The latest group of Britons to face the backlash of destabilising economic and social change is, according to Broke, the middle class. The growth of a sizeable professional elite – across the rich world – has been one of the most enduring trends of the past century. David Boyle’s thesis – bulging with implications and certainly timely – is that this rise has come to a juddering halt.
The idea that the middle classes are in trouble has been well charted in the US, with a string of books such as It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! (2012). Here the evidence is clear-cut. The US led the way in the middle-class explosion, but is the first nation to allow this trend to reverse. The size of Middle America – stung by decades of near-stagnant wages and opportunities – has shrunk by about a quarter since the late 1970s.
Broke argues that the British middle classes – facing a tightening squeeze on schools, mortgages, universities and pensions – are facing a similar decline. However, the US evidence is not directly transferable. The US middle has a literal meaning, the group straddling the mid-point of the income ladder. While Boyle does not provide a rigorous definition, he is referring to a different group, namely well-paid professionals higher up the income ladder, below the enriched 1 per cent but mostly above the “squeezed middle”, the latter perhaps the nearest equivalent we have to the American middle.
The main losers from today’s crisis are those on middle and lower incomes, a group acknowledged here, but only in passing
Most of us know formerly well-heeled professionals who have fallen on hard times, and if we don’t, Boyle offers plenty of sympathetic examples. Indeed, the book relies heavily on such anecdotes. It has the feel of a highly personal lament, albeit an eloquent one, for the loss of the virtues of a class of which he is part, for the end of “what the middle classes believe they stand for – education, culture, leadership, perhaps also imagination…and the ability to think for yourself”.
Lament and anecdote, however, are not enough to support a thesis as potentially profound as this. There is a considerable body of evidence, mostly ignored in this book, on the winners and losers from recent upheavals. The UK is a multispeed nation, with a majority in the slow lane, some in the fast lane (mostly the middle class in the top 15-20 per cent of incomes) and the 1 per cent on the superhighway. While some parts of the professional classes are facing a whittling away of privileges, this is in part because of intergenerational redistribution. Many of today’s working-age generation, middle- and non-middle-class alike, are simply paying for the crown jewels grabbed in the post-war era by many of those in or close to retirement, a serious imbalance no one seems willing to correct. But this is the middle class of one age group eating the middle class of another.
How to manage the emergence of near-stagnant living standards and the end of an era of rising prosperity and choices for most is fast becoming one of the most pressing issues of the day. But while forecasts of the dying of the middle class would indeed be bad news, not just for them but for economic growth and political stability, they can be overdone. The main losers from today’s spreading crisis of opportunity and livelihood are those on middle and lower incomes, a group acknowledged here, but only in passing. Some parts of the middle classes are being caught in this whirlwind of change, and the current generation will have it tougher than their parents and grandparents, but they remain a good deal better protected than most of the rest.
Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?
By David Boyle
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £14.99
Published 25 April 2013