Belfast Telegraph

We’re all middle class now, so we better start working

By Christina Patterson

When I meet people who are upper-middle class, I start worrying about cutlery.

I worry that I'll pick the wrong knife, or hold it with the wrong fingers, or drop it. I worry that I'll suddenly refer to my supper - or is it dinner? - as tea, or suddenly ask for a serviette, or a sweet.

Since I'm rarely invited to lunch (or is it dinner?) with upper-middle class people, or to dinner parties, or whatever they call an evening meal with people who aren't part of the family but aren't exactly friends, the cutlery problem is largely metaphorical.

The anxiety, however, isn't. I hear my voice, and it sounds prissy and earnest. I see a body pitched at an angle that appears to me like languid ease, and eyes that flicker with something: Boredom? Amusement? Contempt? I feel myself tensing up.

I feel as if I've just been entered for a test I know I'll fail. I know that the other person couldn't give a flying foxhound that the test, in fact, is in my head. But I still feel tense.

Because I'm middle-middle class and I'm programmed to be scared of the next rung up from me.

That fear appears to be on the wane. We are all middle class now. It's not just that we have a sweet young heir to the throne who's trying very hard to appear like a nice, middle class bloke who's marrying a nice, middle class girl.

Or that we have an Old Etonian Prime Minister married to the daughter of a baronet who describes himself as a member of the 'sharp-elbowed' middle classes. It's that we really do all, or nearly all, now call ourselves middle class.

According to a new survey, 71% of people in the UK now regard themselves as middle class. A generation ago, it was a quarter.

Working class is claimed now by 24% of people. No-one describes themselves as upper class. 7% say they are upper middle class (which is exactly the same percentage as go to private schools), 21% describe themselves as lower-middle, and 44% as middle class, which I suppose means middle-middle, like me.

The people who took part in the study were encouraged to bring along objects that they felt represented their class.

There was, apparently, a lot of Cath Kidston and an awful lot of cafetieres. They also, poor darlings, had to make collages. Not nice collages of the Tudors, like I did at primary school, when I wasn't making dinosaurs out of toilet (or is it lavatory?) rolls, but collages that reflected their thoughts about the working classes. The result was an explosion of obesity, booze and bling.

In this sense, the message was clear. If the working classes were ever worthy of respect, they sure as hell aren't now.

In another sense, it was slightly less clear. You can, according to the survey, be middle class if you're a 'squeezed struggler' or a 'Daily Mail disciplinarian'.

But you can also be middle class if you elude alliteration as a 'bargain hunter' or 'comfortable green'. You can, in other words, earn pretty much anything. You are what you think you are. You are the kind of coffee you drink.

No wonder George Osborne decided to use Wednesday's Budget to announce a freeze in air passenger duty. Most people can muster the cash (and even sometimes the stamina) for the odd Ryanair flight to somewhere hotter.

Even 'comfortable greens' like a holiday, and no one, except politicians, whose holidays you can't really call holidays, wants to brave our rain.

If the UK is one big, happy, cafetiere-clutching society, it's one where standards of living are likely to drop.

Research commissioned by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the current squeeze on living standards will turn out to be the longest since the 1920s, and that's before you begin to think about the impact of globalisation and demographics.

And before you begin to think about social mobility.

The UK is the most unequal nation among developed countries after the US and Singapore.

We may all sip our Colombian roast with our cornflakes, or our croissants, but children's achievement is more likely to be tied to that of their parents than in almost any other country in the Western world.

More than a million of our young people are not in any kind of training or employment.

It's this generation that will shape the social and economic structures of this country we call middle class.

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