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Imagine two men: Toby and Alex. Toby is the son of a teenage single mother called Jane. Jane dropped out of secondary school, and relied largely on state benefits for the first few years of Toby’s life, with some help from family. He grew up in council housing (I guess this is called public housing in the US?), went to a mediocre state school, and eventually got into a good university by getting decent grades in his late teens. Alex comes from a family of academics - two of his grandparents are professors at prestigious universities. He had a lot of help with schoolwork from family, his mother and father both had good degrees, and although his father, Tom, wasn’t particularly well off when Alex was born, Tom eventually lands a six-figure job at an accountancy firm and is able to buy Alex expensive gifts during his childhood. Toby and Alex ostensibly have very different backgrounds - but they don’t actually, they have the exact same background. Because I am both Toby and Alex - all of these things are true of one person.
My class background is slightly ambiguous, but I’m basically middle-classwith a couple of caveats. But if I wanted to, it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to present myself as working-class - a proletarian hero who hustled his way to a good university from a single-parent family. People do this a lot, actually. And they especially do it in the UK. I read something interesting last year that goes into this phenomenon, Friedman et al. have a paper called Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self. They interviewed 175 people in solidly middle-class professions, and found that 36 of the interviewees (as well as currently being in a well-paid job) came from solidly middle-class backgrounds, and still identified as working-class. Here’s a quote from one interviewee, Ella:
Her grandparents owned a hotel, her parents had enough money to send her to a private school, the authors of the study note that she is currently a successful actor in her mid-30s, and she remains insistent that she is working-class. How is she able to do this? The paper argues that she uses the idea of an ‘intergenerational self’ to justify her claim about her class position - it doesn’t much matter what she does or earns, it doesn’t matter what her parents did or earned, it doesn’t even matter what her grandparents did or earned - as long as she is able to identify at least one ancestor that wasn’t rich, she can play the role of the proletarian.
There’s probably a bit of truth in this, but maybe the intergenerational thing is a bit of a red herring. I think what’s more pertinent here is that basically everyone has something about them that isn’t typically middle-class (or typically working-class) - Ella apparently grew up in an ordinary area of Portsmouth, I grew up in a council house, one friend of mine who grew up comfortably in North London says she is working-class because her father grew up in poverty in Durham, and on it goes. It’s pretty easy for >90% of people from well-off backgrounds to highlight the facts about themselves that make themselves like they grew up poorer than they really did.
The paper has some other interesting stuff in it (taken from more comprehensive survey data, not interview data): 61% of people in professional and managerial jobs whose parents did routine and semi-routine jobs identify as working-class despite now having solidly middle-class jobs, and even 24% of people in professional and managerial jobs whose parents also had solidly middle-class jobs identify as working-class. 60% of people in the UK identify as working-class, a figure that has not changed since 1983 despite the number of working-class jobs declining significantly in that period.
In the UK especially, there are quite a few ‘class bullshitters’, people who misrepresent their class background by exaggerating the truth or highlighting certain facts about their upbringing while hiding others. Why? I think there is some fetishisation of the working-class in the UK that doesn’t exist as much in other countries - and the paper also alludes to the fact that the UK is an outlier in the number of people who misidentify as working-class. And the class system in the UK is so complex that it seems plausible that there are more people who have an ambiguous class background and so can bullshit by highlighting the specific parts of their upbringing/family/whatever that make them seem more working-class.
The American comedian Reginald D Hunter has talked a bit about the importance of class in the UK:
Britain has a maturity that America doesn’t have yet. Right now, [America] has about a class and a half, it will take us another couple of hundred years to get to three classes … if a class system is what you use to discriminate against people who look like you, that’s an advanced form of racism. Britain also has actual racism, it’s just not very good at it.
I think it’s true that classism is probably more pervasive in the UK than it is in the US, or at least manifests itself in a way that makes it more obviously about class rather than some other attribute. As far as I know, there isn’t a British Rachel Dolezal (who lied about her race), but we do have hundreds of thousands (millions?) of class bullshitters who try and claim persecution. And what’s annoying about class is that the class ambiguities mean you can’t really prove someone is a class bullshitter, unless they’ve actually said things that were objectively untrue about their class background. Rather than being innocuous, I think class bullshitters actually do quite a lot of harm - when I was applying for jobs a few months ago, quite a few of those jobs encouraged women and ethnic minority candidates. A few jobs were actually exclusively for ethnic minority candidates, which got the BBC in hot water last year. I didn’t come across any jobs encouraging working-class candidates to apply, although I imagine they do exist. There certainly weren’t any jobs that were exclusively for people from working-class backgrounds. Is this because too many people would bullshit about their class background and there aren’t really any good objective tests of class position? Possibly. I also think there might be a case that the UK has wholesale imported our model of social justice from the US without accounting for more relevant types of hurdles in the UK.
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If you’re wondering how my mum both dropped out of secondary education and had a good university degree, the answer is that the UK has a wonderful thing called the Open University - so people without any prior qualifications can get a degree.
Middle-class has a different meaning in the UK to the US, we generally use it to mean fairly bourgeois and well-off, whereas in the US I think it means you’re just an average Joe. See this reddit thread for more discussion. My dad is an accountant and my mum is a psychotherapist, middle-class professions in the UK.