Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Middle class"

As some of you might know, I'm hooked on BBC podcasts. The Woman's Hour and Comedy ones especially, but I sample around as well. British TV, especially if it's bad and from the 1970s-1990s. And British online newspapers, highbrow and decidedly less so. So! My question, Anglo- and Anglo-knowledgeable readers, is this: What do you people mean when you say "middle-class"? Various things are referred to as such, various cultural preferences, neuroses, etc. But does middle-class - as used in Britain today, not in some period when the aristocracy was more important - mean posh? Rich? Does it mean something like upper-middle-class means in the States, i.e. sort-of-rich, well-educated people who are not the 1%?

Or, conversely, does it have snobbish connotations as if from above, as in, middlebrow? In the States, "middle class" sounds sort of... ordinary? It means normal people, as vs. the destitute and as vs. the rich, but when used in, say, the media, without the "upper" qualifier, it means something closer, I think, to "working class" - a precarious status, not that of a definitive have. If you're middle class in the US, you would, for example, look at what things cost in the grocery store, and not be that guy who's rung up at Whole Foods, and the bill comes to like $200 for like three things, and he clearly does not bat an eye at this. (I may or may not be referring to a specific incident at the Princeton location.)

I suppose another way to put this is: Is there something between "middle-class" and the aristocratic elite? Would one of these schmancy business types who could actually afford to do and buy things in London (i.e. Kate Middleton's people), but who is not in the nobility, be "middle-class"? (Why is a Lorde lyric now stuck in my head? None of us can say for sure that we'll never be royals, now, can we?)


Foose said...

My understanding of "middle class" in the U.K. is that it signifies the professional classes - the lawyers, doctors, senior civil servants - and consequently might be what Americans think of the "upper middle class." I think education and money intersect in the U.K. definition more than in the U.S. version. Businessmen seem to be considered shadier than in the U.S., where successful ones can be upper middle-class.

The professional classes in the U.K. are still those who earn their money, and consequently their manners and morals were traditionally condescended to by the real upper class, those who lived off their lands or investments. But the middle class' educational attainments distinguished them as superior to the working class.

But this has largely been picked up by reading old novels, and I of course defer to any actual British person's assessment of their native class system.

Andrew Stevens said...

There is nothing between the middle class and the aristocracy. The middle class is still fairly broad in the UK and can include low status office workers all the way up to the wealthiest people in the country. The dividing line is that manual laborers, no matter how skilled, rich, or successful, are not middle class; they are working class. What you do is more important in British class divisions than how successful you are doing it.

Foose is correct in that most British people seem to think of middle class primarily as just its largest segment - the professional classes and I agree with almost all of his analysis on how the word is used today and, yes, it has snobbish connotations, at least to people who were born into the working classes.

The upper class in Britain is very tiny and really consists only of people who have inherited landed estates or titles. I suppose some British people may accept that Richard Branson and other billionaires are so successful that they have become upper class, but for many their births into middle class or working class families probably precludes them from ever being considered upper class (though their children may be considered part of the upper classes).

Like Foose, happy to listen to actual British people on their own understanding.

Kate said...

Hello Phoebe - longtime lurker, also longtime US-UK shuttler. We could talk about this until the cows come home but that's a long time for a lurker. So shorter version: yes, your hunch is right, middle class UK style translates broadly as UMC in the US.
Also, I'm embarrassed (classic sign of the UK middle classes) that this is what has brought me out of my shell.

David said...

Hi, I'm late to the party so I don't know if you or anyone else will see this but, whilst I agree with the commenters above (being a lawyer or an accountant is a 'middle class' job) its use in media is a little nuanced, and possibly quite difficult for an outsider of any description.

A family of relatively modest means - head-above-water but still checking the prices at the grocery store may be seen by many as a middle class family. In media, probably because of the kind of people who get their voices heard, describing something as 'middle class' is often short-hand for private or grammar school, shopping at waitrose, driving a landrover. It's a synonym of the 10% rather than the 1%. If one was conducting a survey and looking at household earnings, lifestyles and so on then the definition of middle class would be never be so narrow.

It seems to be used somewhat colloquially in the media to mean a certain kind of person, richer than a typical middle-class family, yes, but also someone of more specific attributes that often reflect the context of the piece of media. The Guardian will use middle-class more readily to talk about some sort of north-London dinner party pretentiousness and The Telegraph might use middle-class as a short-hand for a family whose financial problems extend to not being able to afford 3 sets of private educations AND a ski holiday this year.

Meanwhile, The Daily Mail will probably use middle-class in a way that makes more sense considering the phrase contains the word 'middle', referring to more ordinary head-above-water families, although still referring a richer economic sub-set (or at least one with a higher floor) than in the U.S version.

On the BBC, to get back to your question, it's usually used in either the Guardian or Telegraph ways - again, depending on context! Often you may be able to detect a tone of negativity, often in the flavour of self-deprecation. It's not normally used in the Mail sense, and it's less often used in a matter-of-fact way, although it might if it's on the news.