Is the UK becoming a classless society?
This document is divided into 6 Parts:
Part One Introduction : Current Dimensions of Economic and Social Inequality
2. Current Dimensions of UK Economic and Social Inequality
Part Two Marx, Weber, Functionalists and Post-Capitalists
3. Marx, Weber and the Functionalists : An Introduction
4 . Post-Capitalist Theories of the 1950s and 1960s
Part Three Neo-Marxism and Neo-Weberianism
5. Neo- Marxism and the Rejection of Post-Capitalist Theories
6. Neo-Weberian Theories and Class Inequality
Part Four Post- Fordism, Late Modernity, Post Modernism and British Politics
7. Social Class, Post-Fordism, Late Modernity and Post-Modernism
8. Social Class and Political Developments : The New Right and New Labour
Part Five The Great British Class Survey , the Precariat and the British Social Attitudes Survey
9. The Great British Class Survey
10. The Precariat: Professor Guy Standing
11. British Social Attitudes Survey and Perceptions of UK Social Class Structure
Part Six Summary Conclusions and Appendix
12. Summary Conclusions
13. Appendix : Some Recent Analysis of Social Class and Voting Behaviour
With grateful thanks to P and J for helping me to revise this!
It has periodically been argued in the last 50-60 years that capitalist societies such as the UK were increasingly becoming classless societies and that class was in fact "dead". This view is associated, for example, with the so-called post-capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s; with analysts who saw the apparent decline of class voting from the 1950s onwards as evidence of a declining class consciousness which was interpreted by some as evidence of the declining significance of social class itself; with theorists of late modernity such as Ulrich Beck; and with theorists of postmodernity such as Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters.
However, against the classlessness thesis it is pointed out that there is abundant evidence that the UK remains a very economically unequal society, that prospects for upward social mobility are limited, and that there are significant class inequalities in educational achievement, in health, and indeed in mortality rates. From both Neo-Marxist and Neo-Weberian perspectives, it is argued that social class differences are very much alive in the UK, while even Functionalist theories can be used to suggest that various forms of social inequality exist, but that these are in fact inevitable and desirable. Opposition to the classlessness thesis can be found also in the work of Mike Savage and his associates, in the work of Guy Standing on the Precariat, and in a recent British Social Attitudes survey on perceptions of the UK class structure.
In this document, I shall first illustrate the extent of UK inequalities in wealth, income and opportunities for social mobility, and then describe competing sociological approaches to the analysis of the UK class structure.
The document can stand alone, but I have also included links to other documents on my site; there are also broken links to future documents yet to be written on Weber and Social Stratification, the Working Class and the Underclass, which I hope to complete by September 2020!!
CurrentDimensions of UK Economic and Social Inequality
2.1. Income Inequality
The overall distribution of national income is usually measured by means of Lorenz Curves and Gini Coefficients and these are explained text on this page You will find the value of the Gini coefficient can in theory vary between ZERO where all income recipients receive the same income and the national income is therefore distributed perfectly equally and ONE where one Income recipient receives the entire national income and all other income recipients receive no income and the national income is therefore distributed perfectly unequally.
As a result of the effect of taxation and benefits, final incomes [Incomes after the payment of taxes and the receipt of welfare benefits] are more equally distributed than original incomes. Direct taxes are mildly progressive, but indirect taxes may be regarded as regressive if assessed as proportions of income received, or broadly neutral if assessed as proportions of consumer expenditure. It is the effects of welfare benefits rather than the effects of taxation which cause final incomes to be more equally distributed than original incomes
There is evidence of increased income equality in the UK between the 1940s and the 1970s, but this trend was reversed significantly in the Thatcherite era. There has been little change in the distribution of income since the 1990s. Coalition and Conservative politicians tend to point out that the distribution of income is now more equal than in 2010 when Labour left power, but this increase in income equality is very small and certainly has not offset the large in increase in income come inequality which occurred during the Thatcher era.
Click here for BBC coverage of IFS work on inequality.
Click here for a Parliament Research Briefing on Income Inequality in the UK which also provides information on the degree of income equality /inequality measured in terms of percentile ratios and income shares (see pp12-17).
Click here for ONS articles on The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income from 2012 to 2021
Click here for ONS article on The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income for the year ending 2021. Scroll down to Figure 1 in the article to see how taxes and benefits affect the distribution of income in 2021,
Click here for Household Income Inequality 2022 and scroll down to Figure 1 for estimates of the Gini Coefficient 2019/20 to 2021.22
Click here for ONS article on The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income for the year ending 2019. Scroll down to Figure 8 for longer-term Gini Coefficient trends.
For more detailed data:
Click here for Inequalities in the 21st Century: Introducing the IFS Deaton Review.
Click here for a range of detailed articles on the distribution of income from The Resolution Foundation, and here for an article and here for a PowerPoint presentation and video discussion on how the inclusion of capital gains in the definition of income affects measurement of trends in income inequality.
Click here for Polly Toynbee's very useful summary article which also incorporates the latest Resolution Foundation information.
2.2 Wealth Inequality
Wealth is distributed more unequally than income. Click here for Wealth in Great Britain Wave 5 2014-2016. Basic information on the distribution of household wealth is provided in the following table, but much more information is provided in the full report. Also click here for data on the percentile distribution of household wealth from the Institute of Fiscal studies, which provides information on the poorest and richest households – for example, that the poorest 9 percent of households have negative wealth and that the wealthiest 1% of households hold about 20% of total household wealth.
More recent detailed information is provided in the following table. it suggests that, if anything, wealth inequality has increased slightly in recent years.
Click here for Household Total Wealth in Great Britain: April 2018 to March 2020
Click here for Total Wealth in Great Britain
On the international dimensions of the Super Rich
It is important to note that many of the wealthiest individuals living in the UK are foreign nationals, and that many most wealthy UK citizens may actually live abroad. Thus, in so far as a UK upper class exists, its members may well have international business interests and be able to increase their overall wealth by relocating their investments around the world, for example to take advantage of more favourable tax regimes. Prior to the 2019 UK General Election, it was claimed, for example, that if a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn should come to power, there would be a flight of capital from the UK as individuals aimed to avoid the higher rates of taxation which a Corbyn government would introduce. While staunch defenders of capitalism would argue that punitive taxation of the wealthy would reduce rates of economic growth and hence reduce living standards for the UK population, supporters of higher taxation of the wealthy argue that some of the economic activities of the wealthy inhibit prosperity for the average citizen. In the event, of course Labour was defeated in the 2019 General Election, and Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced as Labour Party Leader by Sir Keir Starmer. We await future Labour Party policy development with interest.
Click here for Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor on The Super Rich.
Click here for Guardian article by Frances Ryan: The Great Inequality Con.
Click here for recent BBC item on UK Wealth distribution.
Click here for The Guardian page on The Super Rich
Click here for item on Britain's ultra-rich.
Click here for a BBC item on Millionaire households in Britain.
Click here for richest people in the world.
2.3. Poverty in the UK
Official Data on Poverty are presented by the Department of Work and Pensions. Poverty is measured in absolute and relative terms before and after housing costs. There was considerable controversy surrounding these data in 2018. You can find here the 2018 Summary DWP publication which contains data for 2017/18. These data indicate that absolute poverty (both before and after housing costs) has declined in recent years, and in November 2018 government spokespersons focused on these data to argue that the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Professor Philip Alston is flawed. Click here for Guardian coverage of subsequent developments, and here for the latest UN response.
Click here for Poverty Facts and Figures.
Click here for an item on child poverty.
Some recent updates
Click here for the Summary DWP publication and then click on Low Income indicators to see trends in relative and absolute poverty to 2022.
Click here and then click on Children in low income households to see trends in the incidence of child poverty.
Click here for IUK Poverty 2023 [ Report of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Click here for Statistics on Child Poverty from the Child Poverty Action Group.
2.4 Social Mobility [Further information on Social Mobility may be found here]
The New Social Mobility (video lecture by Dr Geoff Payne).
Click here for Sutton Trust Report: Are the Elites pulling away?
Click here for Sutton Trust Report entitled Elitist Britain: The Educational Backgrounds of Britain's Elite.
Click here for a Guardian article on Social Mobility by Lee Eliot Majors and Stephen Machin. These authors have also written Social Mobility and Its Enemies (Pelican), in which they argue that, for a variety of reasons, recent educational policies have been relatively ineffective in promoting social mobility.
Click here for a podcast discussion with Professors Stephen Machin and Lee Eliot Majors (Authors of Social Mobility and its Enemies).
Click here for The Social Mobility Trap (Tom Clark: Prospect).
Click here for The Problem with Social Mobility
Click here for latest report from the Social Mobility Commission on latest social mobility trends [June 2020]
The measurement of social mobility is technically complex. We may distinguish between various types of social mobility: upward and downward; intergenerational and intra-generational; long range and short range; and absolute and relative social mobility. It is also important to analyse gender and ethnic differences in social mobility rates but I shall not do so here.
Regarding the overall analysis of social mobility, we may distinguish between differing sociological perspectives.
- Functionalist sociologists argue that social inequality is both inevitable because if derives from differences in natural abilities and talents and desirable because it provides the financial incentives for individuals to undertake long periods of training and to take up functionally important and therefore well paid jobs. Social inequality encourages individuals to work hard in order to achieve e financial success which will also increase overall rates of economic growth and improve living standards for all including the poorest success. . Functionalists argue also that modern societies will become increasingly meritocratic as it is recognised that increased social mobility will promote greater economic efficiency.
- Conversely Marxists argue that capitalist societies are inherently exploitative, unequal, and unjust; that social inequality itself will inevitably inhibit upward social mobility; and that such social mobility as does occur will act as a safety valve which defuses opposition to the capitalist system and deprives the working class of talented potential opponents of capitalism.
- Especially since the 1970s great attention has been given to social mobility by neo-Weberian sociologists and in particular by John Goldthorpe and his associates. They focus upon the distinction between absolute and relative social mobility and conclude on this basis that there is little evidence that the UK has become increasingly meritocratic. Some additional information on John Goldthorpe's work is given below.
- The conclusions of John Goldthorpe have been challenged by New Right theorists such as Peter Saunders who argues that John Goldthorpe and his associates have wrongly downplayed the view that natural abilities are to a considerable extent genetically rather than environmentally determined and that once the effects of genetic inheritance are factored into the analysis the UK is shown to be much more meritocratic than John Goldthorpe and his associates have suggested. Click here for further information on Peter Saunders' view.
- Of course, many sociologists are critical of the New Right approach to social analysis.
Absolute and Relative Social Mobility.
The distinction between absolute and relative social mobility can hopefully be clarified via the following numerical example.
Absolute Social Mobility is measured as a percentage of the whole population, which in my example is 250.
Absolute Downward Mobility from Class 1 to Class 7 is 20/250.
Absolute Upward Mobility from Class 7 to Class 1 is 30/250.
Therefore, Total Absolute Mobility is 50/250 = 20%.
Relative Social Mobility is measured by means of an Odds Ratio.
In my example this ratio is: [the chance that a Class 1 origin respondent will end up in Class 1/the chance that a Class 1 origin respondent will end up in Class 7] divided by [the chance that a Class 7 origin respondent will end up in Class 1 / the chance that a Class 7 origin respondent will end up in class 7.]
In my example, for Class 1 this is 80/20 divided by 30/120 = 16. Thus, the relative mobility prospects of Class 1 origin respondents are far superior to those of Class 7 respondents.
Individuals originating in Class 1 are 16 times more likely than individuals originating in Class 7 to reach a Class 1 destination rather than a Class 7 destination. If follows that individuals originating in Class 7 are 16 times less likely than individuals originating in Class 1 to reach a class 1 destination rather than class 7 destination.
Imagine instead that the odds ratio was 80/20 divided by 80/20 = 1. In this case, the relative mobility prospects of Class 1 and Class 7 respondents would be identical, and on this measure, we should have perfect equality of opportunity.
In practice, however the measurement of social mobility is more complex. Current studies of social mobility in the UK are usually conducted using the 7 Class NS SEC Scheme which would actually generate 441 potential odds ratios and render the overall measurement of social mobility trends very complex. [Thus for example one could calculate the Odds ratio for the relative chances that members of original classes 3 and 4 might reach destination classes 5 and 6 or that members of original classes 1 and 2 might reach destination classes 3 and4 and 439 similar possibilities!!]
- The rates of upward and downward absolute social mobility depend upon the interaction of two factors.
- If there is a change in the shape of the overall class structure involving the relative expansion of High Class employment and a relative decline of Lower Class employment one would expect the rate of upward absolute social mobility to increase.
- If the relative rate of upward social mobility increased, say due to educational reforms which improved the educational prospects of working class children, this would also generate increased upward absolute social mobility.
John Goldthorpe and his associates used this approach to the measurement of social Mobility in the so-called Oxford Social Mobility Study and recent trends in social mobility are analysed in detail in Social Mobility and Education in Britain  by Erzsebet Bukodi and John H. Goldthorpe. I cannot summarise their detailed arguments here but in broad terms they draw the following main conclusions.
- Upward Absolute mobility did increase from the 1950s -1970s but this occurred almost entirely because of changes in the overall class structure which meant more high class employment became available. There was more room at the top.
- Changes in relative social mobility rates were very limited which meant that suggest that educational reforms between 1950s and the 1970s contributed little or nothing to increased upward absolute social mobility.
- Subsequently the growth of high class employment has slowed down which could be expected to result in reduced upward absolute social mobility or at least to a slower rate of increase.
- It is unlikely that the last 30 years of educational reform would serve to increase relative social mobility rates because middle class parents can adopt a range of strategies to try to ensure that their children continue to achieve higher grades than their working class peers. Click here for a podcast by Lee Eliot Major in which he explains why the UK education system fails to facilitate social mobility.
These points are elucidated further in the following articles.
It can also be noted that the children of the higher sections of the dominant economic class are especially likely to attend public schools and/or Oxbridge and other prestigious Russell universities and then to enter elite occupations in politics, law, industry, and the military. Within this grouping have also developed kinship and friendship networks and shared social activities leading to intermarriage which contribute further to social cohesion and intergenerational stability. Wealthy parents also can use various methods to ensure that their children benefit more than poorer child from the operation of state education which increases the chances that state educated children of affluent parents can access elite occupation while educational success and entry to elite positions is far less likely for poorer children.
Click here for Sutton Trust Report entitled Elitist Britain: The Educational Backgrounds of Britain's Elite
Click here for Guardian article on Social Mobility by Lee Eliot Majors and Stephen Machin. These authors have also written Social Mobility and Its Enemies [Pelican] in which they argue that for a variety of reasons recent educational policies have been relatively ineffective in promoting social mobility.
2.5. Analysing the UK Class Structure: Some Preliminary Issues
Before analysing whether the UK is becoming a classless society, it is necessary to note some of the controversies within Sociology surrounding the definition of "social class" itself. Sociologists may well disagree as to how "social class" should be measured, how many social classes exist, the significance of divisions within social classes, where the boundaries among the social classes are, relationships between the social classes, and the extent of social mobility between social classes. Furthermore, although we might initially adopt a simplified working definition of social class as “a large group of people whose economic circumstances, usually measured by their incomes, wealth and occupation, are broadly similar”, it is necessary to recognise that there are also disputes as to the interconnections between social class, power and status, as well as the importance of the distinction between objective and subjective aspects of social class membership.
Sociologists have increasingly discussed these differing aspects of social class via the so-called Structure, Consciousness and Action (SCA) approach to class analysis, which focuses on the extent to which class structures might or might not affect class consciousness and class action. In Bourdieusian approaches to class theory, social classes are defined not only by their possession of economic capital but also by their possession of cultural and social capital, and the combined effects of the possession or non-possession of these three types of capital are seen as inhibiting radical change in capitalist class structures. Thus, it is highly likely that parents with high levels of economic, cultural and social capital will be able use these different types of capital to maintain the future class position of their children.
It is important also to consider the political dimensions of social class, and in particular to assess whether, insofar as a dominant economic class exists, it may also wield considerable political power. Some information on the analysis of power and authority can be found here.
Sociological Perspectives on Class Inequality
I shall now provide summaries of the differing perspectives on the UK class structure. Marxist, Weberian, Functionalist, New Right, Post-Capitalist, Post-Fordist, Late Modern and Post-Modern analyses of social class will be considered, as will the findings of the recent Great British Class Survey which derive from a Bourdieusian approach to class theory. However, I shall provide only brief summaries of these differing analyses here, combined with links to more detailed information elsewhere on this site.
For Part 2 - Click Here