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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.

williaminajetfighter Wed 24-Apr-13 19:41:12

Agree with the Minx.

And to the poster who said we don't need the middle class, we all pay taxes into the system well it's those making over 40-50k pa and above who pay the most taxes. If you're on 15k you don't pay much in taxes and likely cost the govt more. Interestingly studies have shown no matter what your income or however low people always feel they don't get out what they put in.

When the country is divided between the elite who avoid paying taxes and the 'proletariat' who pay very little our govt services will halt to an absolute minimum.

TeWiSavesTheDay Wed 24-Apr-13 19:43:31

I think it is a problem. If there is no middle class then effectively, 90% of the population are poor/scrapping by and only 10% will be super rich.

There are no 'steps' between rich and poor, almost no opportunities to work hard and succeed - because the things you need to get on - a car, courses, buying books, people who can afford to be unpaid volunteers are suddenly out of most people's reach - and our of the reach of their friends, neighbours, and local services/schools

This means social mobility goes even further down the toilet.

MiniTheMinx Wed 24-Apr-13 19:54:49

When the country is divided between the elite who avoid paying taxes and the 'proletariat' who pay very little our govt services will halt to an absolute minimum.

Spot on......and at that point more cuts to health, education and welfare will have to be made too. With yet more impetus to privatise every last vestige of the state.

williaminajetfighter Wed 24-Apr-13 19:58:29

Agree TeWi although part of me feels like idea that people can move up the ladder is 'deception' anyway. It's human nature for people to want to improve their situation but maybe all the reaching can be unhealthy....

AvrilPoisson Wed 24-Apr-13 20:43:11

Pigletjohn- the middle classes have already stopped breeding to a large extent. Gone are the days when mc families could have 4, 5, 6 or more children- only the super-rich or those reliant on state support can have that many children, most restrict themselves to 2, merely replacing themselves, rather than expanding their numbers.
People coming up to 40 had to delay parenthood, paying off their student loans, and securing housing first.

MoreBeta Wed 24-Apr-13 21:15:14

This is an interesting topic.

The Great Depression of the 1930s did not hit the UK as hard as the USA but it still destroyed the cosy middle class world that had been created in the Victorian/Edwardian era. Families had to give up servants, some were pushed into bankruptcy. Many private schools went out of business. The great economic turning points always cause a huge reshuffling in the class system.

The current middle class is under economic pressure but a new one will emerge. The World is in a Great Depression again which central banks are desperately trying to stave off by printing money and Govts keep on borrowing. It will come to an end though and there will be a bust and the middle class will be hit very hard as will many of the rich.

The poor will still be poor.

HandbagCrab Wed 24-Apr-13 21:28:18

Rather than scrabbling round to make a few dcs global elite, perhaps we should look at restructuring society around the things that would make life worthwhile for the many? Doesn't matter how much money or property is slushing around if 90% of have no chance of ever accessing it.

RenterNomad Wed 24-Apr-13 22:05:19

That's my Neo-Hippyism, HandbagCrab!

MiniTheMinx Wed 24-Apr-13 22:15:34

"Majority of British children will soon be growing up in families struggling 'below the breadline', Government warned"

"Within two years, almost 7.1m of the nation’s 13m youngsters will be in homes with incomes judged to be less than the minimum necessary for a decent standard of living, according to a new report"

What is the solution?

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 10:43:39

"What is the solution?"

I don't know what the solution is, but I can tell you what the current government's solution is: for all highly skilled adults to work and pay tax to ensure that those who are out of work or less skilled can be subsidised. Hence the huge pressure coercion on MC mothers to work outside the home.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Thu 25-Apr-13 11:55:39

Lots of middle-class people are out of work so are contributing to the problem you describe bonsoir. The financial sector in the UK who are largely made up of middle-class men and women, are largely responsible for the level of unemployment we currently have.
As for people who are 'less skilled' it has suited the middle classes for large swathes of the UK (a lot in the industrial north) to have their opportunities suppressed. It has meant more room for manoevre for the middle class, who have a 'people like us' mentality. They are terrified of the working classes moving into their territory.

If the middle class is on the decline because they are self-entitled and inflexible. When faced with the challenge of a difficult economic climate they are like rabbits caught in headlights.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 11:58:31

Don't blame the electorate, blame the governments who got us there in the first place.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Thu 25-Apr-13 12:07:41

Blimey bonsoir Isn't it the whingeing working-classes who are supposed to blame the Government for all their woes? Don't the middle-classes subscribe to the doctrine of self-responsibility?

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 12:08:41

why not blame the (non-voting) electorate?

The party salarymen in the Commons have their own best interests at heart. They will do what it takes to get elected or re-elected.

Older middle-class people vote, so their interests (like pension plans, and banking deposit protection) are looked after. They have houses and savings, so the parties fall over themselves to lighten the load of Inheritance Tax. They don't put money into Christmas Clubs, or use Payday Loan sharks, so these are ignored.

Very old people in care homes or in certain hospital wards don't vote. Look what happens to them.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 12:09:07

Why "blimey"? MC families where both parents work in well-paid jobs are being squeezed left right and centre. That is hardly their fault.

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 12:11:46

I've always thought that earning plenty of money, and paying tax on it, is better than the alternative.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 12:12:29

Not necessarily.

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 12:15:57

So tell me about the advantages of living in poverty.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Thu 25-Apr-13 12:16:40

Everybody is being 'squeezed' bonsoir. So typical of the middle-classes to assume it's only them who are suffering hmm

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 12:27:31

Come on, Bonsoir. Tel us about when you were off work with a baby, and your DP was made redundant and couldn't find work for two years. Tell us about when your credit card bills were more than you could earn, and your house was repossessed. Tell us about when you were living in a horrible rented flat with noisy neighbours and a drug-dealer on the stairs. Tell us about when your child hat nits and you couldn't afford the treatment until your payment came through.

Xenia Thu 25-Apr-13 12:33:35

I agree with MoreB. If you look at graphs and cycles you can see the ups and downs over decades and sometimes hundreds of years - up and down (and sometimes terminal declines). Most people did not used to be middle class. For a time more were able to be so and perhaps that is now ceasing. It do not matter as long as they are fed and housed.

Also if the poor move up the middle class move down - social mobility is not a one way escalator. Instead some rise and others fall.

In times of economic hardship people have to get used to less. Even today in 2013 that less is not as hard as it was in the 70s or even the 60s when few had central heating. These middle class people who think buying a hot drink in a coffee bar is some kind of human right rather than drinking water from a tap like plenty of others just need to remember how hard it was for many of us many years ago when you certainly never bought orange juice or hair conditioner and clothes could be second hand even in the middle classes.

Also happiness does not relate to having a lot of money. It is a separate state based on brain chemicals and if you learn to live on less you can be equally as happy. Perhaps one of the problems has been the demise of religion without finding a substitute - people ceased to be taught that greed and envy and vanity were sins and from that the cessation other problems then flowed.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Thu 25-Apr-13 13:04:11

I agree with Xenia The more time I spend with people who are seriously wealthy, the more I have realised that money doesn't automatically bring happiness. Having said that, having no money is pretty miserable.

The key to succeeding in life is adapt or die but a flexible approach is not something I see a lot of in the middle-class people I know.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 13:08:37

The "flexible approach" that the government wants the MC to adopt is for parents to both work, even when that leaves them worse off than just one parent working, in order to generate more tax revenues. Unsurprisingly, there is a certain degree of resistance.

MiniTheMinx Thu 25-Apr-13 13:15:22

So at a time when capitalism has reached a stage of "imperialism" with a huge concentration of wealth into the hands of fewer and fewer people, Xenia thinks the answer is to pray with empty bellies. That to me sounds a little like feudalism and look what happened to that.

The church was big in feudal society, right up the backsides of the rich property owners, preying on the peasants.........well the peasants revolted. And that is eventually what will happen with capitalism.

JustGiveMeFiveMinutes Thu 25-Apr-13 13:15:34

If you want nice things bonsoir you have to work for them. That's nothing to do with the Government.

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