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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.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 16:43:03

Frankly, her life is one long single shift. It is very, very hard.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 16:44:33

Earning enough to pay for a lot of childcare doesn't insulate people from not having enough money to pay the bills and working 80+ hour weeks, year in year out.

Xenia Thu 25-Apr-13 17:14:22

Plenty of us who work long hours do it because we adore the work and lots of housewives hate their lives and wish they had a job. Long hours is not necessarily something everyone hates. Loads of men and some women deliberately stay at work late to avoid the dross domestic stuff of after school, getting children to bed, washing up as the work is more fun.

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 17:23:20

being away from home a lot, whether at work, on a ship, or out drinking or gambling, is not conducive to a good personal relationships or family life.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 17:43:28

My point being that being a higher rate tax payer can also mean extremely high outgoings to support the career that pays well - such high outgoings that, given current rates of taxation and costs of childcare, free cash flow is pretty miserly. And you never get to see your family or relax at home either.

But governments just don't care. What they want are for the MCs to pay loads of tax and employ lots of childcarers to subsidise the lower earners.

PigletJohn Thu 25-Apr-13 18:03:28

the government does not force anyone to take employment that is so highly paid that their life is not worth living.

Bonsoir Thu 25-Apr-13 18:12:45

No, but the government has raised the rates of taxation and employers have raised their expectations of overseas travel since my friend chose her career.

AvrilPoisson Thu 25-Apr-13 22:22:37

If we look back to the times of empire, a middle class recruit (exclusively male obviously) was expected to do his time in the colonies in order to establish his position and climb the career ladder, be that in the forces, civil service, church, engineering, etc etc, I don't think that is in any way a new thing, the difference nowadays being that women are expected to travel for work too, whereas in colonial times they may well have travelled accompanying their husband to run his household, but mostly they stayed at home with the children.

Bonsoir- rates of taxation may have risen, but it is still the poorest members of society paying the largest proportion of their income as tax- essentials are subject to 20% VAT, fuel is taxed, basic income tax and NI are 32%, the purchase of essentials takes up a much larger percentage of net income for those at the bottom of the scale than it does for those higher up. Yes, childcare costs are eye-watering, but they're not exactly a secret- people know before having children the costs involved, and most are able to make a decision about the size of their family according to their finances. I realise one cannot always plan for unexpected circumstances such as the death of a partner etc.

williaminajetfighter Thu 25-Apr-13 22:41:41

Acrilan just looking at your note to Bonsoir I'm not sure if that's always the case. An individual making 15k pa pays income tax of 15% or just over 2k pa and may also be eligible for addtl income support. An individual making 50k pa pays 30% in income tax or over 14k pa. obviously no other top ups from govt.

Both people have to buy groceries, pay council tax (maybe) so both are hit. Less disposable income doesn't change the %ges.

This example does show why high earners are important to the govt as the person on 50k contributes almost 7x more in income tax than the person on 15k.

williaminajetfighter Thu 25-Apr-13 22:42:30

Sorry I meant 'Avril' below not Acrilon...!

Bonsoir Fri 26-Apr-13 07:04:46

It is indeed incorrect that the lowest earners are the hardest hit by taxation. The lowest earners are net beneficiaries of the state.

Bonsoir Fri 26-Apr-13 08:31:25

I also think that there is something immensely sad about leaving your DC with nannies to enjoy your home and family. What's it all for if families don't spend time together?

Xenia Fri 26-Apr-13 09:05:48

I think thought Bonsoir your hard working well off partner was not with you when your child was born and you were in the UK and he in France (you had written if I remember rightly) so isn't that just as bad - not even living together, abandonment albeit just for a period by the other parent, still no marriage commitment either. Isn't that just as bad as "leaving them" with nannies?

Bonsoir Fri 26-Apr-13 09:10:44

What exactly is there to compare, Xenia? I don't understand your point.

littleginger Fri 26-Apr-13 10:45:02

I personally have never worried that I do not own my own home and am in no great rush to either. I moved to a beautiful part of the country when I was 18; got staff accommodation intending just to stay for the summer. 6 years on and I live in a house worth £350,000 for just £475 per month in rent and I'm so pleased that I can bring my daughter up in an amazing place where there is a much simpler way of life. If I was intent on buying a house we'd have to move to a sink estate in a whole different county to afford anything. Ill stick with what we've got thanks!

Not entirely on topic sorry!

Xenia Fri 26-Apr-13 12:56:12

lg, it can work out fine. We started in a school flat but bought almost right away. I think even if you will never live in your place because you have tied accommodation it can be worth trying to buy somewhere too even if you just let it out

It is just I never understood the distinction between saying it's fine for men to swan off and not do their bit at home and does not damage a baby one iota but if mothers do they commit some cardinal sin of abandonment and farming out which will damage their child. I don't think you need someone with blood ties with a baby all the time. Babies thrive if both their parents and their nanny or granny or childminder all give them lots of attention.

Bonsoir Fri 26-Apr-13 13:09:15

Babies don't need their fathers to do any more than support the baby's mother in the first few months or even years though. It's basic biology...

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