A question of collar

August 23, 1996

Ceri Peach digests the ethnic data of the 1991 census and concludes that while Indian immigrants are following the white-collar route established by Jewish settlers, people of Caribbean origin are more likely to tread the blue-collar path of the Irish.

Writing on the ethnic question is a hazardous occupation for an academic. The messenger may be attacked for the message. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys commissioned me, as one of four editors, to produce volumes dealing with the data yielded by the ethnic question in the 1991 census. The resulting book was dense with statistical material. In seeking to give an accessible account of the differing trajectories of the ethnic groups, I was unoriginal enough to write about a Jewish model for the Asian groups and an Irish model for the Caribbeans.

The Jewish model was white collar, professionally qualified, self-employed, suburban and owner occupying. It was upwardly mobile economically but enclosed socially, although secularisation had weakened this tendency. There is, however, a second Jewish model, the Hasidic, which is unsecularised, more orthodox, more distinctive in the wearing of traditional clothes and more inner city in its location: Stamford Hill, so to speak, as against Finchley. Indians seem to be following the Finchley pattern while Pakistanis and Bangladeshis seem to be on the Stamford Hill trajectory. In economic terms, Indians and Chinese are making it; Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are struggling.

The Irish model was presented as more working class. It had a higher proportion of manual workers. It tended to have lower educational qualifications; it was less self-employed, had a higher proportion of council house or housing association tenancies and a higher proportion of inner-city residents. Socially it was a more open model, with a greater rate of intermarriage and a greater variety of household types. The Caribbean population seems to be following the Irish trajectory, though with differences.

The aim of ideal types, or of proposed trajectories or models, is not to stereotype but to understand what is unknown in terms of what has already been experienced. Paradoxically, there is little information about the Irish beyond the first generation and the Jewish model is more conjectural still. Further, there are enormous differences within the Asian group between the Indians at the top and Bangladeshis at the bottom, as well as strong gender differences within most ethnic groups. Even the category "Indian" hid differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims and between those who had originated directly from the subcontinent and those from East Africa. Using models in this way is like erecting scaffolding to deconstruct a building.

The 1991 census counted an ethnic minority population of just over 3 million out of a British population of 55 million - 5.5 per cent. South Asians make up nearly half this total. Indians numbered 840,000, Pakistanis 477,000, Bangladeshis 163,000. The Chinese numbered 157,000. The Caribbean population numbered 500,000, the Africans 212,000. There are three other rather inchoate remnant groups. The largest ethnic minority group, however, is still probably the Irish (about a million in the first and second generations) but they were not enumerated in the same way as non-European groups.

The minority population has grown very rapidly in the postwar years from fewer than 100,000 in 1951 to its current size. Up to the 1970s most growth came from immigration. Now, while the older generation is largely immigrant, the young are overwhelmingly British born. The majority of the Caribbean ethnic population has been British born since the mid-1980s.

The class positions of the different ethnic groups differ substantially. The African, Chinese and Indian groups are highly professionalised. At the other end of the scale are the Bangladeshi, Caribbean and Pakistani populations who are predominantly in manual occupations. This reflects characteristics of the groups before they migrated rather than differential success in coping with British conditions. Such characteristics tend to reinforce themselves in subsequent generations so that inter-ethnic differences are unlikely to narrow quickly. In particular, class positions strongly reflect educational qualifications. Groups arriving in Britain with high educational qualifications have done better than those with few qualifications.

The Chinese, Indian and African populations have high educational levels and the Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups low. But aspirations also differ. Many Indians are concerned with getting their children into public schools (Patel is the most common name on the register at Dulwich College), while many Pakistanis are more concerned with gaining voluntary-aided status for separate Muslim schools.

Self-employment divides the Afro from the Asian populations. The Caribbeans, who were low on socioeconomic class, and the Black Africans, who were high in terms of economic class, had the lowest level of self-employment of any of the ethnic groups, while the Chinese have the highest, followed by the Indians and Pakistanis. The Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have important niche occupations in catering and restaurants. There is also shopkeeping and (particularly for the Pakistanis) taxi driving, which is of growing importance. But it is clear that medicine, the law, accountancy and academia make up an important part of Indian, Chinese and African success.

Caribbean and Indian women are highly engaged in the formal employment sector, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi women are not. Caribbean and Indian women are predominantly in white-collar work, but while Indian women have a working profile close to that of their men, a gender divide is opening between white-collar Caribbean women and blue-collar men. But when these economic characteristics are combined with those of family structure, it appears that Indian households generally have multiple wage earners, Caribbean households sometimes have two, while Pakistanis and Bangladeshis generally have only one. Added to this, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis have high unemployment rates and large families.

Islam influences the cultural reluctance to let Pakistani and Bangladeshi women go out to work, but is not the only factor. More than 90 per cent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim, compared with less than 20 per cent of Indians, but Indian East African Muslims seem to share the economic characteristics of other Indians rather than other Muslims.

Unemployment afflicts the ethnic minorities although there are substantial differences between the groups. The unemployment rate of the Chinese was only marginally above the national rate of 9.3 per cent, while at 13.1 per cent the Indian rate was relatively low. Pakistani and Bangladeshi rates were three times the average, Caribbean rates twice. When the figures are broken down by age and sex, appallingly high rates emerge for young ethnic minority men: unemployment for Caribbean men aged 18-19 was 44 per cent.

Asian families embody Lady Thatcher's traditional values; tending towards a married couple with dependent children. Family size is larger than average and in the case of Bangladeshis, much larger than average. Cohabitation and single-parent households are rare. The nominated head of household is almost always male. Spouses are ethnically homogeneous and there is a significant percentage of extended families.

Caribbean households, on the other hand, as in the Caribbean, are almost as likely to have a female as a male head. There is a high proportion of single-person households and of lone parents with dependent children. Average family size is near the national average. More than 40 per cent of Caribbean households with two partners are ethnically mixed and one-third of such households have white partners (twice as often white women as white men). The picture that emerges is of a communally based Asian lifestyle with a strong belief in izzet (honour) and an individuated Caribbean lifestyle.

Although Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis share similar family structures, there are massive differences in living conditions. Nearly 30 per cent of Bangladeshi households contained seven people or more. For the Pakistanis the figure was 21 per cent, but for Indians it was only 6 per cent and for the total population, less than 1 per cent. Bangladeshis were exceptional among the Asian groups in that 50 per cent of their households lived in council accommodation - a housing profile close to that of the Caribbean community. Indians and Pakistanis had extraordinarily high rates of owner occupation (over 80 per cent for the Indians compared with 65 per cent for whites). But Indian properties tended to be semi-detached and suburban while Pakistani properties were Victorian and inner-city terraces, often with few amenities. Bangladeshis tended to live in smaller accommodation and therefore the degree of overcrowding was the worst of all ethnic minority populations.

What emerges is a hierarchy of economic success. At the top are the Chinese and the Indians: white collar, high educational qualifications, self-employed, owner occupiers and suburbanising. Their families show traditional nuclear and extended structures. Next come the Africans, with even higher educational qualifications. Many of them are in Britain for educational purposes and this is reflected in their relatively poor living conditions. Next comes the Caribbean population, with generally blue-collar occupations, but with a gender gap developing between white-collar women and blue-collar men. Households reflect traditional Caribbean patterns with many female-headed families. Half of Caribbeans own their homes. There is a greater than average dependence on council housing, but the population is suburbanising. There is a strikingly high proportion of ethnically mixed households. Next come the Pakistanis and at the very end of the economic hierarchy are the Bangladeshis.

Reflecting their largely rural origins, both Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have a blue-collar profile, women do not go out to work, families are large, overcrowding is high and so is unemployment. They are also the most segregated of the ethnic minority groups and the most encapsulated in terms of maintenance of traditional dress and inability to speak English. But the Pakistanis have achieved high levels of owner occupation, albeit of rather poor housing, while the Bangladeshis are more dependent on social housing. Nearly a quarter of Britain's Bangladeshis live in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest London boroughs, where they have inherited the racist intimidation previously directed at Jews.

The Caribbean pattern contains both hopeful and pessimistic signs. The optimistic signs are that there is no development of the African-American ghetto model. Segregation levels are half those of North American cities. More pessimistically, lone parents with dependent children (mainly women) are disproportionately concentrated into the higher floors of tower blocks, while unemployment rates for Caribbean men are double the average for whites and those for young men double again the Caribbean average.

Ceri Peach is professor of social geography at Oxford University. He edited and co-authored The Ethnic Minority Populations of Britain, Volume 2, Ethnicity in the 1991 Census, HMSO, 1996.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs