.

Working class lack of economic capital used to be allayed to some extent by their social capital – friends and family who could put a good word in with the mine foreman or the factory boss. But the loss of primary industries and the forced dislocation of communities has broken down such capital to a large extent.

Class distinctions, then, cannot be understood simply in terms of wealth or of earning power. It is also about what your money gives you access to. Even with money, if a person does not feel comfortable in a social group, he or she will not be able to access that social capital. Different kinds of social and cultural capital also teach different attitudes to money; what to do with it, how to value it, how to handle it.

Type of job

Sociologically, there are different groups that are lumped together in ‘working class’. A generation or so ago, working class people were those whose dads worked down the mine or at the factory. For many, there was a certain work ethic and community spirit that went along with that; a pride in being able to pay the bills, never accepting charity and valuing family; probably a strong commitment to the union and the Labour party.

However various different social changes undermined this type of working class. One was simply the decline of UK industry, hastened by the Thatcher government policies that opposed the unions.

Since 1994, the Office for National Statistics has used what is called the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC) which analyses social strata based on occupation and does not use the word ‘class’ at all. It has eight categories, with ‘higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations’ at the top and ‘never worked and long-term unemployed’ at the bottom. However five out of the eight categories describe jobs that in other contexts would easily be called ‘working class’. Category 3 is ‘intermediate occupations’ (clerical, sales and service, technical services); four covers employers in small organisations in industry, commerce, services and agriculture, or ‘own-account’ workers in these areas; five is lower supervisory or technical occupations, six semi-routine occupations, and seven routine occupations. In other words, there are a wide range different jobs that could be considered working class.

How you vote

It is commonplace to assume that working-class people vote Labour. Research suggests, however, that we should not conflate the two groups, now or at any other time in British history. By 1910 there was a ‘working-class movement’, largely affiliated with the Labour party, which had a cohesive effect for the working classes. But ‘For the rest of the century, British trade unions remained sectional interest groups, divided by skill, status, and industry’.[3] They represented the ‘organized working classes’ but in 1940 this was still only 33.1%; and Labour, at its best in the interwar years, had no more than half the working-class vote. Many manual workers ‘never joined a union or voted Labour, still less shopped mainly at the Co-operative store. Both religion and political activism were strongest in the “respectable” working class’.[4]

Where you live

Most people who live in council estates, schemes or equivalent, would probably be included in and consider themselves working-class. These are the people highlighted by Mez McConnell. Even then, this category covers very different people. There will be the traditional and skilled working class people there, in trades or service jobs. There are the unskilled workers, shop assistants or waiters, factory workers, warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, cleaners, labourers for the trades. The self-employed entrepreneurs; mobile hairdressers, gardeners, pts or the more dodgy ones. The long-term unemployed on benefits. The drug dealers. Sex workers. Immigrants and asylum seekers.

There are many decent, hard-working, family-conscious people who live here. There are also many who are not so decent, not so hard working and not so family conscious. There is little doubt that there is a hardcore of those we can only describe as an underclass.[5]

Some love it, and some want to get out – or at least get their children out.

Habitus

The French sociologist Pierre Bordieu introduced the idea of ‘habitus’ in understanding social groupings,[6] and it has been taken up widely in understanding class. Habitus goes beyond external markers of any particular groups, and describes rather the internalised assumptions, thoughts and ways of being and acting that any group takes on. The differences between middle class and working class, then, can involve a whole range of things that go to make up a person:

...accent. Holidays, spots, media consumption, dress, food, the extent to which people live in the moment or plan for the future, whether they have chaotic or orderly lives and understandings of the family and parenting.[7]

‘Habitus’ can also help us to understand differences within what are called classes. For instance, ‘middle class’ can cover different types of habitus. The public school Iwerne networks created by John Nash are a world away from the primary school teacher in a northern city – in money, education, job prospects, networks, holidays, types of socialising, and ideas about social norms, and yet both might be described as middle class. ‘Middle class’ is not really a useful category in this sense; but we can gain a sense of the ‘habitus’ of different people.

The working-class habitus, however, is distinctive, and is hard to overcome, involving an indwelling feeling of being judged poorly. It seems to be a constant sense of self-doubt, very different from the internal confidence often instilled by middle-class schooling:

The working class are never free from the judgements of imaginary and real others that position them, not just as different, but as inferior, as inadequate and ‘can never have the certainty that they are doing it right which is one of the main signifiers of middle-class dispositions’.[8]

This brings us to one of the most powerful markers of being working class: how you feel.

How you feel

In recent literature, the aspect of what it feels like to be working class is coming more and more to the fore. What makes a working class person is not their job, their wealth or lack of it, or where they come from; it is very much how they feel.

Probably the biggest, most disregarded and possibly most surprising and overlooked measure of class is, as with poverty, related to feelings.[9]

...

Your class isn’t about where you live. It’s an attitude or a belief. It is more about where your head is than where your home is.[10]

...

And a lot of it is a feeling of despair: ‘The feeling that no matter how hard you work, nothing ever changes.’[11]

One of the qualities that creates resilience in life is self-efficacy; a belief that you can accomplish what you set out to do. It’s very hard to develop such self-belief in deprived circumstances, where nothing you do changes anything, and everyone tells you that anything you do won’t make a difference. This is part of why deprivation remains persistent. Similarly, depression which can be caused by deprivation in turn robs people of the ability to try to overcome it.

Yet we must not conflate ‘working class’ with ‘non-working class’. The working class still exists, and a lot of them are working. They build our houses and unblock our drains. They deliver our Amazon parcels. They collect the bins. They drive trains and buses. They work in care homes. They kept everything going during lockdown because they couldn’t afford to stay at home (and so were more likely to catch covid). They even voted for the Tories in 2019.

They are all being served poorly by the evangelical church. ‘When would any of them have an opportunity to hear the gospel proclaimed?’ asks McConnell of the hairdressers, electricians and other working friends who attended his father’s birthday party. Many of them won’t.

There is quite clearly a fault line in the UK evangelical world. All men and women are not equal when it comes to having access to the gospel and discipleship-oriented resources.[12]

And because working class-ness is about feelings, not just money or job, there are a lot of British people who feel working class even though they have university degrees and own property. They may technically fit into the middle class, but they don’t feel welcomed by middle-class churches or the people in them. Whether it’s the unemployed, frustrated and freezing person single mum on benefits, the tradesman with a thriving business, or the office worker with a degree who grew up on the estate, up to 60% of people in Britain are not hearing the gospel because they are excluded by our churches.

That’s a problem.

Some statistics

60% of British people feel working class.

25% of British people have manual or service jobs.

59% of British households had all household members aged 16 years and over in employment during July to September 2022, unchanged compared with the same period last year. 14.0% of households had no member of the household in employment.

47% of those in managerial or professional jobs consider themselves working class. The proportion who consider themselves working class has not changed since 1983.

82% of those who identify as working class say there is a wide divide between social classes, compared with 70% of those who identify as middle class. Overall, nearly 73% of British people think it is fairly or very difficult to move between classes, compared with 65% who held this view in 2005.

Middle-class people are nearly 80% more likely to end up in professional jobs than those from a working-class background.

81% of people in British evangelical churches have a university degree compared with 27% of the whole population.

Useful sites:

Government report on social mobility

British Social Attitudes report on social class

Oxford University report on social class

Office for National Statistics report on working and workless households

 

Find the rest of the posts in this series here.

 

[1] David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics (London: Penguin, 2017).

[2] Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK and the Responsibility of the Local Church (Leyland, Evangelical Press; 2021), p. 101.

[3] Peter Ackers, ‘Protestant Sectarianism in Twentieth-Century British Labour History: From Free and Labour Churches to Pentecostalism and the Churches of Christ’, International Review of Social History 64 (2019) 129-142, p. 131.

[4] Ackers, p. 132.

[5] Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last and the Lost, p. 157.

[6] See Pierre Bordieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[7] Joanne McKenzie, ‘A different class? Anglican evangelical leaders’ perspectives on social class’, pp. 170–189 in Abby Day (ed.), Contemporary Issues in the Worldwide Anglican Communion: Powers and Pieties (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016), p. 175; also 'The Person God Made Me to Be': Navigating Working-Class and Christian Identities in English Evangelical Christianity’ Sociological Research Online, 22 (1), 11.

[8] McKenzie, p. 7.

[9] McConnell, p. 111.

[10] Quoted in McConnell, p. 117.

[11] McConnell, p. 125

[12] McConnell, p. 28.