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Guest blog: Why I want to save the middle classes

(92 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 24-Apr-13 11:50:24

In today's guest blog, David Boyle, whose book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes is published this week, argues that - whether they know it yet or not - the middle class faces extinction.

What do you think - is he right? And if so, is it something to worry about? Let us have your thoughts - and if you blog about it, don't forget to post your URLs here on the thread.

"A generation ago, when the financial journalist Patrick Hutber wrote a book called The Decline and Fall of the Middle Class, he said that no class in history had been quite so complicit in its own demise.

I wondered about that all the time I was writing my book Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?. We complain about current economic difficulties, and breathe the occasional sigh of relief that we have escaped the worst, but we don't always see the whole picture.

Yes, house prices seem likely to price out the next generation. Yes, our pensions are worth a fraction of our parents'. Yes, childcare costs are so high that it almost rules out working. Yes, our traditional jobs have disappeared and our professional pride has been stripped away by monitoring systems and targets.

But, no, we don't like to complain - especially when other people have it far worse.

So the middle classes don't see that, taken together, this may amount to the end of a way of life - a diverse and multi-faceted way of life, it is true, but also one where people can be that much less dependent on the whims of landlords and employers.

We are no longer aspiring for our children to be part of a burgeoning middle class. We are desperately struggling for them to be part of a shrinking global elite. No wonder choosing a school is stressful.

This is not quite as self-serving as it seems. The middle classes are absolutely vital for a healthy, civilized democracy and a successful economy. Their tolerance has made the UK one of the most liveable nations in the world. It matters if the possibility of a middle class life should slip through our fingers.

Yes, the middle classes still churn out civilized sportspeople, artists, musicians, scientists - because they are still allowed some space in their lives to be civilized. They are not yet precarious, not yet facing the limits - when they just paid enough to get by - that beset the poorer classes. But look at the trends.

The end of mortgage rationing in 1980 led to inflationary sums pouring into the UK property market from American banks. The way that Big Bang was organized create a new elite, whose annual bonuses also push up the price of homes. The ruling classes turned a blind eye to the demise of defined contribution final salary pensions.

Perhaps the middle classes were complicit too. They misunderstood the emerging financial services sector, assuming it was on their side - when, as it turned out, it wasn't.

The real question is whether the next generation, whatever class they are from, will be able to get a roof over their head - because this is not just about the present downturn. If house prices rise at the same rate as they did in the past 30 years for another three decades, the average UK house will be worth £1.2 million - and it seems pretty clear that salaries will not follow nearly as fast.

We are used to think that the housing market would never cut itself adrift from the need for people to come in on the bottom rung, but buy-to-let mortgages and foreign investors have shown otherwise. A typical London deposit is now £85,000. We used to assume that windfalls would help the next generation - but we will also need that money to plug pension gaps and pay for social care.

Already only half of London's homes are now owner-occupied, and our capital city is rapidly shifting from property-owning democracy to a city of supplicants to the whims of rental agents. UK home ownership is falling steadily, and is now lower than in Romania and Bulgaria.

I have two children, aged eight and six, but I can't see how they will be able to afford to buy - or to rent - in London, without seriously constraining their choice of career: a quarter of a century of indentured servitude in financial services, if they can get in, whether it suits them or not.

We all want the possibility of a middle-class life to stay open for our children - the economic possibility to have the safe space to dream, to create, to make music, to read, or just to sit on the grass, without being timed when you go to the loo (for call-centre employees), or having to hold down three jobs day and night to pay the rent."

David Boyle is the author of Broke: Who Killed the Middle Classes?, Fourth Estate.

OP’s posts: |
InSync Wed 24-Apr-13 13:41:01


Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 13:42:17

I agree with everything in the OP. And, in particular, with the idea that the competition for our DC is a place in the global élite - because any other alternative looks very bleak indeed.

iansully Wed 24-Apr-13 13:51:44

I agree with a lot of this article - although I think much of what he describes has been done to protect the middle class and for them (us) to close ranks from the hordes of working class who are no longer down the mines.

Internships, bank of mummy and daddy and elite education will keep the middle class chugging along - it's the poor we should worry about.

infamouspoo Wed 24-Apr-13 13:54:13

kinda sounds like the author doesnt think the poorer classes are 'civillised'

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 14:05:56

"Internships, bank of mummy and daddy and elite education will keep the middle class chugging along."

No they won't: that is the point. Already, the middle classes have largely been priced out of élite education. The competition for places élite schools in metropolises has become global, with families moving around the world to get the best possible opportunities for their DCs.

InSync Wed 24-Apr-13 14:11:46

Aw diddums.

My heart bleeds for them.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 14:12:47

Because you think that the country is going to be a better place when there are 95% of people living on the breadline?

InSync Wed 24-Apr-13 14:14:56

Lack of access to a mortgage and elite education is hardly the breadline.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 14:17:59

Who will be paying for social housing and for free education?

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 14:18:54

You seem not to understand that if everyone is poor, there will be very little in the way of social provision (healthcare, schooling etc) at all.

InSync Wed 24-Apr-13 14:22:32

All of us. We work and pay though our taxes. Just like now.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 14:24:32

It won't be enough to maintain standards.

infamouspoo Wed 24-Apr-13 14:58:07

what income is 'middle class' when the median income is 26K? Which isnt enough to buy a house and hasnt been for years, or a 'elite' education.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 15:07:38

"Middle class" is a social construct, not an economic descriptor.

PigletJohn Wed 24-Apr-13 15:27:44

"Extinction" is not the correct word, it suggests they will be killed or stop breeding. All that is happening is that (some) people stop living in one way, and live in a (slightly) diferent way.

House price are a red herring. Houses cost what someone will pay for them. We occasionally need to be reminded that house prices cannot continue outpacing earnings for ever, otherwise a single house will eventually cost more money than there is in the world.

JassyRadlett Wed 24-Apr-13 16:03:01

The UK is one of not too many countries where home ownership is essentially a prerequisite for being middle class. Which is, perhaps, a significant chunk of the problem.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 16:19:27

House prices are no red herring. There is a severe shortage of housing in the UK (which pushes prices up), and the most desirable properties are in the international buyers' market which often prices locals out of of purchasing them.

PigletJohn Wed 24-Apr-13 16:55:41

not many international buyers round here. Too far from Harrods.

Bonsoir Wed 24-Apr-13 16:58:34

International buyers are not just in central London.

MiniTheMinx Wed 24-Apr-13 17:33:24

The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants — all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.

Further, as we have already seen, entire sections of the ruling class are, by the advance of industry, precipitated into the proletariat, or are at least threatened in their conditions of existence.

The man with the beard is proving to be correct!

The most precarious class is the middle class. As more wealth is sucked into the top 1%-10% of the population the middle class will become the working poor.

I will buy the book, I will be most disappointed though because I bet my last dollar that not one mention is made of neo-liberal theory and how our political class is sucking up to global corporate capital. I suspect it is some half hearted attempt to get at the truth rather than a vigorous analysis of neo-liberalism or the tendency within capitalism towards monopoly and inequality and the inherent instability or the constant crisis that precipitates the fall of the middle class.

RenterNomad Wed 24-Apr-13 17:59:10

That is an excellent point about the struggle to find places in an elite, as the perch of the "middle class" is becoming smaller.

I think we need a Neo-Hippyism! grin

dummad Wed 24-Apr-13 18:08:44

I agree with piglet: the housing market will collapse if no one can afford the deposit, and moderate the prices. However second home ownership and oversea buyers will upset this equalibrium and increase demand, therefore pricing homes out of reach. The gov't have the power to legislate and take the heat out of the market but won't as it is against their interest, mostly owning second homes themselves. It could be corrected if people could be arsed to vote.

PigletJohn Wed 24-Apr-13 19:14:23

Although the Tory government is opposed to a Mansion Tax, measures are now in place to charge a tiny tax on certain of houses worth over £2million when they have put them out of reach of Inheritance Tax by transferring ownership to a company, usually outside the UK.

A good thing too, although naturally the people who thought they had avoided tax are upset.

Various allowances are of course available.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Wed 24-Apr-13 19:37:18


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