British identity and society Is the British middle class an endangered species?

Being middle class in Britain has changed. Gone are the days of job security, a good salary and regular foreign holidays. And the crisis of a generation is just beginning
Ogden-Newton family
'I always thought my career was profoundly insecure,' says Allison Ogden-Newton. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian
Allison Ogden-Newton's father was a GP. He did it for more than 50 years, mostly in the plush commuter belt around Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire. Ogden-Newton describes it as "Tory heartland": golf courses, men getting the train to Marylebone, women staying at home with the Volvo.
Ogden-Newton got out. At university, she studied industrial relations; then she worked for unions, in Kentucky in the fiercely anti-union American South – "I've been shot at more than once" – and back in Britain, campaigning against poisonous paint solvents. Next came charity work, the traditional kind, then the more modern, entrepreneurial sort. She now runs Social Enterprise London, a profit-making body that advises and lobbies for socially-conscious businesses.
Ogden-Newton is a confident woman of 47, still "on the side of the righteous" in her view, but comfortable giving orders. She earns £80,000 a year. She and her husband, who runs a property management company, and their three children live in a large, cool house in Richmond in leafiest south-west London. They have an upmarket 4x4 in their front drive, an olive tree in their back garden and original artworks on their walls. The afternoon I arrive, their au pair is looking after the children, who are just home from private school, while Ogden-Newton gets ready to go to a conference in South Korea.
It is a life that feels almost impregnable. But this is an illusion. One of the things Social Enterprise London does is find businesses to fulfil government welfare contracts. "Since the general election," Ogden-Newton says as we sit in the sun in her garden, "90% of the contracts have been cancelled." For a moment an expression of alarm passes across her face. "I'm absolutely spellbound by the speed and the totality of it." But then she recovers: "I think the contracts that have been taken away will be replaced with cleverer arrangements." Was this turbulence what she expected when she took her current job? She smiles. "I always thought it was profoundly insecure."
Being middle class in Britain has changed. Politicians and the media and many Britons still talk about "the middle class" as if it is a steady, secure, cohesive social group. They assume it is growing ever more populous and influential. "We are all middle class now" has been a favourite newspaper headline for decades, as long-term social and economic and political trends have weakened the upper and working classes. "By the 1980s... the middle classes appeared to be the ascendant force... even the victors in the long class war," write Simon Gunn and Rachel Bell in their 2002 history Middle Classes: Their Rise And Sprawl.
Yet in the book's final chapter, which covers the 80s onwards, there is the beginning of a more ambiguous story: the increasingly competitive nature of middle-class life and the decrease in job security; Margaret Thatcher's opening up of the classic middle-class professions, such as university teaching, to market forces; the slow decline of the great state and corporate bureaucracies; the downgrading of middle managers by new business ideologies. These shifts, conclude Gunn and Bell, have left "few if any areas in which middle-class people work untouched".
In some ways, middle-class life has changed for the better, the authors acknowledge: more consumer pleasures, widening opportunities for women, rocketing salaries for some professionals, rewarding new career paths for the self-motivated and nimble, for people such as Ogden-Newton. In the inner London borough where I live, which is increasingly full of middle-class people like me, earning unspectacular salaries by London standards, the Icelandic ash cloud this spring left local schools half-emptied of teachers and pupils. Despite the recent financial crisis and recession, spending the Easter holidays abroad – something only very rich people did in my childhood – was apparently still quite normal. Yet is this modern, free-spending version of the middle-class Good Life sustainable? The sociologist Richard Sennett, quoted by Gunn and Bell, thinks not: "The crisis of the middle class," he warns, "is just beginning."
Stephen Overell, associate director of the Work Foundation, shares some of that pessimism: "There is an ongoing hollowing-out of the middle ranks in the British job market – the managers, the administrators," he says. "What growth there has been [in this area] has been driven by the public sector over the last 10 years. With the government's spending cuts, you have to question the future of many of those managerial jobs." For many middle-class people who hang on to their jobs, he continues, prospects are not much brighter: "In the middle-class workplace, employees' autonomy and discretion have collapsed dramatically compared with 20 years ago. Software is standardising work. There are more procedures and guidelines, more surveillance. People at the top end are doing OK, but the rest feel that their working lives are getting worse." Middle-class employment, you could say, is becoming more like that long endured by the working class.
Of course, being middle class is about more than just your job. But other traditional aspects of middle-class life have acquired their own modern anxieties. The value of saving is being undermined by low interest rates and jumpy stock markets. Property ownership is becoming more difficult for future generations because of high house prices. The chance of a comfortable retirement is threatened by meaner public and private sector pensions. The old middle-class behaviours and values – self-restraint, deferred gratification, a degree of snobbery – have less relevance in a Britain where all classes scoff supermarket ready meals and small-talk about Britain's Got Talent.
"To be middle class today," Gunn says, "is to be in an edgy position. The notion of being middle class does still carry an awful lot of freight. But there are divisions within that middle class, between the public and the private sector, between people already in the professions and people trying to get in. The payback for being middle class in Britain has always been security: networks of people that you know, investments. What we have now is a very fluid middle class. Few people in it expect to do the same thing all their lives. They are constantly striving. I don't know how many of us know that if terrible financial things went wrong in our lives, we'd be OK."
Middle-class family Kim Ormsby and family: 'We don’t talk about money. We just know we haven’t got much.' Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian Kim Ormsby is one of the worriers. She is 45, still has young children, and runs the recycling and medical waste disposal for 60 NHS sites across west London. She earns £39,000, about one and a half times the average British full-time wage. Like all but the lowest-paid public sector workers, her pay has recently been frozen by the coalition government for the next two years.
"I'm earning a lot more than I thought I would when I started in the NHS," she says when we meet for a rushed coffee in the canteen of one of the hospitals she covers. "Fourteen years ago, I was on £12,000. I've always had savings. But I'm not saving at the moment. In fact, I'm spending my savings. They really have dwindled."
The life she goes on to describe does not sound exactly spendthrift. She and her husband, who has a lower-paid job in the same department, live with their son and daughter in a semi in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. They moved to the dormitory town from London two years ago because the property was cheaper, but their three-bed house needs work. "Sometimes we sit in the lounge and think, 'God, this is depressing.' The wallpaper's peeling – it needs to be stripped." They own one 10-year-old car. "We don't talk about money. We just know we haven't got much."
Ormsby is not bleak about everything – "I really enjoy my job." But to squeeze in the necessary hours, she gets up at 5.15am, and works for an hour in the evening after the children are in bed. The family summer holiday is one week in France.
She knows that not all middle-class Britons live like this. "We have got some rich friends. They tend to go out more. They have nice holidays; skiing, or somewhere hot." Does she envy that? "Yes," Ormsby says with abrupt intensity. "I would like to have a decent holiday." Does she think of herself as part of the same middle class as them? "Is there such a thing as middle class any more? It's as if the middle class has just gone like that" – she moves her hands farther and farther apart across the canteen table – "and the top part should go into the upper class or something."
Thirteen years ago, the management consultants McKinsey produced an influential report called The War For Talent. The report argued that able individuals were the key to corporate success, that due to demographic shifts and globalisation they were in short supply, and that organisations needed therefore to compete for these people and reward them accordingly. Since 1997, this idea has come to permeate the middle-class workplace. "Within professions there are much greater rewards now for outstanding stars," Overell says. And often these "stars" see their peers in international rather than national terms. "If you go to London and New York, say, the people at the top are forming a group. They understand each other. They regard themselves as a tribe." Members of the tribe – business executives, celebrity architects, management consultants – are always travelling, often transatlantic in their accents and assumptions, and tend to see the world as simply a series of problems to be solved.
At the same time, within the British middle class, "there are also some whole professions that are pulling away from everyone else". The most infamous of these is financial services. In my experience, at least, bankers have a slightly contradictory status in middle-class life: mentioned endlessly in conversations with peers about money or property or how the world works, but rarely actually encountered. As Ormsby puts it, fiddling with her polystyrene coffee cup in the hospital canteen, "It's like another world."
Alex Preston 'What really grated about my non-City mates was that they talked about what they did with real passion,' says Alex Preston. Photograph: David Yeo for the Guardian Until three months ago, Alex Preston was in that world. He entered it almost by accident. His mother and grandfather were academics, and at Oxford University he did English and wanted to be a novelist. But then he made friends there "whose fathers were in the City. I went to their houses. And I thought, 'I fancy a bit of that.'" Working in the City, he told himself, would be a short-term thing: "Putting aside a few quid, and then sitting in a farmhouse in the south of France, writing my Ulysses."
Preston is 30, dapper and self-assured. We meet at a cafe at Stansted airport; he is on his way to France for the weekend for his mother's 60th. Earlier this year he published This Bleeding City, a semi-autobiographical novel about London bankers. "I always saw the City as something separate – almost outside the British class system altogether. That American idea of class as being only about money." He stayed in the City for 10 years, working at different times for a bank, an investment company and a hedge fund, and discovered that separateness was indeed one of the City's defining characteristics. "You talk about 'civilians' [non-City people]. Guys would say, 'I don't know if I can go back to a civilian salary.'"
The long working hours made it hard to keep in touch with non-banking friends. But he tried: "There was a time when I was trying to convert them. They were all public sector guys. We played football on a Tuesday night, and I'd say, 'Guys, you could immediately quadruple your salary.' They said, 'We have ideals, and we like the job security.'"
He suddenly looks melancholy: "What really grated about my non-City mates was that they talked about what they did with real passion. In the City, you are basically doing a job that doesn't interest you. The City gets intelligent people to do tiresomely repetitive jobs." Long-term career satisfaction is considered by sociologists a characteristic middle-class expectation; on that score, Preston found the City lacking.
The compensation, of course, was the money – and the opportunities it brought to self-invent: "When I started in the City, tastes were blingy, a bit Essex – 'Look at my big watch.' Then people got into shooting, country estates, wine cellars, wearing a lot of tweed." Preston shakes his head in theatrical disbelief: "I went shooting!" What does he think this change in bankers' spending habits was about? "It's saying to the rest of the middle class, 'We are the bosses.'"
Then there are the more subtle City status symbols: a subsidised second career, or a very early retirement. Preston says he "didn't save much, alas" of what he earned in the City, but he is working on his second novel and doing an English PhD, enviable choices for a 30-year-old in London with two small children. Ogden-Newton says, "If your kids go to private school, you see these fathers who have made enough money in the City and don't need to work any more." An edge comes into her voice: "They have a 'photography business' or something."
In Britain, the middle class has long had elites and internal divisions. Every class does; it is one of the reasons we often talk about them in the plural. But the sheer breadth and vague boundaries of the middle class have often made it seem uniquely fragmented. "How can millionaire financiers, farmers, shopkeepers, possibly be lumped together in any social category?" ask Alan Kidd and David Nicholls in their 1998 book The Making Of The British Middle Class?
In fact, being middle class has always been a slippery business. Having servants, renting a good property, owning a good property, owning a business, being employed in one of "the professions", how you speak, how you use cutlery – at different times, all these have been regarded as essentials of middle-class life. In the 19th century, an identity was created which emphasised ambition, inventiveness, effort – "You work like stink," as Ogden-Newton puts it – and the middle class presented as a confident, outward-looking Britain's driving force. Yet mixed with this triumphalism has always been envy and insecurity: seeing yourself as the middle group in society can leave you feeling either smug or beleaguered.
For most of the 20th century, the decline of the aristocracy and expansion of managerial and office work greatly benefited the middle class. But there were periods, such as the 70s, when surges in working-class militancy – and working-class fashionability – threatened this supremacy. "Middle class" became a perjorative, even on predominantly middle-class university campuses. Accents and life histories were adjusted: in 1975 a British diplomat's son called John Mellor renamed himself Joe Strummer, and soon afterwards began singing for the Clash in football-terrace cockney.
That era of middle-class shame and proletarian chic seems remote now. The election of Thatcher in 1979, with her constant, reverent references to her upbringing as a shopkeeper's daughter, restored the middle class's political potency. Her policies, such as City deregulation and reducing the top rate of income tax, effectively led to the creation of today's many middle-class millionaires.
Today, despite their financial precariousness, the British middle class's tastes in food and interior decor are ever more widely imitated. David Cameron, like almost everyone from aristocratic families these days, strains to present himself as a typical middle-class person, his much-filmed London kitchen full of items from Habitat and John Lewis. In once socially-diverse professions such as journalism, middle-class people are now ubiquitous. The middle-class aptitudes for education and self-improvement and networking – the real constants, perhaps, of middle-class life over the centuries – seem ever more useful in the modern world. "Some people still stay in the middle class even if they don't have the money," says the sociologist Ray Pahl. "People say, 'Poor so-and-so hasn't got any money. Let's invite him to our house in Italy.'"
However, for people to consider each other part of the same social class in the long term, Pahl warns, "Reciprocity is important: the exchange of meals, of hospitality." The polarisation of middle-class salaries and working patterns is making this more difficult. Preston says he has one friend who has been for dinner at his house "maybe 150 times" without a return invitation, although he insists they are still close.
Geography and lifestyle also increasingly divide the modern British middle class. "There are different middle classes in different places," Pahl says. Since the early 60s, middle-class families in London have been moving into the inner city, while in most other British conurbations they have been moving out. As a consequence, the kind of homes and neighbourhoods and schools middle-class Britons use have diverged. The neat, middle-class enclaves of Edinburgh or Leeds, with their almost wholly middle-class streets and playgrounds, offer a different life from scruffier, more socially mixed but increasingly gentrified Hackney or Lambeth.
Overell lists some other middle-class divides: between flexible and full-time workers, double- and single-income families, American-style workaholics and European-style professionals who disappear on holiday for the whole of August. "There was more commonality of experience at work in the old days," he says. "People do find it harder to relate to other people's work now. Jobs are very specialised. There are real divides opening between occupations. Ultimately it results in less social solidarity."
Maybe the middle class has finally become too vast and loose a coalition to hold together. The Office for National Statistics does not use the term, preferring smaller, more technical categories such as "higher managerial", "lower professional" and "higher supervisory". For decades, the supposed disappearance of the working class has been the big class story in Britain; perhaps that stopped people noticing that the middle class was also dissolving. At the least, retired bankers aside, a sense of ease has gone. "Smug self-satisfaction is no longer the middle class mind-set," says Gunn.
In her lovely Richmond back garden, at nearly three o'clock in the afternoon, Ogden-Newton gulps down a supermarket smoked chicken and cheese bagel for her lunch while we talk. Behind her in the kitchen, her laptop is open, waiting for her to blog and tweet on behalf of Social Enterprise London before her taxi to the airport comes. "Maybe that's what defines the middle class these days: the willingness and the ability to box and cox," she says, sitting forward in her garden chair, wearing smart shoes but an old T-shirt, hair hurriedly brushed. "I work 12-hour days. I share the childcare with my husband. I love what I do, and I love my family life, and I love gardening. But I am running out of hours."

受財政預算案影響 家庭收入減少三千鎊

(本 報訊)英國著名經濟預測機構周四表示,財相歐思邦上月公布的財政預算案,可令英國家庭每年的可支配收入減少3000鎊。

Capital Economics的分析家表示,從明年開始,英國家庭的可支配收入即將減少1%,這是自1982年以來,英國家庭可支配收入首次出現下降,且到2012 年之前,該指標不會再有上漲。英國資深經濟學家Vicky Redwood也表示,英國家庭將遭遇上世紀70年代中期以來,「最嚴酷的財政緊縮」階段。 而到2015年以前,英國政府計劃中的400億鎊增稅方案以及大幅削減公共開支的計劃,將令英國家庭在現有每戶平均可支配收入36,000鎊的基礎上,減 少3000鎊,幅度達8%。

其中,2011年將是最困難的一年:VAT增值稅將上提到20%的高水平;公共部門薪資遭遇凍結;失業人數繼續上升,英國家庭的可支配收入將瞬間減少 1100鎊。 雖然財相此前的預算案,已將英國經濟危機後的衰退景象完整顯現出來,但上述數據的公布,卻刻畫出了更為悲慘的經濟狀況。

財政部的數據顯示,緊縮政策對於收入最高的10%英國家庭來說,將意味著未來兩年內可支配收入減少1600鎊;而對那些年收入為平均水平的家庭來說,則減 少300至600鎊;對最貧困家庭來說,也將意味著他們的可支配收入可能減少180鎊左右。 然而根據Capital Economics的預測,政府的增稅計劃可令英國平均水平收入家庭的可支配收入,減少550鎊左右。此外,該機構的研究數據還顯示,政府凍結公務員薪酬 水平以及裁員的措施,對英國經濟的影響,是財政部預料中的兩倍。 雖然預算案中提出的總體稅收預算,僅增長了約82億鎊,但針對英國家庭的稅收預算卻高達110億鎊。

Redwood表示,政府為防止商業部門的再一波裁員 危機,不得不減少針對這一部門的稅收預算,令財政部損失達60億鎊,而這部分損失,都將由英國普通民眾家庭來承擔。 她表示:「在財政緊縮時期,消費者無疑是最受打擊的人群。財政緊縮,再加上不斷減少公共債務的努力,將令消費者面臨史無前例的困難時期。」

英政府擬取消 「24小時飲酒法」

2010-07-24 05:25:00
(本 報訊)英國新政府計劃打擊英國人酗酒問題,「24小時飲酒法」將可能被廢除,且政府擬禁止低價銷售酒精飲品。「24小時飲酒法」是由前工黨政府於2005 年制定,目的在開創所謂的餐館文化,提倡適量飲酒的習慣。    

前工黨政府曾表示,希望該法使得英國人改善酗酒問題,而將飲酒變成類似「飲咖啡文化」。 不過新聯合政府指責工黨的言論荒謬,該法使得與飲酒相關的暴力犯罪案增加,在節制民眾飲酒方面效果卻不彰;而英國民眾豪飲的問題,使得若干城鎮市中心在周 五和周六晚上讓普通民眾卻步。 英國媒體報道,保守黨和自民黨聯合政府的內政大臣文翠珊將公布方案,增加地方政府的執行權。

根據計劃,地方政府將有權對整條街道或整個城鎮下達午夜過後禁酒的命令;部分獲准營業到深夜的酒吧和俱樂部將被課稅,用來支付警察維護治安的額外成本。 新法將禁止超市以低於成本價的價格銷售酒精飲品;如果有酒吧被多次發現出售酒類飲品給未及飲酒年齡的兒童,將遭到當局關閉。 工黨曾警告超市,不准低價出售酒類飲品,但從未採取任何實際措施。很多超市內銷售的酒類飲品價格甚至低於瓶裝水。

警方也表示,反對「24小時飲酒法」,因為很多青少年在去市中心玩樂前就飲酒,而酒吧和俱樂部深夜可售酒的規定,讓他們又繼續豪飲至糷醉,很多城鎮中心周 末晚上變得很混亂,警方面臨人手短缺的問題。由於酒吧營業時間延長,警方花費4億鎊用以支付加班工作的警員。

英國政府執照事務次官布魯克肖爾(James Brokenshire)說:「政府相信,地方政府和社區有權參與執照批准程序,由他們將決定當地需要何種經濟和文化。」之前在工黨執政時,地方政府很難 拒絕酒吧延長營業時間的執照申請,尤其是在市中心地段的酒吧或俱樂部。 布魯克肖爾表示,政府將對「執照法」進行重新重新審核,確保地方政府和警方擁有更大權力,拒絕或吊銷有問題的酒吧或俱樂部執照。

英德指標超出預期 彰顯歐洲復甦勁道

中央社 (2010-07-23 23:31)


英國國家統計局(Office for NationalStatistics)今天說,英國國內生產毛額在4到6月增長了1.1%,比經濟學家在彭博資訊調查中預測的成長0.6%,快了近2倍。




倫敦野村證券國際公司(Nomura InternationalPlc)經濟師拜爾克(Laurent Bilke)說:「歐洲的回春相當強勁,比預期的更強。這樣的程度不太可能持續很久。」



經濟觀察─英國第二季度GDP 增長1.1%,創4年來最大增幅

英國國家統計局周五公布的數據顯示,英國第二季度GDP以4年來的最快速度增長,季率上升1.1%,年率上升1.6%,為2008年經濟危機以來連續第3 個季度持續上升,表明英國經濟復甦有強大推力。此前經濟學家預期為季率增長0.6%,年率增長1.1%。第一季度為季率上升0.3%,年率下降0.2%。 上一次GDP 季率增長1.1%是出現在2006年的第一季度,一直以來GDP季率增長都未能超過1999年第三季度的增幅。


英國第2季GDP季增1.1% 為4年來最快增幅 年增1.6%

英國第2季GDP季增1.1% 為4年來最快增幅 年增1.6%
鉅亨網新聞中心 (來源:世華財訊) 2010-07-23 17:55:14 

(李愛娟 編譯)

全球下半年經濟 不妙

     今年上半年世界經 濟走強景象,相當程度係來自於「存貨重建」的激勵,但六月後,來自先進國家必要的存貨重建勁道,已經開始疲乏,而且看起來情勢頗為不妙,這將會大力拖拉迴 身倏起的世界經濟成長,英國《經濟學人》就肯定地認為,上半年經濟上升的氣勢已告終止,下半年的轉緩轉低幾已成為定數。
      歐盟區帶動的政府緊縮開支及嚴控財政赤字的風潮,是另一股不利後半年經濟成長的重大變動。從世界經濟發展經驗看,在經濟疲弱期間,緊縮財政支出與加稅措 施,通常都是嚴重不利經濟成長的行政忌諱。今天世界經濟情勢,以長期觀點看或用短期觀點看,恐怕都不能說是處在身強體健階段,其傷害性自然不容淡忽。
      亞洲國家首推中國經濟景氣動向。目前全世界共所矚目的是,中國政府最近對人民幣匯率政策態度的轉移,大體上仍謹守「小變漸變」方式,依權威機構的內部研 制,未來五年中國政府最可能採取的是,每年升值幅度三%的原則,也就是要直到二○一四年,人民幣兌美元才會到達一:六的位置。但是人民幣急升到一:五的預 期,在近期內都尚有可爭議的空間。日圓在九○年代短時間之內大幅度勁升的國家經濟緊縮效應,是中國政府當局極為在乎的前車鑑例。
      日本在今年上半年以出口帶動的繁榮復甦,是過去半年來全球比較亮眼,也令人欣喜的新事,第一季出口成長三五%,是四分之一個世紀以來少有的大躍進,當然 也給近鄰的臺灣帶來重大的經濟振興對策啟示。不過,日本景氣也是繫乎政府財政激勵措施之退場與否,以及中國大陸市場的景氣變化,最近中國經濟發展趨勢既見 轉緩,對於下半年之後的日本經濟景氣之是否繁榮,關係甚為密切,也難怪日本新任駐中國大使要改用企業家而放棄繼續起用傳統外交官,當可看出其中的奧妙關 係。

  • 林建山

  • 為環球經濟社社長兼公共政策研究所所長)
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