True class division will come into focus whenever there is a crisis
‘The arrival of ‘buy now pay later’, has transformed the accessibility of the consumer economy‘
Does social class still exist? On the advent of easy credit which allows people to purchase a huge range of things, from clothes, to cars, to houses, it is more difficult to see the rigid demarcations of social class that have historically characterised Britain.
But has this new, easy access to perceived wealth tackled the deeper roots of a socially classed society? The distribution of damage in the looming financial crisis may provide an answer to this question.
‘Social class’ is a notoriously indistinct term. It does not have a direct correlation with someone’s wealth but is a tangled combination of factors such as education, self identification, access to opportunity, social networks, and financial security. Being a member of a particular social class is a compound of economic, social, and cultural capital, wealth is often the most symbolic indicator but these other factors can be equally important.
To determine whether social classes still exist this really means looking at social mobility, how often and easily can people move between social classes.With the traditional schema of the class system in the UK divided between ‘working, middle, and upper’ classes.
The arrival of ‘buy now pay later’, has transformed the accessibility of the consumer economy. People are able to defer or distribute out payments thus allowing the same amount of purchasing freedom to someone unable to make the payment outright. Clothes, phones, cars, and many other items that were once the hallmark of a wealthier social class are now accessible to a larger share of the population; subsequently giving the perception of social mobility.
Alongside this there is the novel culture of reality TV stars and social media influencers who have an extremely large share of social capital among the younger generation. Most of them are plucked from their normal ‘working or middle class’ backgrounds to a level of considerable wealth and opportunity. Fame has historically been associated with people of particular exceptional talents and the possibility that fame and success can happen more often to people with no specific or obvious talents, in the traditional sense, opens up the routes to wealthier classes. More and more of the population seem to be enjoying a better life-style than their predecessors, this visible positive change seems to demonstrate social mobility.
The question is, how much has this perception of increased social mobility inspired meaningful change? Just because class boundaries are not as opaque does not necessarily mean they have disappeared.
By gabrielle jones: political Columnist
It is essential to realise that growth has not been restricted to the lower and middle classes, as the upper, elite classes have enjoyed exponential growth in the same period. The Guardian reported in 2021 that 1% of the UK population owns roughly a ¼ of the total wealth of the UK. Meanwhile, The National have noted that other top professions such as BAFTA winners, Olympians, top Military officials and Barristers, come from families that have been ‘upper class’ historically. This suggests that social mobility is not necessarily increasing, but the boundaries of class are shifting. Absolute gain for a whole population does not guarantee the destruction of class, we may have simply collectively shifted slightly further along the scale.
The pending financial crisis is primed to show that the perception of social mobility is just that; a perception. Class divisions are already visible through the move to working from home. Access to a laptop, comfortable working conditions, and childcare are having palpable effects on the ability of some to carry on working, while members of the upper class in more spacious living conditions who can afford independent child care have been able to adapt more easily. Jobs that cannot be done from home such as retail, construction, or hospitality, generally associated with the ‘working’ and ‘middle’ classes, increase the chance of workers being put onto furlough or risking their health. Not to mention the reduced support for those on temporary or zero hour contracts, the class lines are already being sketched out, as many in ‘working’ or ‘middle’ class jobs are suffering the financial burden already.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, relief was given to those who owned assets as the prices of houses, for example, increased. Consequently, inequality worsened and the economically fortunate received even more financial security. If the same happens during this coming crisis it will be obvious that the UK is not a level playing field, as assets and job security will cushion the blow for the upper classes. The veneer of social mobility has already been shattered by the pandemic, dispelling the idea that social class no longer exists, and the looming crisis is only set to reveal how alive class divisions really are in Britain.
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