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I’m a British Graduate, Ex-Essex Girl Who Rents My Home — So What Social Class Am I?

Is class in modern Britain a fact or a performance? Or is it both?

“black metal fence in front of mansion” by King's Church International on Unsplash

All Brits will know about the 3 main social classes — upper, middle and working class — and roughly which one they belong to. New categories have been introduced in recent years and there has long been a distinction between upper and lower middle class people, but basically we all know how to tell who’s who. Schooling, higher education, property ownership, accent — these will all tell you a ridiculous amount about the average British person and what to expect from them.

And ridiculous it is. Words, for example, mean a lot…even when describing the same behaviour. If you require a napkin while eating your supper, it’s a big clue that you’re middle class. But if you use a serviette when eating your tea? Then you’re likely working class — and you’re considered to have used the “wrong” words, because of course, the middle class way is the correct way.

What you wear, what you eat, what music you listen to, what job you do, where you go on holiday — all of these different ways of experiencing the world can be determined by an accident of birth.

Important to note here that the British class system applies more to England than it does in Scotland or Wales. However, while they may not live by the same class ‘rules’ as England, they still know and recognise what those rules are. And are they any more free to progress in life? Arguably not.

None of this is to say that social mobility doesn’t exist in Britain because it does. It’s just that the prevalence of class factors will determine whether you are swimming against the tide or with it. Which makes a big difference as to how hard you’re going to find it to get ahead.

For the most part, I’d say I was from a working class background. Raised initially on a council estate (UK version of social housing) in Essex, comprehensive education (state schooled), nobody in my family had been to university. The trouble was, in order to give me an advantage, I was not allowed to talk in the local accent. (If you’re not familiar with the Essex accent, think London cockney but a bit more nasal and you’ll be pretty close.) It’s an accent I’m fond of actually, but my family believed I would be better off if the way I talked was neutral. By no means unusual for the times.

So did it work? Not so much. It turned out there is no such thing as neutral. Fellow working class people can’t place me so assume I’m not ‘one of them’, that I’m posh even. But middle class people can tell instantly I’m not one of them either (see above for use of the correct words).

The next attempt to give me polish (yes, they use that word here) was to send me to university. This wasn’t just the family plan to be fair, teachers at school seemed primed to sell this idea to us too. It was around the time when politicians were paying a lot of lip service to social mobility and initiatives were springing up all over the place.

One of these initiatives, just prior to me going, was that polytechnics — who had always had the reputation of being the university’s poorer cousin — were now to be called universities too and able to offer their own degrees. They would be one and the same. For example, Cambridge would go from having a ‘lowly’ polytechnic and a renowned university, to having 2 universities.

Being young, I didn’t really have much of an idea what this all meant because I was too green to realise how the world worked. And how the world (or England) worked was pretty much the same as it always did. My school didn’t even get the forms in for Cambridge or Oxford University. So I went to an ex polytechnic in London.

Many working class kids benefited from the increased opportunities, of that I’m sure. But many, myself included, didn’t and it felt like a waste of time. Not the fault of the university, I must add. But your student years are a time when you can make some really important connections that become your life’s turning point. And if you’re studying with other working class kids, you’re going to stay — socially speaking — in the same place you started.

What was also not the university’s fault — or mine, or my family’s for that matter — was that the house prices went through the roof very soon after I graduated. I was living in Cambridge by this point and was priced out of the market within months of it happening. I had no idea such crazy increases were to become the norm and that, decades later, it would still be the same.

So the irony for me is that my years at university could have been more gainfully spent working and saving for a deposit to buy my own home — property ownership being one of the main determining factors in being middle class! The very act of pursuing one of the other determining factors — further education — contributed greatly to scuppering my chances.

Class in Britain is complex. Tradition lies at the heart of it but for all the preformative elements of manners, accents, what words you use and who you are connected to — hasn’t money always been the main point? I once asked a French person what a ‘posh’ French accent would sound like. They didn’t really know what I meant which I took for a promising sign they weren’t as bogged down in class divisions as Britain. How wrong I was. All over the world, money talks and it’s a great head-start in life. Not the be all and end all, by any means, but it helps. A lot.

There’s a slightly old-fashioned belief/saying here that, ‘money is never to be spoken of’. And for the most part, it’s the middle classes that believe discussing money is vulgar. That should come as no surprise. Because if we talked about it, then money — rather than character or even education — would more than likely be seen to win the day. And if it isn’t seen, it’s less likely to be challenged.

I’ve never minded being working class. I don’t see it as lesser at all and in fact think I can be thankful for many of the opportunities I’ve had in my life. I take pride in the things I’ve achieved and don’t feel society is to blame for my failures. My social status didn’t always help but rarely hindered too much either. However, class in modern Britain is a distraction we don’t need. What is the point of a performance that takes so much effort and yet tells us so little about who we really are?