Up the (fiercely staid) workers!

May 19, 2006

Why are academics more middle class than they were a generation and a half ago? asks Maria Misra

The Future Foundation has just published a poll announcing the demise of Britain's defining institution: class. By 2020, it seems, most people in the country will regard themselves as bourgeois. So far, so predictable. But what struck me as surprising about this poll was its breakdown of class self-perception by occupation. While 30 per cent of bank managers proudly style themselves as proletarians, only 4 per cent of university academics do so, which makes them, officially, the least working class of any occupational group. But at the same time, very few saw themselves as upper class.

The end of upper-class pretensions comes as no surprise. Even at Oxford University, most dons are now desperate to banish even a whiff of Brideshead. Indeed, the most recent campaign to end the absurd custom of examining in cap and gown has been led by lecturers in the face of furious student opposition.

But denial of working-class origins seems more striking and indicative of some kind of cultural sea change. What has happened to the "Citizen Smith" polytechnic lecturers of yore and the leather-jacketed imitators of Malcolm Bradbury's "History Man" who would leap to the barricades at the drop of a cloth cap to defend their proletarian credentials? It could be that academics are more willing to own up to their bourgeois origins than private-sector professionals. After all, in the age of The Apprentice , it's essential for merchant bankers and management consultants to give the impression that their struggle to the top involved something more heroic than a comfortable background and the ability to pass exams.

Or maybe academics just are more middle class than was the case a generation and a half ago. It is often claimed that social mobility has declined since the 1950s, and it's possible that the Lucky Jim generation marked a one-off influx of working-class (or at least lower-middle class) heroes into academe.

But I'm not so sure. I haven't done any research into the sociological origins of the average lecturer (doubtless a reader will enlighten me), but observation and anecdotal evidence suggests that academics have always been drawn from roughly the same social group: they are the sons and daughters of teachers, vicars and other service professionals who place great value on education and public-sector professional employment.

So perhaps what we're seeing is not so much an objective change in the class origins of academics but a shift in the way they see themselves.

Academics are reflecting a more general cultural change. The disappearance of the leather-jacketed pseudo-proletarian lecturer marks the final parting in Britain's love affair with working-class culture. Not since the 1950s has it been so fashionable to be staidly middle class.

But, ironically, just as the glamour of a working-class identity seems to have faded among academics, its classic modus operandi, the strike, seems to be enjoying at least partial success. Tightfisted university administrations across the land are becoming slightly more open-handed in the face of threatened exam boycotts. But then again, perhaps paradoxically, it is here that we find the real reason for academics'

ditching their old proletarian pretensions. They have, at long last, realised what hospital consultants and barristers have known for generations: that it is the aggressive assertion of middle-class, not working-class, collective action that delivers status, power and a decent income.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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