Review: Social Class in the 21st Century

“Class distinctions in England have always been the matter for higher feeling than national honour, the matter of feverish but very private debate”, wrote Evelyn Waugh. In the 1950s, talk of class was off-limits in polite society, yet now this discussion has moved resolutely into the public domain. In 2011, more than 300,000 people volunteered to find out the ‘class’ in which they belonged by taking part in the BBC’s ‘Great British Class Survey’, the results of which provide the majority of data for Mike Savage and his team of sociological experts’ fascinating book. In a meticulous breakdown of the financial, geographical and social strata of the participants, Savage and his collaborators argue that class differences are alive and well in modern Britain and that they are are linked not only to people’s financial standing, but the interests and relationships of their broader everyday lives as well.

Seven new ‘classes’ are established, ranging from the elite and new affluent workers to the traditional working class and, finally, the ‘precariat’ (a term borrowed from Guy Standing’s concept of a ‘precarious proletariat’ which, it is claimed, reflects the perilous situation of the least privileged rather than stigmatising them with a label such as ‘underclass’). Also brought to the forefront is the oft-overlooked truth that most capital – financial, social, or otherwise – is inherited and accumulated over generations. Popular anomalies such as Richard Branson, Alan Sugar or Philip Green should be ignored, ‘regarded as somewhat mythical creatures’. The book’s most striking conclusions come from the author’s assessment of the current state of the disaffected and neglected precariat and the British university system, which essentially amounts to a denouncement of “the competitive, capitalist, neoliberal market system” itself. The power of Savage’s evidence and the force of his argument will leave even the most die-hard advocate of meritocracy unsettled.

Particularly relevant to readers of The Oxford Student is Savage’s appraisal of class within the current state of higher education. In the book’s best chapter, entitled ‘A Tale of Two Campuses?’, Savage argues that “the expansion of higher education has reinforced, not reduced, class inequality”. Whilst the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university has increased, so too has the number of attendees from the upper classes. Meanwhile, there is also a tightening association between graduate status and membership of the most advanced groups of British society. Savage specifically ousts Oxford as “the most ‘elite’ institution”, with 44% of Oxford graduates who took the survey judged to be members of the ‘elite’ and 63% of Oxonian survey participants entering university from independent school. Greater access to a university education, it seems, does little to weaken class structures when universities such as Oxford maintain a stranglehold over the most powerful members of society. This might not be entirely Oxford’s fault – the last few decades of university expansion may have inflated the value and meaning of so-called ‘prestigious’ universities, since possessing a degree is no longer the rarity it used to be – but we are nonetheless forced to consider if we, as students, operate or perpetuate potentially exclusive circles of influence alongside our university.

The extensiveness of the ‘Great British Class Survey’ is staggering, but not without its limitations: most notably that the ‘precariat’ accounts for 15% of the overall population, but less than 1% of the survey. Meanwhile, the richest and most ‘elite’ participants were incredibly over-represented, including a disproportionate number of CEOs (evidently, the prospect of seeing how ‘well-off’ you are is less attractive to those at the bottom), thus any discussion of the ‘precariat’ is likely to be one in which the ‘precariat’ do not convincingly participate. Nonetheless, Savage’s work remains a groundbreaking research piece as well as a passionate call to action, one which succeeds triumphantly in reasserting the importance of class in modern Britain. The feverish but very public debate that Social Class in the 21st Century will provoke, both in Oxford and across the country, is incontrovertible proof that class is still a powerful concept in British society.

Social Class in the 21st Century, published by Penguin Books, is available to buy now.