Class ain't what it used to be

August 23, 1996

Britain may not have eradicated its class system, but its sociologists are at least giving it a thorough overhaul. Lucy Hodges continues our series on work and the family.

"The long-established official definition of social class in Britain urgently requires a major overhaul." With that dramatic sentence the men from the ministry decided the time had come to change.

They were advised, mind you, by David Rose, associate director of the Economic and Social Research Council centre on micro-social change at the University of Essex. But the message was clear: the registrar general's social class scheme of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, introduced in 1911, is no longer adequate to describe today's complicated society.

As Rose explains: "Designed for a more static society composed largely of family households with one, male breadwinner, and a Britain in which there were sharply differentiated social classes, the scheme can no longer equip us to comprehend the social and economic variations in our society." Quite so.

Having decided reform was needed, the Government asked Rose to look at how this could be done. He is now trying to produce a new classification system in time for the 21st century - one that takes into account the unemployed, and the difference between, say, a petrol pump attendant and the personal assistant to the managing director of a company. At present both petrol pump attendant and PA are lumped together in the same category.

Changing employment patterns - the increased numbers of women in the workforce, the growth of the "flexible" labour market and rising rates of unemployment since the 1970s - have also created problems for classifying people into the arcane categories of the old social class scheme.

But its most serious drawback is that 40 per cent of the population is excluded, including housewives, the retired, long-term sick, people with disabities and those not in employment. Those groups contain some of society's most vulnerable people, with poorer life chances than the lowest social class of unskilled workers. How can the old classification scheme be describing our society when it omits so many?

Under the old system every member of the working population is allocated to one of six social classes: I professional, II managerial and technical, III nonmanual skilled, IV manual skilled, V partly skilled and VI unskilled. Class I contains the nobs - permanent secretaries, professors, doctors and lawyers; II contains managing directors and lesser managers; V contains labourers.

That system was always full of anomalies. In the past 20 years a plethora of publications has pointed to its problems. Many academics criticised it for having no coherent theoretical basis. Sociologists questioned whether occupation was a key indicator of social class, pointing to the fact that the system took no account of whether someone was an employer, a supervisor or a manager.

Perhaps out of frustration, David Glass, professor of demography at the London School of Economics, produced a new system in 1951, extensively amended in 1961. This was classification by socioeconomic groups. Also maintained by the government, it aims to sort people into jobs of similar social and economic status by dividing them into 17 categories. It gets round some of the anomalies of the social class system by classifying people according to whether they are employers and managers and proprietors in large establishments of central and local government and industry (Group 1), managers and proprietors of small establishments (Group 2), professional workers -self-employed (Group 3), professional workers - employees (Group 4), and so on.

Because it takes into account size of organisation and employment relationship, it is closer to the sociologists' concept of social class than the old social class system. The revision adopted by Rose and his colleagues will effectively bring socioeconomic grouping and social class into a unified scheme for application for the 2001 Census.

Both systems should be distinguished from the one developed for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising that divides people into groups based on the first five letters of the alphabet and is used in market research and political polling.

It is a sobering thought that classification by skill goes back to the discredited ideas of the 19th-century eugenicists and the notion of society as a hierarchy of inherited natural abilities reflected in the skill levels of different occupations. Its real inspiration lay in the debate about differential fertility - the extent to which the lower orders were genetically or environmentally conditioned to have more babies than those higher up the social scale.

T. H. C. Stevenson, an assistant registrar general who advocated interventionist health measures, wanted to show that differential fertility was about environment. To do this he had to measure fertility in the different occupational groups. Which is why occupation has been used as a crucial indicator ever since.

The question the layperson asks is whether the reform being introduced in the way people are classified shows that Britain is becoming a more classless society. Rose says no. Britain may seem a more classless society in the loose sense, in terms of accent, vocabulary, status and deference - the old criteria that meant so much to many. Those things have changed. Society has this appearance of being more egalitarian. But that is not what the academics are talking about. They are looking at how people's position in the labour market affects what happens to them in life - when they die, what they die of, what illnesses they get and how many children they have.

Such measures are "objective" compared with the more subjective measures used in America to rate the prestige of certain occupations. Americans do not go in for the sort of occupational classifications described above because of their tradition of rejecting class-based analyses. Most major European countries use similar classifications to the British. In fact, the British are thought to have a superior tradition in this field, partly because we are so aware of class but also because we have always been strong on empirical research. We try to understand issues such as poverty and health through the lens of social organisation.

Although Britain may on the face of it seem to be a much looser, less classless society, the relative chances of a person from a modest background making it to the top - doing a John Major - have not increased in the postwar period, according to the experts. Relative mobility has not changed.

The relative chances of a person from the working class making it to the upper middle class, the professional/managerial level, and retaining that position, have not altered. While people think society has changed, what has happened is that the shape of society has changed. This gives the appearance of a more open society.

Moreover, those who have moved from the working class to the professional/managerial class pass on their knowledge about how to do this to their offspring making it more and more difficult for working-class people to break through - unless there is another huge expansion of this sector of employment.

A working-class young person now is competing with large numbers of middle-class young people at a relative disadvantage. There is not the cultural capital in the home that is going to carry them forward like there is in middle-class homes.

Putting it crudely, life has become more of a one-chance saloon. If you do not get your qualifications while at school, the chances are you will be stuck forever. There is not much you can do about it any more. Whereas in the postwar boom you could enter work on relatively lowly qualifications and make it to the top.

Combine that with the changes that have taken place in certain industries - in the media and financial services that have experienced considerable downsizing - and you can argue that we are now living in a society more open to the vagaries of the market than at any time since 1945. In the end, the sociologists argue, class is about our social position, particularly our employment situation. And that is why the government wants to be sure it is getting an accurate picture. It wants to be sure it understands social variations so that it can best allocate health, education and social services money. Hence the new attempt to classify us all.

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