Social class is still a hard ladder to climb

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Do today's students view social class differently to those of earlier generations? Occasionally one tells me that he or she barely recognises the concept of class, though when pushed to define words such as "posh" and "chav", they can write for England on the subject.

For those of my generation, weaned in the 1950s and 1960s on cod liver oil and orange juice from "the clinic", class was omnipresent. Someone only had to open their mouth for you to decide whether to feel superior or inferior - though in practice it wasn't quite as calculating as that. Where you felt it was in your guts, particularly if it was the latter feeling.

The thought is prompted by the Government's latest initiative on social mobility. Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, is investigating barriers to working-class entry to the professions. Part of the motivation for this is the statistic that since about 1970 the proportion of people in Britain able to move up in the world has hardly increased. The plan is that Mr Milburn's findings will be fed into a white paper on the subject.

So what do students feel about class, education and advancement? I discussed the topic with young adults (mostly in their early twenties) before asking them to fill in a short questionnaire.

The first question asked what class divisions, if any, they recognised. One answer had me thinking right away. First class, business and economy were the words chosen.

All right, it was just a metaphor, but it was an interesting take. The clear implication was that social class was a concept to be viewed purely in economic terms. Just as you bought the plane ticket you could afford, so was your place in society determined by your wallet.

Was this echoed by the others? No! Although their terminology varied, most described the conventional categories of upper, middle and working classes. A few also recognised a fourth "underclass", defined by one student as "people on benefits or working for the minimum wage".

Asked if they thought that the class position had changed over the past 50 years, most said yes. Some cited the culture of equal opportunities as helping to break down barriers, while others pointed to an expansion of the middle classes - or those claiming to be middle class.

For one student, that old gut feeling of class inferiority was still manifest: "I think it has changed a little, but not enough. People still look down on you if you come from a certain area. And if you have a particular skin colour, they judge you even before you speak."

The issue of race, ethnicity and class was tackled. Most of the multicultural sample felt that although other communities had had an impact on the British class system, they hadn't fundamentally changed it.

One wrote: "Ethnic minorities consistently arrive at the bottom of the pile, and then work themselves up. This applied to the black population in the 1970s and 1980s, and the eastern Europeans more recently."

Almost all thought that success was possible despite social class, although with reservations. "It depends how far you want to go," one wrote. Another said it was "still hard for someone who is poor to network".

So, how did they perceive their own class position? They split two-thirds middle to one-third working. One wrote: "I put myself with the poor, as I am a lone parent on benefits and struggling day by day. But hopefully education will turn things around."

That, of course, is exactly what a teacher would want to hear. Whether Mr Milburn's findings will bear it out is another matter.

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