The Boundary between the Working Class and the Middle Class

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

The Boundary between the Working Class and the Middle Class: Proletarianisation and Embourgeoisement 

Sociologists have pointed out also that because of possible processes of proletarianisation of routine non-manual work and the embourgeoisement of affluent manual workers the boundary between non-manual work and manual work may not coincide with the boundary between the middle class and the working class.

The Proletarianisation of the Clerical Worker

In The Black Coated Worker (1958), David Lockwood aimed to analyse the class position of clerical workers and to assess whether they were experiencing a process of Proletarianisation. In this study, Lockwood adopted a recognisably Weberian approach and measured the class position of clerical workers in terms of their market situation, their work situation and their status situation. His conclusion was that the class position of clerical workers was uncertain for the following reasons:

  1. In terms of their market situation, clerical workers, even in the 1950s, were earning less than many skilled manual workers

although they did continue to enjoy fringe benefits such as better working conditions plus sickness and pension schemes not available to manual workers.

  1.   Regarding their work situation, at least in relatively small-scale offices, clerical workers enjoyed closer working relationships with senior management than did manual workers, although this was changing in large open-plan offices and typing pools.
  2.   Clerical workers continued to enjoy a higher status in the community than did manual workers, although this, too, was changing.

Insofar as the class position of clerical workers was gradually deteriorating, this could be explained by the facts that the expansion of education meant that many more people now had the skills necessary to undertake clerical work, and that trades unions had succeeded in gaining substantial pay increases for manual workers which meant that clerical workers no longer enjoyed an earnings advantage in many cases. As a result of this, clerical workers, too, increasingly joined trades unions. To repeat, Lockwood saw that the class position of clerical workers was changing, but he argued that by the late 1950s they occupied a position somewhere between the working class and the middle class.

There have been several more recent studies of the class position of the clerical worker, some of which accept the Proletarianisation Theory and some of which reject it. For example, John Goldthorpe has argued that clerical workers should not be described as working class because many of them are young and can reasonably expect to move on to managerial positions in later life, so they are unlikely to adopt a working-class identity during their relatively short time as clerical workers. Conversely, Rosemary Crompton and Gareth Jones have claimed that clerical work is increasingly done by women, and that their chances of promotion to managerial level are much smaller, such that they can be described as part of the proletariat or working class.

Several complex issues are involved in the detailed analysis of the Proletarianisation Theory, but in view of the disagreements that exist between real experts in this area, it surely does seem reasonable to conclude that the class position of clerical workers is uncertain.


Divisions within the Working Class: The Embourgeoisement Theory and its Critics

In the 1950s and 1960s, so called post-capitalist theorists were claiming that capitalist societies were evolving into post-capitalist societies characterised by a shift in the occupational structure from unskilled to skilled manual and non-manual work, full employment and a more equal distribution of wealth and income and increased provision of welfare services by the State which implied, for example more equality of educational opportunity and the reduction of poverty at least in an absolute sense.   Also, nationalisation of several basic industries meant that they were now supposed to operate more in the interests of the consumer and the rise of the Labour Party, and the growing strength of the trade unions implied that working class people could share more fully in the use of political power which had previously been monopolised indirectly by the upper class. Thus, it came to be argued that Marxist theories of the state were now deemed increasingly irrelevant as political power could be analysed much more accurately via theories of Democratic Pluralism [although neo-Marxists such as Ralph Miliband were quick to argue that it was the theories of democratic pluralism which were inaccurate.]

Within this overall process of social transformation, it was increasingly argued that class boundaries were becoming more indistinct and that the more affluent sections of the working class were actually experiencing a process of embourgeoisement; that is they were increasingly becoming middle class both in terms of standard of living, life style and attitudes and values. The supporters of the embougeoisement theory made several inter-related points in support of the theory. Thus, proponents of the embourgeoisement theory made the following interconnected arguments.

  • The occupational structure was changing with a decline in the proportion of unskilled and semi-skilled manual jobs and a growth of skilled non-manual and skilled manual jobs, linked to some extent to the relative decline of manufacturing and the increased importance of service industries, a trend which would accelerate in the future.
  • The distribution of income and wealth was becoming more equal, partly because of the full employment of the long post-war economic boom and that affluent manual workers now enjoyed living standards comparable to some non-manual workers. Ownership of consumer durables was becoming more widespread and many working class people could now afford holidays abroad.
  • Skilled manual workers were now less likely to experience alienation at work and were more likely to be consulted by management. Blauner 's work on the relationship between alienation and changing levels of technology was sometimes used to support this argument.
  • Traditional working class communities were declining, and that increasingly geographically mobile manual workers were becoming indistinguishable from their middle class neighbours.
  • Equality of educational opportunity was becoming a reality and that manual workers now took more interest in their children's education indicating a reduction in class differences in attitudes to education.
  •  These trends helped to explain why Labour was defeated in 3 successive General Elections in 1951, 1955 and 1959. Since manual workers were becoming more "middle class" they were deserting the working class Labour Party for the middle class Conservative Party. This could be taken to imply that for these workers there had occurred a decline in working class consciousness.

Consequently, it was argued that the overall class structure was changing from a triangle to a diamond with an increasing proportion of the population falling into the middle range of the stratification system. In this "middle mass society", the mass of the population was middle class rather than working class.

It was also pointed out that insofar as the theory of Embourgeoisement was accurate, it appeared to invalidate at least the more simplistic accounts of Marxist theory which present Marx as a fairly rigid economic determinist predicting that class polarisation would lead to the disappearance of the intermediate strata. By contrast writers such as Clark Kerr argued that technological developments in industrial societies, whether capitalist or communist would require and increasingly well educated, well trained work force earning the high wages necessary to create the consumer demand for the ever increasing production of goods and services possible in industrial economies. As a result, Kerr expected a convergence of capitalist and communist societies in which ideological factors became less significant (due to the so-called end of ideology theory associated with Daniel Bell) as both capitalist and communist societies would be influenced by a by the logic of industrialism which would cause societies to develop in ways not at all predicted by Marx.

However, in his later work, Marx did recognise that the intermediate strata would expand, and it has often been suggested that some of his critics overstated the extent of economic determinism present in his work. Also, Kerr's theory of the logic of industrialism attracted criticism as significant economic and ideological differences remained as between capitalist and communist regimes although notions of convergence and the end of ideology took on a new lease of life with the "collapse of communism 1989-1991), signalling what Francis Fukuyama has called "The End of History." Once again Fukuyama's views have attracted criticism, but I shall not pursue them here. Let us return instead to the nature of the working class!

  • Criticism of the Embourgeoisement Theory

In his Dictionary of Sociology, Gordon Marshall states that "the clearest statement of the Embourgeoisement theory is found In F. Zweig's "The Worker in an Affluent Society (1961) which has the virtue that it is empirically grounded since Zweig conducted interviews with workers in 5 British firms." More critically, Marshall further states that "most other proponents of embourgeoisement argued principally on the basis of speculation and anecdote."

In the UK, the Embourgeoisement theory soon came in for heavy criticism and for several reasons.

  • Economists pointed out that the distribution of income and wealth in the 1950s was more unequal than had been supposed and it was shown that relative poverty was widespread as was inequality of education opportunity.
  • Blauner's theory of the relationships between alienation and levels of technology was criticised on the grounds that was empirically inaccurate in its own terms and also in any case that it relied on a narrow definition of alienation.

More specifically in "The Affluent Worker" studies, Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt attempted to analyse the class position of affluent manual workers clerical workers and members of the traditional working class in detail. The authors studied 229 affluent manual workers and their families together with 54 clerical workers for comparative purposes. Luton was chosen as the location for the study because it was seen as an area especially likely to give rise to Embourgeoisement such that Goldthorpe et al. believed that they could conclude that if embourgeoisement was not occurring in Luton it would be unlikely that it was occurring in other parts of the country.

However Goldthorpe and co. concluded that the affluent workers interviewed in their study had not experienced a process of embourgeoisement although they differed in important respects from both the proletarian traditionalist and deferential traditionalist sections of the working class as well as from the middle class., How did Goldthorpe, Lockwood et al. reach this conclusion?

  • Firstly, it was necessary to define "social class" and the authors argued that social class contained economic, relational and normative aspects. They then argued that the affluent manual workers could not be described as economically middle class because although in some cases they earned more than routine non-manual workers, this was because of overtime or shift work bonuses and that overtime and shift work interfered with their leisure activities and even, in some cases, with their health. Also, they experienced poorer working conditions and enjoyed few if any of the fringe benefits enjoyed by routine non-manual workers. These workers were committed to their company and job only insofar as it provided relatively high incomes. they were not interested in promotion and had few friends at work
  • Neither were affluent manual workers middle class in relational terms. They had few middle class friends and were unlikely to engage in typically middle class leisure activities but their leisure activities, far from being community-centred as in the traditional working class, were described as home centred and privatised
  •  Neither were the affluent manual workers middle class in normative terms. To analyse the attitudes and values of the affluent manual workers it was important for Goldthorpe, Lockwood et al. to be able to compare them with the assumed attitudes and values of the so-called traditional working class and of the middle class. To achieve this, based on the limited evidence available at the time, Goldthorpe, Lockwood and co. relied on previous work by David Lockwood in which he had constructed what he described as ideal-typical proletarian traditionalist and middle class images of society.  He also referred to a deferential traditionalist image of society, but this was not deemed relevant for the Luton Study
  •  Goldthorpe and co. then argued that the affluent manual workers of Luton differed in terms of their attitudes and values from both proletarian traditionalist and middle class workers Thus It was also claimed that they broadly accepted a "money Model" of society rather than the us- them model or the hierarchical model associated with the traditional working class and the middle class respectively.  You may click here for further information on working class and middle class images of society.
  •  Affluent manual workers hoped to improve their living standards not via individual promotion and upward social mobility but collectively via their membership of trades unions and support for the Labour Party. In this they were significantly different from the middle class proper.
  • However, they also differed from the traditional working class because although they were highly likely to be members of trade unions and to vote Labour: (80% of the sample had done so in1959), their reasons for so doing were explained by Goldthorpe and CO in terms of instrumental collectivism rather than the solidaristic collectivism associated with the traditional working class. That is: they supported the Trades Unions and the Labour Party not out of a sense of class solidarity but because of a calculated belief that this was the best way to improve their own economic circumstances. .Also, their support for the Labour Party was potentially volatile in that they said that they could easily imagine themselves voting Conservative if Conservative policies appeared more likely to benefit them economically.

In sum, Goldthorpe and CO claimed to have uncovered not a process of Embourgeoisement but the emergence of a "new working class whose work experience, life styles, attitudes and values, although different from those of the traditional working class, were, nevertheless, still recognisably working class. They argued also that a process of "normative convergence" between the "new working class and the clerical workers was underway as clerical workers also increasingly joined trade unions attempting to halt the relative decline in their living standards

This is a widely respected study of an important aspect of the 1960s class structure, but it has been subjected to several important criticisms. In 'In Praise of Sociology' (1990), Gordon Marshall, while complimenting the Goldthorpe et al study, also refers to several criticisms which have been made of it since its publication. Thus, among the criticisms noted by Marshall are the following.

i). It is argued that within the traditional working class there have existed so-called proletarian traditionalists (who have been very critical of employer-employee relationships as being based on exploitation and conflict) and deferential traditionalists (more prepared to accept the current employer-employee and, indeed, more likely to be Conservative). It is then argued that the new working class identified in the Goldthorpe-Lockwood study are indeed a new phenomenon different from both types of traditional working class. However, this point may be criticised in that it is not at all certain that the traditional working class perspectives as described are any more than theoretical constructs which may not exist in practice. Also, it is claimed, there may be nothing new about the so-called new working-class. Marshall comments... "the well-documented privatism and instrumentalism of the skilled workers of the mid-Victorian labour aristocracy suggests that these attitudinal and behavioural traits are not peculiar to the post war period and may always have been close to the surface of working class life".

ii). Although it may be difficult to fault the Goldthorpe, Lockwood methodology, it may still be true that there may have been more working class solidarity and job interest among the Luton workers, but the survey methods were unable to pick them up.

iii). It is claimed that Goldthorpe, Lockwood and co. asked many, many questions, and sometimes received contradictory answers, but may sometimes have under-emphasised some of the contradictory evidence in order to justify the theories they were putting forward. Marshall comments "the finding that 52% of workers agree unions should be just as concerned with getting higher pay and better conditions while only 40% agree that they should also try to get workers a say in management, scarcely seems to justify the conclusion that there is no widespread desire among these men that their unions should strive to give them a larger role in the actual running of the plant".

iv). It is also argued that Goldthorpe and Lockwood tended to romanticise the so-called companionate marriages of the Luton workers. Feminists, for example would argue that such marriages were based very heavily on power inequality and would cast some doubt on how fulfilling the marriages were.

v). Very straightforwardly, it has been pointed out that the sample of clerical workers was very small (54) and therefore, not necessarily representative.

vi). Also, the affluent manual workers were all aged between 21-46 and all married. They may have been home-centred because many of them had young families, rather than because they were members of a new working class.

There are other criticisms of the Goldthorpe, Lockwood study, but these which have been given above are sufficient to suggest that although the Embourgeoisement theory was heavily discredited, Goldthorpe and Lockwood's own approach to the study of the development of the working class is also not without its critics.

Click here for a detailed article by Professor Mike Savage: Working class identities in the 1960s: revisiting the affluent worker study [2005] in which he suggests that many Luton manual workers were conscious of divisions between themselves and a political and  economic elite , much as was suggested in the proletarian traditionalist image of society.

Social Class in Modern Britain [ G. Marshall, David Rose, Howard Newby and Carolyn Vogler 1988]

Throughout the 1980s it was increasingly argued that the working class had become increasingly fragmentary. Ivor Crewe had pointed to the implications for voting behaviour of the  distinction between the  old and the new working class  while P. Dunleavy and C. Husbands in their study "British Democracy at the Crossroads" [1985] argued that class dealignment occurred  because of the growth of sectoral cleavages  within both the working class and the middle class as between public sector and private sector workers and between consumers of publicly and privately provided housing, health care, education and transport. Public sector workers and consumers of publicly provided services are more likely to Labour because they perceive Labour as the party most likely to improve public sector pay and conditions and to improve public services while private sector workers and consumers of privately provided services may be more likely to vote Conservative because they oppose the higher levels of taxation necessary to defend public service employment and the expansion of public services which they do not use.

Social Class in Modern Britain is a detailed study of several aspects of the UK class structure based upon 1770 interviews carried out in 1984 in which the authors assess the relative usefulness of the NS SEC schema and the E.O. Wright schema for the analysis of the UK class structure, and they also present information on social mobility, proletarianisation and voting behaviour. However, I shall attempt here only to summarise some of their comments on class identity, class awareness and the potential for class-based political action which are relevant to the consideration of the embourgeoisement theory.

The authors note that it was widely claimed in the 1980s that the UK class structure was becoming increasingly fragmented. Due to the increased role of pension funds and other financial institutions in the ownership of capital it was more difficult to visualise a recognisable capitalist class and there were also increasing divisions within the middle and working classes. Thus, the working class were seen as divided between workers in well-paid, secure jobs often in Southern England in expanding industries compared with their opposite; between skilled and unskilled workers; between workers in the public and in the private sector; between trade union members and non- trade union members; between employed workers and those dependent on state benefits. Further divisions based on age, disability, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality existed within the working class all of which may lead to differences in interests, attitudes, and behaviour.

It was also suggested that within the working class in the era of Thatcherism the instrumental collectivism and privatism identified in the Goldthorpe -Lockwood Luton study had intensified, and that working class people were now unlikely to identify with broad political struggles against unemployment, economic inequality, or nuclear weapons and more likely to seek solace in a privatised family life style.

However, based on their survey data Marshall and his colleagues conclude that individuals of all social classes are still highly likely to identify with membership of a social class rather with any other social grouping and that there is also a widespread belief throughout the class structure that there is too much social and economic inequality and that governments should do more to reduce these inequalities. However, it is also widely believed that it should be possible to reduce these social and economic inequalities via reforms within the capitalist system rather than via the abolition of that system although there is also a widespread cynicism that all political parties are the same and that none are likely to take meaningful action to increase social and economic equality. Thus, the authors draw the important conclusion that it is a resigned cynical fatalism as to the ineffectiveness of all political parties rather than a growth of individualised self-interested egoism which has stimulated the instrumentally collectivist approach to politics which had been recognised in the Goldthorpe- Lockwood study.

There are some similarities between the conclusions of this study and those of Fiona Devine’s 1992 study reassessment of the Goldthorpe-Lockwood Luton study as is indicated below.

Affluent Workers Revisited: Privatism and the Working Class: Fiona Devine 1992

In her study “Affluent Workers Revisited: Privatism and the Working Class” [1992] Fiona Devine conducted a detailed study of 62 Luton residents of Vauxhall workers and their wives. Her main aim was to reassess the main conclusion of the original Affluent Workers studies conducted by Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt [GLBP] in the early 1960s which had essentially discredited the Embourgeoisement theory and some later studies such as those of I. Crewe, P. Dunleavy and C. Husbands and P. Saunders which, according to Fiona Devine involved a “revival of all or part of the embourgeoisement thesis.”

Fiona Devine concludes that the experiences, attitudes, and values of her respondents differed in several important respects from those of the respondents in the original Affluent Worker studies although she emphasises thar this cannot be taken as a direct refutation of the original studies which of course referred to different people at an earlier time and that the conclusions of her small- scale study can be assumed to be representative of working class people in general.

The key conclusions of her study may be summarised as follows.

Whereas many of the respondents in the GLBP study had moved to Luton in search of the relatively high wages which were available there in the early 1960s, respondents in Fiona Devine’s study had often moved to escape the higher rates of unemployment prevalent in the less prosperous regions or to purchase house at lower prices than those prevalent in the rest of the South East.

Also. in several cases they hard kin and/or friends who had already moved to Luton which meant that they were less likely to adopt the privatised, family centred life styles which had been reported in the original Affluent Worker studies. She found also that males were likely to socialise in the community with kin and with neighbours who might also be workmates and that females often relied on extended kin and neighbours for help with childcare.

However. her respondents were restricted in their leisure activities by the demands of paid work and relatively low wages and by the responsibilities of housework and childcare which remained mainly the responsibilities of wives rather than husbands. Patterns of sociability were also significantly affected by the changing stages of family life and both males and females had greater opportunities for community sociability once their children were older. Thus. the lifestyles of Fiona Devine’s respondents were neither entirely privatised nor entirely community centred and were related more to the demands of paid employment and childcare and to the changing stages of family life rather than to a shift toward greater individualism which had been emphasised in the original GLBP studies.

In the original Luton studies GLBP attempted to analyse affluent workers’ images of society and concluded that whereas so-called proletarian traditionalists operated with a conflict based  two  class dichotomous model of the class structure and middle class workers favoured a more graduated ladder=type model of society, affluent  workers operated with a three class money model of society containing a small upper class, a small lower class  and a large middle class containing professional workers but also workers like themselves. The working class respondents in Fiona Devine’ s study operated with a similar money model of society, but they emphasised that in their view this class system was essentially unfair because the privileged upper class could enjoy much higher living standards without having to work hard to attain them whereas for the large middle class and the smaller lower class the reverse was the case.

The workers in the Devine study hoped to improve their living standards through their own efforts but they also identified with other members of their class and hoped that they too would be able to attain the higher living standards which they deserved. Thus, whereas in the original Luton study affluent workers were characterised by an instrumental collectivism in that they hoped that support for the Labour Party and the Trade unions would enable them to improve their own living standards, the workers in the Devine study retained a sympathy with the plight of other members of their class. These workers also believed that the Labour Party and the Trade Unions should help to further working class interests, but they were in many cases disillusioned by the failure of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions to do so. Respondents in the study spoke of the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the trade union movement and doubted the ability of the Labour Party to manage the economy effectively as a result of which the party would be unable to fulfil its promises to expand the provisions of the welfare state. The respondents therefore tended to believe that the family life cycle was a key determinant of living standards which would improve if and when children started work or left home to live independently.

Whereas in the Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt study of the 1960s support for the Labour Party remained high among the “new Working class” [ 80% of whom had voted Labour in the 1959 General Election] in the Fiona Devine study, working class support for Labour was much lower: out of 62 respondents 24 were Labour Party supporters, 24 were disillusioned Labour Party supporters and 14 were non-Labour Party supporters. This was unsurprising since there was now very clear evidence that at the national level in the late 1980s and early 1990s working class support for Labour was much lower than it had been in the 1960s.

Voting Behaviour and the Working Class

It had been argued in the 1950s and early 1960s that the gradual decline in the size of the manual working class combined with increased affluence and resultant changes in working-class political attitudes had contributed to the three successive defeats of the Labour Party in 1951, 1955 and 1959, and that the Labour Party would need to change its image and policies if it was to be successful in future general elections. This line of argument was to some extent undermined by the research of Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt, which indicated that in recent general elections affluent workers had remained highly likely to vote Labour, although their research did also illustrate that these voters' support for Labour was increasingly pragmatic and instrumental, and that they could in fact easily imagine themselves voting Conservative, so that there did appear to be some evidence that working-class political class-consciousness was on the decline.

The Goldthorpe -Lockwood study had seriously discredited the theory of Embourgeoisement in the 1960s but by the 1980s, it was again argued by some that this process was underway as the living standards of manual workers in secure employment did improve significantly and more and more of them bought their own houses , bought shares in privatised industries and were more likely to vote Conservative now than they had been in the 1960s, thus contributing importantly to Conservative General Election victories of 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992.

Writing in 1983 Ivor Crewe emphasised divisions in the working class between the new and the old working class. Members of the new working class possessed one or more of the following characteristics: they live in the South; they are not union members; they work in private industry; they own their own homes.  Conversely the old working class possessed one or more of the opposite characteristics and were more likely than the new working class to vote Labour.

It was then widely argued that Labour’s electoral defeats of 1983, 1987 and 1992 could be explained to a considerable extent by processes of partisan and class dealignment. Thus, statistical data indicated that voters were identifying less strongly with the two main political parties [=partisan dealignment] and that the traditional relationships between social class and voting behaviour were weakening [= class dealignment]. Overall support for the Labour Party was declining partly because of a decline in the size of the working class and partly because of a continuing change in the nature of the working class along the lines which had been suggested by Ivor Crewe.

Working class support for Labour plummeted in 1983 and recovered only partially between 1983 and 1992 despite continuing high levels of economic inequality which led to the conclusion that working class political class-consciousness had indeed declined: there was little evidence that the Marxian transition from class in itself to class for itself was underway. This line of argument had some considerable influence on the electoral strategies of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair, who would seek to tailor Labour policies to reflect the reduced size and assumed changing nature of the working class and the growth of the middle class.

Thus it was that although Tony Blair and his supporters would often claim that New Labour represented the interests of “the many not the few”, both he and subsequent labour leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband would rarely mention the words "social class" or "working class". Since the same was even more likely to be true of Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders, it could be argued that from the 1990s onwards, class politics had been more or less expunged from modern political discourse, except insofar as mainly Conservatives continued to analyse poverty in terms of the existence of what they considered to be a fatalistic, work-shy welfare-dependent underclass.

Meanwhile, when New Labour politicians addressed questions of poverty, they did so primarily in terms of "Social Exclusion", which many regarded as an ambiguous term which in some respects amounted to a progressive distancing from more neoliberal variants of the underclass theory but in other respects harked back to them. It would nevertheless be fair to say that Labour politicians were less likely than Conservative politicians to refer to Murray-style variants of the underclass theory.

Working class support for Labour did increase in 1997 and 2001 but it was still much lower than it had been during the 1950s and early 1960s and it declined again in 2005 and 2010 as the popularity of the Blair Brown Governments declined. Then the results of the General Election in 2015, 2017, and 2019 were much influenced by the fragmentation of the working class in Scotland between support and opposition for Scottish independence [ which resulted in the increased popularity of the SNP at the expense of the Labour Party and, to a lesser extent, of the Conservative Party]  and by the fragmentation of the working class and the middle class over the issue of EU membership. By 2019 working class voters were more likely to vote Conservative than to vote Labour and this was a significant factor in the Conservatives’ General Election victory in 2019.  You may click here for data on relationships between social class and voting behaviour 1992- 2019

 I shall not consider these political issues any further here but merely reiterate that these developments do lend further support to the Weberian analysis of the working class which emphasises the increasingly fragmentary nature of working class political attitudes.