We don’t talk about class much any more. Other forms of identity are much more frequent topics of conversation. But COVID-19 has highlighted how powerful class remains in dividing us, and how important it is to recognise it as we think about the future.
A/S/L (and R)
The big battlegrounds today are around age, sex and gender and race. And amazingly in the UK, there remains a powerful north/south divide that has also been brought into sharp relief in this crisis.
‘OK boomer’ is perhaps the best known artefact of our current inter-generational battle. Today though, it seems there are running fights between Millennials/Gen Y* (born 1980 to about 1996) and Gen Z (late 90s to about 2010), with the younger cohort lobbing TikTok grenades and their elders complaining via Twitter. Gen X (born late 60s to late 70s) are frequently ignored, or just dismissed as more Boomers for those with no sense of history. Gen Alpha (born after 2010) will doubtless dismiss us all as fogies in just a few years.
I think most of these broad categorisations are nonsense. What do I, born in 1978, have in common with my Gen X counterparts born in 1968? We grew up with completely different scenes in culture, technology, politics, and the economy. But when you cut through the media hype, by examining these cohorts you can see a shift in social attitudes over time.
The inter-generational battle is perhaps most pitched in the fight over sex and gender, where a (largely older) alliance of feminists and allies is pushing back against more recent reconceptions of male and female. Here the influence of post-modernism on younger generations is evident. One side pushes a materialist analysis of what is fixed and what can be changed, while for the younger cohort, everything is malleable and up for redefinition.
There are echoes of past inter-generational battles here. Perhaps this has always been the dynamic between young and old. The young eager to make change, convinced everything can be changed, and angry at the slow pace of change achieved by their antecedents.
This is certainly visible now in the Black Lives Matter protests. People want to know why almost thirty years after Rodney King, so many black men are still dying at the hands of police.
In contrast with issues of life, death, sex and identity, discussions of class can seem somewhat muted. It’s a difficult discussion in this age where 59% of us are technically middle class, but almost the same proportion consider ourselves working class. But again it is a divide that has been made sharper by the current crisis.
If your current career conversation is about whether you will continue to work from home, then you are most likely middle class. If the conversation is about whether you still have a job, or the conditions under which you have to return to work, you are more likely working class. These categories may not fit with your own history of self-assessment of your identity. But I think it maps quite well to John Goldthorpe’s criteria of income security.
We are entering a period of severe economic shock. The pandemic has accelerated a set of existing trends: the shift to online retail, the rise of remote work, the adoption of automation technologies. This comes in a period of declining global economic co-operation and rising protectionism. On top of this we have the population ageing at a faster rate than we knew, and of course, climate change. It is not a pretty picture if you are facing income insecurity.
Our analyses of the future and our plans to respond have to take class into account. The ability of families to respond to challenges like caring for ageing relatives, rising food prices, or pandemics, is predicated very strongly on the scale and the stability of their income.
It may be an uncomfortable conversation, with our self-perception being at odds with our current financial reality. But it’s an important one.