Why did the middle class shrink?

In his publication Is the Middle Class Shrinking?, Clive Hamilton writes ‘there does not seem to be any survey evidence on identification with class terms’. We all know Clive is no ordinary leftist, but it is remarkable that he became a leading ‘progressive’ thinker despite clearly having read very little about class. There is lots of research on this, going back nearly 60 years.

This research suggests that the long-term answer to Clive’s question is ‘yes’. Though the proportion of people identifying as ‘middle class’ has been trending upwards since the early 1990s, most of the surveys on class identification between 1949 and 1984 found more middle-class people than a 2005 survey. The one exception was 1965, but it was just 1% lower than the 2005 figure of 50% ‘middle class’.

The curious thing about the apparent shrinking of the middle class is that it occurred while many of the sociological markers of the middle class, such as education and professional or managerial occupations, were showing long-term increases. For example, in 1947, just before the first class survey I have, 12% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations. But in 1949, 54% of people thought that they were ‘middle class’. In the mid-1990s, 31% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations, but overall only 45% of people considered themselves to be middle class.

One possibility is that though compared to the past a higher proportion of people have professional occupations, university education and high income, the relativities have moved with them and so the middle class has not grown. Continue reading “Why did the middle class shrink?”