The Middle Classes
In Britain, the sense of loss, insecurity and dis-entitlement, which have been described in relation to the older working classes, may also apply to fractions of the middle classes at critical points in their history. Moran (2005) has suggested that at key points throughout the twentieth century middle classes have felt threatened, under pressure and endangered and have given expression to their concerns. In Moran’s words,
‘the theme of middle-class beleaguerment has tended to surface at particular crisis points — the early 1920s, the late 1940s, the mid 1970s and the early
1990s when there was genuine hardship among at least a certain section of the middle classes’ (Moran 2005: 238).
If there was genuine hardship in some periods, there was also a longstanding myth of the travails of the middle, what Moran calls ‘the myth of middle England...the belief that the middle ranks of society were beleaguered and put upon’ (p. 232). Those who articulated the viewof this moderate, respectable but put-upon middle ranks spoke of a ‘
“new poor” so burdened by rates and taxes that they had to make tragic sacrifices like employing fewer servants and sending their children to cheaper schools’ (Moran 2005: 232 and footnote 3).
These class anxieties—of the 1920s—have changed, or changed in emphasis, just as the middle classes themselves have changed and expanded. In the early part of the century there were fears of working-class power when
‘the concern was that the advance of the working class threatened to erode the middle class’s advantages—by taxing incomes to provide services which the middle class already enjoyed (Roberts 2001: 160).
By the 1970s a new expanded middle class, or some among them, believed that successive Labour governments, allied to trade union power, threatened both their material position and their values. The middle classes were for ‘individualism, enterprise and independence’. It is these values that Bechhofer et al. (1978) argued were under threat in the 1970s as the middle classes grew in size—to 30 % of the employed population by the end of the twentieth century. Efficiencies which had been demanded of working-class employees began to be demanded of middle classes. A stream of publications appeared claiming the ‘decline of the middle class’ (Bechhofer et al. 1978: 411). Bechhofer and colleagues refer to the pressures on small business from government measures, interventions in the affairs of large companies, the loss of autonomy among professionals and the routinisation of the work of the lower professional, administrative and clerical grades (Bechhofer et al. 1978: 416—419). Among those who were proclaiming the need to restate bourgeois values—hard work, thrift and a desire for betterment (Bechhofer et al. 1978: 420)—were two politicians then in opposition, Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher.
In yet another shift, by the end of the century and into the twenty- first century, as Roberts argues, middle-class workers had come to worry about ‘productivity drives, cuts in staffing, workplace bullying, appraisals and “delayering”’ (Roberts: 160—161). Middle managers were subject to redundancy as large organisations sought to reduce costs by cutting staff numbers or replacing older staff with younger, lower-paid employees. At the same time, Roberts argues, fear of working-class power had diminished (in the wake of Thatcher’s attacks on trade unions and changes in the nature of working-class employment) but had been replaced by fear of ‘disorder’ or neighbourhood crime and deteriorating town and city spaces.
If we had the middle-class crises of the 1920s, 1940s and 1970s, by the twenty-first century the voice of middle-class beleaguerment was shriller than ever. As shown in David Boyle’s Broke: How to Survive the Middle- Class Crisis, we see the middle classes losing their jobs, being ‘delayered’, losing their homes and struggling to manage failing businesses. Some of this Boyle views as a consequence of poor choices made by middle-class individuals and families, but above all he cites the deceit, trickery and greed of the personal pension, insurance and banking industries which have enriched themselves at the expense of their customers. So this is a story of the hard-working enterprising and prudent middle classes. In Boyle’s account they are teachers, nurses, policemen, small business entrepreneurs and the like seeing their savings, pensions and sometimes homes sucked up by the greedy and ruthless financial services industry (‘?12bn paid out in mis-selling scandals’) (Boyle 2014: 188). The author cites the earthy view of a pensions lawyer: ‘Pensions are for the middle classes. Poor people live on the state; rich people don’t give a toss’ (p. 189). His view of the middle classes is neatly summarised as follows:
‘They risk an increasingly impoverished old age eking out the money to pay
the fuel bills, just like the rest of the population whose fecklessness they
used to despise’ (Boyle 2014; 203).
We can only address briefly the question of how much the middle classes have suffered real economic hardship (see following discussion); in a sense our primary interest is in the fact that the middle classes express multiple discontents, even resentment, at the ground they believe they have lost. These discontents and the possible reasons for them are amply exemplified in the aforementioned publications, especially those by Bechhofer et al. and Boyle. Even Roberts (2001), who appears slightly less sympathetic, speaks of middle-class discontents—cuts, reduced staffing, site closures, rationalisations and redundancies (p. 147)—and allows that ‘recent studies of the middle class at work have uncovered widespread unhappiness’. It is also difficult for graduates to find ‘secure career plateaux’ (p. 149). But Robert’s’ judgement is less gloomy: ‘
Organisations and professions have lost much of their former solidity; careers are not as predictable as formerly, and promotions are no longer regular...But overall there are more career opportunities, and the higher level middle class jobs are better rewarded than ever before.’ (p. 148).
Inter- and intra-class sensibilities are made evident through comparisons, whether explicit or implicit. People make comparisons with another class fraction (middle class and lower middle class) or with other classes. Although Barbalet called for a ‘macro-sociology of emotion’ in his 1992 paper, it is only recently that new advances have been made in building a theory of class relations and emotion, in what Diane Reay (2005) has called ‘the psychic landscape of class’. She draws on Andrew Sayer’s analysis of ‘moral responses to social class’ (Sayer 2005). Sayer wrote of the ‘arrogance, satisfaction, contempt and pride’ of the ‘exclusivist middle class position and the defensiveness of the ‘middle class egalitarian’ (cited in Reay 2005: 213). Both Sayer and Reay write of the ‘resentment, envy, pride and anger’ of working-class solidarists, much like the patterns of anger and resentment we have described from our qualitative materials (Fenton 2012). Writing of ‘middle class identities’, Stephanie Lawler (2005) has described ‘disgusted subjects’, the middle-class actors looking down on the poor taste of those they consider inferior. Chris Haylett (2001) had described the inferiorisation of the poor and ‘white’ working class as a political strategy in the early years of the Blair-led Labour government, a strategy taken up enthusiastically by David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith in the (2010 to 2016) conservative government. The banking and financial crisis of 2008 led to new economic uncertainties, loss of employment and causes of resentment and anger; the Conservative government of 2010, elected in the wake of the crisis, gave new vent to fury directed at the supposedly indolent.
This most recent economic failure has resulted in job losses and reductions in income for both the working and middle classes. In ‘Middle class squeeze?’ (Muhlau 2014) Muhlau provides a very particular test, through a case study of Ireland, of who has been worst affected by financial hardship post-crisis. He sets out to determine whether ‘the recession has hurt all classes to the same degree’. To do this, he suggests, it is necessary to make a distinction between employee classes and the self-employed or owners of businesses. He concludes that ‘among the employee classes, the answer is surprisingly straightforward’, showing that the ‘lower’ the class, the much greater the risk of financial hardship. ‘The gap between the middle class and the middling classes and between the middling classes and the working classes has widened as a result of the recession’. But the other group which experienced great hardship are not ‘employees’ but ‘self-employed workers and small employers’ who ‘experienced the largest increase in financial hardship’ (Muhlau 2014: 504). The two groups noted here as experiencing financial hardship, manual and low-paid workers and small employers and the self-employed, are the same two groups regularly seen to be giving support to right-wing populist parties in Europe (Ivarsflaten 2008).