The Relevance of Social Class in the 21st Century

The relevance of social class in the 21st century

The term ‘social class’ first appeared in the 19th century as a way of classifying the social differences in Britain following the Industrial Revolution. 

‘Working class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘upper class’ originally described the relationship between industrial workers, managers and owners, and have largely remained the same since the Victorian era.

ABC1 Demographic Categories


These top-line class definitions were taken to the next stage more than fifty years ago by the National Readership Survey, which developed the ABC1 social-economic classifications as a discriminatory tool for media consumption and purchasing power.

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These classifications segment by income levels and occupation and are still widely used by the market research industry to define market sectors.

Although this method has the benefit of being familiar and widely understood, it has not kept pace with changes in society.  The categories are based on the occupational groupings of the head of the household or chief income earners.

Today’s households are more complex and diverse, and definitions of professions and what constitutes a ‘high-earning career’ have changed significantly so that there is no longer a direct correlation between traditional professions and income levels.

The Great British Class Survey

In 2011, Professor Mike Savage from the London School of Economics investigated the concept of social class and set up the Great British Class Survey.  This survey was built on a perspective developed in France by the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, which suggested that social class differentiators should be based on three different class dimensions, referred to as capital; economic capital, social capital and cultural capital.

Economic capital – This was about wealth – occupation, earnings, assets and savings.

Cultural Capital – This was about social connections – the sort of people known and engaged with, any organised groups such as political parties, sports teams, shared hobbies or social clubs

Social capital – This was about interests –  education, participation in cultural activities, activities carried out during free time.

A collaboration with the BBC Lab UK enabled the research to reach large sample and as a result more than 161,000 people took part in the Great British Class Survey back in 2011.  Together with Fiona Devine of Manchester University, Professor Mike Savage analysed the results which were initially published in the Sociology Journal in April 2013

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that traditional concepts of the upper, middle and working classes defined by occupation and wealth were too simplistic for contemporary British society and from the results of the survey, Savage and Devine developed a total of seven distinct social groups for the UK.

Elite (6%) – This is the wealthiest and most privileged group in the UK. They went to private school and elite universities and enjoy high cultural activities such as listening to classical music and going to the opera.

Established middle class (25%) – This is the most gregarious and the second wealthiest of all the class groups. They work in traditional professions and socialise with a wide variety of people, and take part in a wide variety of cultural activities.

Technical middle class (6%)  – This is a small, distinctive and prosperous new class group. They prefer emerging culture, such as social media, and mix mainly among themselves. They work in science and tech and come from middle-class backgrounds.

New affluent workers (15%) – These people are economically secure, without being well-off. This class group is sociable, has lots of cultural interests and sits in the middle of all the groups in terms of wealth. They’re likely to come from working class backgrounds.

Traditional working class (14%)- This group has the oldest average age, and they’re likely to own their own home. They mix among themselves and don’t enjoy emerging culture. Jobs in this group include lorry drivers, cleaners and electricians.

Emergent service workers (19%) – These young people have high social and cultural capital – so they know people from all different walks of life, and enjoy a wide range of cultural activities – but are not financially secure.

Precariat(15%)  – The poorest and most deprived social group. They tend to mix socially with people like them and don’t have a broad range of cultural interests. More than 80% rent their home.

Why this matters

There is evidence to suggest that social class matters even more in contemporary Britain than it did a couple of decades ago, and events like the global financial crisis and subsequent recession may have acted to make class divisions even more defined.

These new social groups not only update the classification with more relevant groups, but also by the method of classification.  It accepts the complexity of social class goes beyond the narrow confines of occupation and income, and attempts to include other aspects, such as education, social connections and hobbies, which have so far been largely ignored.

However, from a targeting point of view, these categories are still very broad. For a more bespoke segmentation strategy, it is important that additional data about geographic location, social attitudes, ethnicity, household structure is combined with social classification for marketers to obtain a clear picture of who their consumers are, where they are and what they want.


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