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. Around 50% middle class seems right, with 25% higher and 25% lower. But very few people will describe themselves as ‘upper class’. Indeed, despite the huge increases in wealth at the top end of the income spectrum, less than 2% of Australians call themselves upper class. Despite the loss of blue collar jobs, the working class seems to have peaked at 53% of the population in 1993, though it has been declining since (41% in 2005). Could people have been objectively moving up but subjectively moving down?
It is possible to acquire sociological attributes of the middle class without feeling middle class. About 15% of people with university degrees call themselves ‘working class’. 18% of people in professional occupations are ‘working class’. The same proportion of those earning $78,000 to $104,000 a year see themselves as working class, despite having the money to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. (All 2005 figures.)
Though these statistics show the sociological markers of class are fairly reliable – the vast majority of people with degrees, in professional jobs and high incomes are ‘middle class’ – they also suggest that class is more complex than just these things. In her excellent book Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, Judy Brett argues as her title suggests that the middle class saw itself in moral terms. In 2003 I summarised it this way:
She notes how the middle class has defined itself in moral terms, as displaying certain values that distinguish it from the working class. In the earlier years, this came from a sense of duty, and Brett persuasively shows how this was displayed in the middle class response to various national crises. This ethos, though never extinguished, has greatly weakened since the 1950s, for many reasons – peace and affluence reducing the need for it, the decline of the churches, and the rise of a new form of individualism based on self-expression rather than self-reliance.
On this account, there are cultural differences between the classes, which still manifest themselves in different patterns of tastes, attitudes and aspirations. These are perhaps more resistant to change than occupation and income – hence the nouveau riche and the genteel poor. Unfortunately, there seem to be very few questions in the surveys that ask about class that could serve as good proxies for differences in class attitudes.
If culture is inherited more than occupational and income status, one explanation for the period of middle-class decline could be demographic – they simply did not have enough kids to maintain their share of the population. Educated women have always had fewer children than uneducated women (though mostly because they were less likely to marry). That wouldn’t explain the last dozen years in which the middle class has been growing again though. Perhaps the long boom is causing sufficiently large changes in objective social position that subjective social self-perception is catching up.