'New affluent workers' and 'precariats'? Britain's classes get makeover

The largest-ever survey of social class by the BBC and two universities finds that there are still very rich and very poor – but much more going on in the middle. 

PBS/AP
A new survey of 166,000 Britons found that instead of the three traditional classes – upper, middle, and working – that are prominent in shows like 'Downton Abbey,' shown at left, now there are seven distinct strata.

Britain's infamous class system has become fragmented and unrepresentative of the country’s new social and economic order, a new study has concluded.

Instead of the traditional three groupings of upper, middle, and working class, the researchers argue there should now be seven strata, mainly because the center ground has become blurred.

The survey, by the BBC and sociologists from Manchester University and the London School of Economics, interviewed 161,000 people. After analyzing the results, the team claimed modern Britons should be divided into: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers, and Precariat, or "precarious proletariat."

Schooling, type of housing, profession, and social habits once helped define where people stood in society’s pecking order. But other factors are now more important, according to Professor Fiona Devine from Manchester, who told the BBC: “What it allows us is to understand is a more sophisticated, nuanced picture of what class is like now."

"It shows us there is still a top and a bottom, at the top we still have an elite of very wealthy people and at the bottom the poor, with very little social and cultural engagement," she said. "It's what's in the middle which is really interesting and exciting, there's a much more fuzzy area between the traditional working class and traditional middle class.”

'Downton Abbey' is fun to watch, but...

Britain’s class system has been the basis of countless books, films, music, and television ranging from Downton Abbey to the soap operas "Coronation Street" and "Eastenders."

But royal commentator Ingrid Seward, who edits Majesty magazine, says the stereotype is becoming hackneyed. “I’m not sure how relevant the class system is today, especially among the younger generation," she argues. "They don’t seem worried about where they’ve come from but are more interested in where they’re going."

She cites the example of Kate Middleton. "She has what you could say is a working class background. Her brother James has a south London, Cockney accent whereas she has a more polished voice. Could you tell the difference between them, and does it matter?”

Psychologist Cary Cooper, a professor at Lancaster University, says Britain’s class system had parallels with Japan but was alien to the United States, where status was based largely on money. “It seems the survey has expanded the middle class section because that has become a gray area, with money allowing people to join the professional classes."

“Britain’s class system obviously stems from history, wealth, and lineage but also because it’s an island and people have to get on and need to know their place. That’s why Japan closely resembles the UK,” says Professor Cooper, who was born in Los Angeles and now holds dual citizenship.

“In the United States it’s about money and power, and people know you can have it one day and lose it the next. But in Britain it’s been about background, what’s school you went to, your job.

“I think in times of great uncertainty, like now, when we don’t know if the EU is going to collapse, the euro disappear, and if we’ll be dominated by India and China, we find comfort in the old class system in programs like Downton Abbey, where everyone knew their place. It might not be a good place for some, but there is certainty in that.”

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