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DECLINE OF THE WORKING CLASS June 26, 2011

Posted by wmmbb in Social Environment.
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Focus groups inform government decisions, but seldom are their finding made public. The Independent on Sunday reports on self description of manual workers in the UK.

John Rentoul writes:

The working class is fast disappearing in Britain, according to new research into public attitudes revealed today. Only a quarter of the population now identifying themselves as working class, and pride in their social position is turning to bitterness as manual workers feel themselves squeezed between benefit claimants, immigrants and the expanding middle class.

In the second phase of the most comprehensive study of class in Britain, published exclusively today by The Independent on Sunday, the research company BritainThinks investigated the social attitudes of the declining working class. The survey paints an alarming picture of a group that feels disenfranchised, isolated and threatened on all sides.

When asked to identify their social class, only 24 per cent of people chose to say working class, compared with 67 per cent in the late 1980s. Many people who are struggling financially now choose not to call themselves working class. And those who do are torn between celebrating the dignity of labour and feeling that the term now simply means “poor”.

Some effects for the decline of skilled and unskilled labor is indicated but not all- such as the effects of technology and deindustrialization in Western Countries. However we do get the visceral responses:

[The study] concludes that most working-class people feel under siege, “brought down by the workshy underclass and undercut by immigrants”. They feel a residual pride in being working class, but this is often seen as something in the past. “Working class used to be a choice – work with your hands, do an honest day’s work, be unpretentious, play football. Now working class tends to just mean poor,” the report’s authors say.

Old assumptions about working-class solidarity no longer apply. The survey finds that the middle classes are more likely to feel part of a community, and that working-class respondents are more likely to feel lonely, unhappy and pessimistic.

In the focus groups, people felt that being called working class was close to an insult, associating them with the “chav” class who choose to live on benefits. The use of the term “chav” has been described as part of the “demonisation of the working class” by Owen Jones, but the study shows that the working classes use it themselves to disown the workshy.

Dole bludger is probably the Australian equivalent of “chav”.

Deborah Mattinson, founder of Britain Thinks, who conducted the focus groups asked people to bring along objects indicating their social class identification. She writes:

The items people brought along were often to do with manual work – heavy leather workers’ gloves, a spanner, a screwdriver, a tape measure – although someone produced a copy of the Racing Post and several people brought The Sun.

In the 1990s a majority of the population described themselves as working class. Nowadays, the worker is an endangered species, threatened by short-term contracts imposed by tough employers who no longer listen to marginalised trade unions, while also facing competition from cheap and industrious immigrants, especially from Poland. Tony told us: “Immigration meant my wages went down from £250 a day to £110 a day and now £70 a day… I just can’t live off being a carpenter any more.”

Some, especially the under-25s, acknowledged that changes had been positive: more people owning their homes, going abroad on holiday, eating out; but feelings were mixed – and for those who couldn’t afford home ownership the prospects for renting were bleak.

In 20 years of running political focus groups I have seen voters becoming more and more disconnected from politics as they observe politicians coming from an increasingly rarefied gene pool. Working-class voters are particularly disillusioned, convinced that politicians are upper class, with no understanding of their concerns.

The classless society for which many hoped does not seem to have materialsed – although the youngest in our sample remain optimistic that it may. However, the traditional perks of being working class – living in strong communities and taking pride in work – seem to have evaporated and the financial downsides have grown.

Worst of all is the stress of life on the edge, the nagging fear – felt especially strongly by the least well off – that at any time you could tip over and end up in the fourth class: not “working” any more but part of the “underclass”, or “chavs”.

It is only necessary to do physical work for change, such as pulling down the fence, to have respect for those who are fit enough to work on these activities. Apparently, it is the social conservatives of the Labor base that are shaping public policies, for example in relation to refugees. Why should focus group research be in effect restricted?

I continue to categorize myself as working class in a non-paid capacity. The fact that people in Britain in this category express fear, anxiety and lack of respect – perhaps always true – is evidence of social regression.

John Lennon conducted his own focus group:

ELSEWHERE:

Noam Chomsky’s address to Cologne University is relevant to this and yesterday’s post.

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