The working class

Issue: 106

Jacob Middleton

It has become common to deny either the existence or relevance of class to Britain today. Yet the numbers of people who describe themselves as ‘working class’ grew from 51 percent in 1994 to 68 percent in 2002.1 The staggering rise in inequalities of wealth and income under Thatcher ensured, by 1995, that Britain was among the most unequal societies anywhere in the world. For the richest 10 percent of the population, incomes rose by 68 percent between 1979 and 1995. For the poorest 10 percent, after housing costs, incomes fell by 8 percent, and the slow reduction in inequality of the post-war years was reversed.2 The richest 10 percent of the population have increased their share of Britain’s total wealth from around 50 percent in 1991 to 57 percent today.3

Some analysts have concluded that the only people really to suffer from this change in distribution and wealth have been an ‘underclass’ of the ‘excluded’. So Will Hutton’s popular book in the mid-1990s, The State We’re In, talked of the ‘30:30:40’ society—40 percent comfortable, 30 percent materially better off but insecure, and a bottom 30 percent left behind by any count. Liberal commentator Polly Toynbee sums up the attitude: ‘We have seen the most rapid change in social class in recorded history: the 1977 mass working class, with two thirds of people in manual jobs, shrunk to one third, while the rest migrated upwards into a 70 percent home-owning, white collar middle class’.4

There has been a change in the distribution of employment with the restructuring of industry described by Jane Hardy in her article in this journal. In 1981 35 percent of the workforce were employed in industry as opposed to services; this had fallen to 20 percent by 2004. Nevertheless, one in five of the workforce—around 6 million people—are still in industry.5 And of the people employed in ‘services’, very many are in jobs with a big ‘manual’ component: workers in ‘distribution, hotels and restaurants’ accounted for 7.1 million jobs and ‘transport and communication’ for

1.8 million in 2004. ‘Deindustrialisation’ has not brought the liberation from drudgery that its promoters spoke of: the transformations have led to a decrease in the quality of working life, and a reinforcement of basic class divisions.

‘Job polarisation’

Recent research by Maarten Goos and Alan Manning found an increasing polarisation in the British labour force. They ranked jobs by average pay, from best paid to worst, and found a decline in employment in middle ranking occupations between 1979 and 1999. The numbers of those in both the worst and the best paid occupations increased significantly. In 1979 there were 926,000 people employed in the 21 lowest paid occupations, such as sales assistants, bar staff and waiters; by 1999, there were nearly 1.5 million people in the same jobs. The numbers in the very highest paid types of work, like engineers, hospital consultants and senior managers, increased from 90,000 in 1979 to 207,000 by 1999.6

The lowest-paid jobs are not mainly in the old manufacturing industries. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that ‘relatively few low-paid jobs are in production industries facing direct competition from low-wage producers abroad’.7 Two fifths of 7 million workers in Britain who earn less than £6.50 per hour are in service industries, and a further quarter are in the public sector. Contrary to the great myth of the ‘middle class’ service worker, it is clear that class divisions are far sharper here than they are elsewhere.

The destruction of averagely-paid jobs in British industry has not led to the creation of equivalent work elsewhere in the economy. They have largely been replaced by lower-paid, less secure employment.

McGovern, Smeaton and Hill have identified a link between what they call ‘non-standard employment’ and poor-quality jobs:

Between one quarter and a half of the working population in Britain are in jobs that have at least one bad characteristic. Approximately one quarter of all employees are low paid, just over one third have no pensions, a similar proportion have no sick pay, and half are in jobs that do not have a recognised promotion ladder… Only one in four of the British labour force are in jobs that are not bad in any respect!8

They reveal a distinct tendency towards worse quality employment among those on ‘non-standard’ contracts (part time, temporary, or fixed term): ‘Over half of those in various forms of part time employment…do not have sick pay compared to under one third of those in permanent, full time employment. Similarly, one in two of those in permanent part time positions are on low pay compared with one in five of those in standard jobs’.9

‘Flexibilisation’ allows costs and overheads to be reduced by squeezing the workforce. This is directly linked to the reduction of union power, as ‘workers who lack collective representation are almost 50 percent more likely to have substandard conditions than those who have union representation’. 10 The great majority of jobs in Britain—92 percent in the year 200011—remain permanent with traditional forms of contract, but the existence of a ‘flexibilised’ group of precariously employed workers acts as a significant drag on their conditions.

The impact of education

Inequalities along the traditional route to social mobility, education, have worsened. The numbers entering higher education have risen significantly over the last 20 years, from one in ten to nearly one in three of the age group in England. But the class division in education has also got worse: over a quarter of 18 to 19 year olds from the richest 20 percent of households attended university in 1979; this had risen to just under half by 1997. By contrast, only 8 percent of 18 to 19 year olds from the poorest 20 percent of households attended university in 1979 and just 15 percent by 1997. New university places were disproportionately allocated to the children of the rich relative to the poor.12 Under New Labour this gap has widened. A Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) report found that between 1997 and 2000 ‘most of the new places in higher education have gone to those from already advantaged areas’.13 The introduction of tuition fees had a limited impact on participation, but has significantly increased dropout rates among students from poorer households. The same HEFCE report concludes, ‘Young people living in the most advantaged 20 percent of areas are five to six times more likely to enter higher education than those living in the least advantaged 20 percent of areas’.14

One study concluded, ‘The social class of a person’s parents actually has a greater impact on their educational attainment now than previously… Thus it is not the most able who have benefited from the expansion of the UK education system but rather the most privileged’.15

Much has been made of the significantly higher wages commanded by those with degrees compared to the average.16 But those from poorer families gain much less in this respect than those with richer backgrounds. In other words, education acts to reproduce existing inequalities. Moreover, after a period during which the distribution of returns evened out, they are now becoming more dispersed, particularly at the top end of the income scale.17 A recent study found that 22 percent of all graduates were employed in non-graduate jobs.18 There is a substantial stock of educated workers available to exert downward pressure on an increasing number of jobs requiring degree-level education.

The net effect of the expansion of higher education has been to both raise the average level of education among the British workforce, and simultaneously harden class boundaries within British society.

The connection between an individual’s income and their parents’ is now much stronger than it was under the last Labour government. Stephen Machin shows that those born into the lowest income households in 1970 are more likely to remain in the lowest income group than those born in 1958. Conversely, fewer of the very rich now slip down the income scale.19

Working hours in Britain

Two workers in five have usual working weeks longer than 40 hours, compared to only one in five across France, Denmark and Sweden. The average working week for full time employees in the UK is 44 hours, four hours longer than the EU average.20

The figures show some 51 percent of those in industry working longer than 40 hours a week and 34 percent of those employed in ‘services’. This probably overstates the differences between the sectors: excess hours worked in jobs like teaching are not recorded. But the presence of low-paid, insecure workers in manufacturing regions has acted as a further compulsion on manufacturing workers, leading them to accept working longer hours.21

Women workers

Female participation in the labour market has soared, while male participation rates have declined, reduced at one end by the larger numbers remaining in education, and at the other by larger numbers of retirees (voluntary or otherwise). The gap between women’s and men’s participation rates halved in two decades.22

However, women’s participation is still dominated by childcare commitments, with 46 percent of women with a youngest child under five being defined as ‘economically inactive’. This declines as the youngest child ages, to only 28 percent for women with no dependent children.

Women earn on average around a fifth less than men. But their pay has increased on average slightly faster than men’s over the last 20 years, with the gap in full time pay closing slightly from 26 percent to 23 percent between 1994 and 2002.23

This has led some to conclude that women should no longer concern themselves with economic inequality. The transition to a service- based economy, it has been argued, has led to a transformation in the possibilities available to women, enabling them to compete on an equal basis with men in the market for work.

A ‘privileged pole’ of 20 percent of women have markedly improved their position, earning significantly more than two thirds of working men.24 But the shift in employment and output in the economy has, in general, reinforced pre-existing trends. The income gap between female and male part time workers has remained static at 36 percent, reflecting the bias towards the employment of women in lower-paid service occupations.25 And most women’s experience of work is punctuated by periods of part time or non-employment.26

Workless households

The number of households in which no person is employed rose from 4 percent in 1968 to 8.2 percent in 1977, and peaked at just under 20 percent in 1992.27 The rate of long term unemployment has fallen in recent years, as has the proportion of workless households with dependent children. Many households that would previously not have worked are now entering the labour market, with just under 60 percent of lone parent households with dependent children now in employment, usually in service sector jobs which offer low working hours. But there is a variation in the proportion of working-age men not in work28 from 8 percent in some areas to 31 percent in others, with exceptional areas of unemployment existing alongside areas of very high employment rates.29 This highlights ‘the plight of many coastal towns and the former coal mining districts alongside major urban areas’.30 And the numbers of childless workless households in poverty reached record levels over 2002-03.31

The existence of large numbers of workless households acts to depress wages. They are not an ‘underclass’, but a flexible ‘reserve army of labour’, available as a constant downward pressure on wages of the lowest paid and in areas of highest unemployment.32

During a period of economic recovery workers have been thrown between work and the dole, rather than moving directly into employment and staying there. This, along with a decline in long term unemployment rates, indicates an increased contact with the labour market, even where this was infrequent and poorly-paid: those on lower wages are more likely to leave employment, while those returning to employment are generally paid less than average.33

Migrant labour

The transformation of the British economy has depended on the use of exceptionally badly paid and insecure labour. One estimate suggests that 13 percent of UK GDP can be accounted for by the so called ‘black’ economy. Estimates of the number of foreign workers employed illicitly in the UK vary between 500,000 and 2 million, with another 500,000 British-born workers joining them. This is an enormous contribution to the British economy, hidden from conventional accounts of the working class.

The presence of huge numbers of unprotected migrant labourers ties closely with the experience of British-born ethnic minorities, who have formed an important part of the British working class since the 1950s. Non-white British workers are on average paid less and work longer hours than their white counterparts; though the gap in average incomes has closed slowly over the past 20 years or more, it remains wide. In certain cases, as with the Bangladeshi population, it has widened drastically in the past five years. The great majority of ethnic minority workers in Britain live in the large urban areas, accounting, for example, for 40 percent of inner London’s population. The national figure is just 8 percent. The experience of race and racism remains critical to the British working class in significant areas of the economy, and the ability to rely on a (covertly) segregated labour market is important for many sectors.34

Trade unionism

One of Thatcher’s greatest ‘achievements’ was to cripple and weaken the British trade union movement. A peak membership rate (usually called ‘union density’) in 1979 of 49 percent of all workers in a trade union declined steeply and has now stabilised at around 29 percent. Strike days remain at a historic low, despite some improvements over the last few years.35 There was a slight increase in total membership and density over 2003, but the majority of the working class in Britain today is not organised and just 35.8 percent of workers are affected by collective bargaining.

Men and women are now equally likely to be trade union members. 34 percent of full time and 23 percent of part time women workers are in trade unions, as against only 31 percent of male full time workers and 12 percent of part time ones. It is the small number of male part time workers that prevents trade union density being lower among men.36 So once women enter the workforce, they are more likely to join a union. This is symptomatic of the rise of female employment particularly in public sector services.37


Against the mythology of a flexible and contented labour force, the dramatic restructuring of the British economy over the last 20 to 30 years broke with tendencies towards equality and has dramatically reinforced the underlying divisions of class in society. The working class itself now looks different, though it retains a core of industrial workers in the ‘traditional’ mould. But its experience remains the same; of prevailing insecurity, of economic inequalities, and with a pronounced tendency for these features to worsen. Though the most basic, defensive institutions of the working class remain quiescent, the bad experiences and unmet expectations of the last two decades weigh heavily upon millions of people.


1: MORI finding on numbers agreeing with statement, ‘At the end of the day, I am working class and proud of it.’ See R Mortimore, Working Class—And Proud Of It! , 16 August 2002t

2: J Hills, ‘Income and Wealth: The Latest Evidence’ (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1997).

3: As above.

4: The Guardian, 5 June 2002.

5: Annual Abstract of Statistics 2003.

6: M Goos and A Manning, ‘McJobs and MacJobs: the growing polarisation of jobs in the UK’, in R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth (eds), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke, 2003), pp73-74.

7: ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2004’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

8: P McGovern, D Smeaton, S Hill, ‘Bad Jobs in Britain: Nonstandard Employment and Job Quality’, in Work and Occupations 31:2 (May 2004), p235.

9: As above.

10: As above, p239.

11: Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 2001, Table 4.6, p88.

12: S Machin, ‘Higher Education, Family Income, and Changes in Intergenerational Mobility’, in R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth (eds), The Labour Market Under New Labour (Basingstoke, 2003), Tables 18.1 and 18.2, p284. The figure for all people entering higher education is higher than that for 18-21 year olds.

13: D MacLeod, ‘Survey Says University Access Depends on Postcode’, The Guardian, 19 January 2005.

14: As above.

15: F Galindo-Rueda and A Vignoles, “Class Ridden or Meritocratic? An Economic Analysis of Recent Changes in Britain”:http:// , Centre for the Economics of Education (January 2003)

16: A Gosling, S Machin, C Meghir, ‘The Changing Distribution of Male Wages in the UK’, IFS Working Paper W98/9 (1998).

17: See C Harmon, H Oosterbeek and I Walker,”The Returns to Education: A Review of Evidence, Issues and Deficiencies in the Data”:http://, Centre for the Economics of Education (December 2000), (p15).

18: P Dolton and M Silles, Over- Education in the Graduate Labour Market: Some Evidence from Alumni Data ceepercent20dps/ceedp9.pdf Centre for the Economics of Education (Spring 2001),

19: S Machin, as above, Tables 18.4, 18.5a and 18.5b, pp287-288.

20: Labour Market Trends, March 2004, pp116-117. 21: See Centre for Economic Performance (LSE), Centre Piece 13 (Spring 2001).

22: Social Trends 2004, p52.

23: H Robinson, ‘Gender and Labour Market Performance in the Recovery’, in R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth (eds), as above, p232.

24: T Warren, ‘A Privileged Pole? Diversity in Women’s Pay, Pensions and Wealth in Britain’, in Gender, Work and Organisation 10:5 (November 2003), p615.

25: H Robinson, as above, Table 15.5, p241.

26: As above.

27: R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth, ‘Non-working Classes: Britain’s Chronic New Unemployed’, Centre Piece (Spring 2001), Tables 4 and 5.

28: This includes all those not in work, as well as the registered unemployed.

29: R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth, ‘Non-Working Classes: Britain’s Chronic New Unemployed’, as above, p13.

30: As above.

31: J Hills and K Stewart, A More Equal Society? New Labour, Poverty, Inequality and Exclusion (Cambridge, 2004).

32: See A Walling, Workless Households: Results from the Spring 2004 Labour Force Survey

Office for National Statistics, p440.

33: R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth, ‘Non-working Classes: Britain’s Chronic New Unemployed’, as above, Figure 3, p15.

34: Figures in this paragraph are from J Wadsworth, ‘The Labour Market Performance of Ethnic Minority Workers in the Recovery’, in R Dickens, P Gregg, J Wadsworth (eds), The Labour Market Under New Labour, as above.

35: See G Gall, Trade Union Struggles Today: Back from the Brink or Still on the Margins? , in International Socialism 105 (Spring 2005).

36: Labour Market Trends, March 2004, Table 2, p100.

37: J Wadsworth, ‘The Labour Market Performance of Ethnic Minority Workers in the Recovery’, as above.