Money makes a difference. Much more so in Britain than in the previous two countries I visited: Finland and Sweden. The traditional abundance of social layers of British society may have somewhat faded, but everybody is still very aware, or made aware, of the differences that still exist today between working class, middle class and upper class. How does social status influence people`s daily lives? That is what I am trying to find out today.
None of the people I speak to today are really able to tell me about life in the upper class. From what I hear, they seem to behave like invisible fairytale characters, spending their days counting money, game-hunting and reading The Guardian. They are said to own the big and beautiful houses in the city centre and to control the countries big corporations, but the ideas about their influence are vague and unspecified. Estimations of their share in the country`s population range from 5 to 10%.
`Differences between classes are quite noticeable`
Working and middle class
The working class, on the other end of the scale, spend their days as cleaners, production workers or supermarket assistants. Or worse: they depend on state benefits to make their living. Their career opportunities typically end at the level of supervisor. Britain has quite stretched and hierarchical company structures, making it possible to become a team supervisor of a group supervisor of a department supervisor without actually ever making it to the decision-making levels of the company. Throughout the last decades, many people in the working class have been able to jump one scale higher, thanks to the increased availability of higher-level education. Still, the chance of people from the working class engaging in university studies are fairly slim.
Middle class ranges from anything near middle management to private entrepreneurship until medical specialists and lawyers, obviously with different sublayers between them. People in the middle class tend to care greatly about their job titles, as it is a very condense description of their position in social life. More than money and studies, it is the level of applied knowledge and the quality of his or her contacts that move them further in life.
Although alcoholism and hooliganism occur throughout all layers of society, there is usually not a great deal of contact between people from different classes. `The upper class meet the working class typically when they are served in hotels or restaurants`, says Carl (42). He continues: `Class is often inherited. Not as much as it used to be 100 years ago, but your pedigree still counts in which path you take in life. Upper class kids go to private schools, which may prepare them for studying at Cambridge or Oxford University. Others go to public schools, creating a separation already at the very beginning of the kids` active social lives.` Gary (21) adds that the way people speak draws another line between the different classes. He explains that it`s not even so much the accent, but the words people use, the slang they speak and how much, or not, they tend to use swearing words.
People from different classes are also likely to grant themselves access to different types of media. The working class is associated with tabloids like The Sun and Daily Records. The higher echelons prefer The Times or The Guardian. Ewan (25) and Oliver (23) tell me that each of these newspapers is influenced by different stakeholders. `The BBC and commercial television channels are thought of bringing impartial news. That does not necessarily apply to newspapers. People tend to limit their intake of information to the information they themselves like to digest`, say Ewan and Oliver.
Beside newspapers, popular TV programs also vary along the classes. `Big Brother and the various derivatives are popular among the working class`, says Esme (20, photo). She thinks that many people chose their TV programs based on whether they can identify themselves with the TV stars. People from the upper class are likely to prefer stars that are respected and talented. Stereotypically, the working class has sympathy for people who manage to become celebrities even if they have not proved to possess any noticeable talent.
Moving up and down the ladder
Esme mentions marriage into a higher class as practically the only way to make significant social promotion. For people cherishing such ambitions, studying is advisable but not sufficient. University is thought to be accessible for everybody nowadays, making it hard to distinguish yourself from the mass by completing a university degree. Average students incur debts of over 15,000 euro during the course of their studies. The only difference is that richer parents may jump in for help; all others take the risk of having to pay off their loans during their early career life.
While studying at the appropriate university at least allows people to maintain their inherited social status, there are also ways of losing it. Many fallen stars have been caused by the popularity of heroin in the 1970s. Still today, overspending is one of the worst traps for people with a high social status. Apart from risky dependencies or exceptionally senseless behaviour, hardly anything can push you down the scale: the social class system as it exists today seems to reside in a balance that is hard to adjust.
Just like moving down, promotion on the social ladder is even more difficult. Being rich is not sufficient, being wealthy may be. To make it to the higher end of the middle class would almost require you to set up a distinctly-different-from-the-average enterprise that makes you rich and, more importantly, useful to the general public. It may give you access to a title of honour, putting you at least a lot closer to the higher ranges of society. Manage to hand on the advantage to your children and you are sorted. After all, a high social status is more easily inherited than obtained by achievement. It also reduces the risk of resentment from people of lower classes. Ambition is nice, but you ought not to forget your origins, which is especially true in Scotland.
photo | Link
to this article