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Social Class in the 21st Century by Mike Savage

Plus The British Worker by Ferdinand Zweig & The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033 by Michael Young

Pelican Books 2015, 1952 & 1961

This piece was originally published as a review for Bright Blue's Centre Write magazine with the theme of Levelling Up, February 2021.


Penguin Books’s brilliant Pelican series was first established in 1937, but its focus on issues in British society really came into its own after World War II, when we were rebuilding and imagining new ways of being. Titles include Discrimination and Popular Culture, The Managerial Revolution, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, The English Village, Film, The Case for Conservatism, Socialism in Evolution, The World’s Wealth and The Red Brick University. They provide a fascinating window on a transformative period of our nation’s history, and an excellent barometer for measuring how far we have come. I buy them whenever I see them – and so around 8 years ago, I was intrigued to learn that Penguin were to relaunch the series for the 21st century.


One of my favourites of the originals is Polish sociologist Ferdinand Zweig’s The British Worker. Notably, Zweig’s not being British gives it an objectivity which would have been difficult to attain otherwise. His key premise is that, in comparison with other nations, the British class system was akin to a caste system which its own members decreed couldn’t be altered. The evil actor in this system is the “ambitious man” (and by definition all of the middle class) who is reviled by his fellow members of the working class for upsetting the natural order of things; or in other words, seeking to better oneself was seen as a betrayal of the tribe. Hence characteristically British phrases such as “Don’t think you’re any better than you are”; “ideas above your station” and “getting above yourself” – notions expressed amongst the working class themselves. And notions which would be incomprehensible to an American.


I was therefore interested to see Mike Savage’s Social Class in the 21st Century included in the new release of the series. Here would be the perfect opportunity to see how things have changed, and also compare with the predictions of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033, a satire on the dangers of grammar school children and other beneficiaries of a meritocracy forming a new kind of elite.


Savage’s book is a distillation of the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) developed by the University of Manchester, the LSE and the University of York and promoted by the BBC. It’s clear that Zweig’s “ambitious man” has triumphed, but the dangers of Michael Young’s meritocracy have come to pass, through individuals accumulating a combination of economic, cultural and social capital. It’s as much about who you know, and demonstrating “knowingness” culturally, as it is about making or inheriting money: “It is hard work being one of the ‘ordinary’ elite.” Like Michael Young (and Thomas Picketty after him), Savage deems this accumulation as much as a problem as the landed aristocracy sitting on their wealth in previous times.


Tellingly, a stumbling block for the researchers was that only members of the “elite” class were interested in filling out the survey (“the exclusive London Barbican estate was the epicentre of the GBCS”), which in itself speaks volumes about how the “establishment” is now characterised by scientific curiosity – and a desire to prove to oneself how far one has come. This is a far cry from the aristocratic, intellectually incurious “upper classes” identified by Zweig. Furthermore, these “elite” respondents were characterised by a desire to play down their privilege and play up any humble origins. A hangover from the “ambitious man” complex leading to a peculiarly British concept of inverted snobbery?


At the bottom of the rung are the “precariat”, who can be best described as those members of Zweig’s working class who were not “ambitious men” and now find themselves at the mercy of global markets and the gig economy, with irregular or unstable work. Savage comments that “the precariat know they are looked down on and ridiculed, which is why they say they would rather stay among ‘their own’”. Again, at the other end of the spectrum, this embodies a very different attitude to the proud working class of Zweig’s interviewees.


Savage, echoing Michael Young, concludes that meritocracy leads to inequality through the self-perpetuating accumulation of economic, cultural and social capital. The result isn’t much better than the status quo of 200 years ago, with a landed aristocracy and a peasantry. The actors, however, are very different, and it’s clear that this change took place in the 60 years between Zweig’s and Savage’s books. But, given the hundreds of years of the “British caste” system which preceded it, there is surely much to celebrate.


Recently we’ve heard much about Euan Blair’s start-up Multiverse, which matches employers with apprentices, discouraging young people from the path of “education, education, education” … and perhaps facilitating social mobility in a new form. I’m also intrigued by Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders: The great British social mobility myth which has just been published. It seems that there may be a third chapter in the Great British Class Story to be written. Michael Young’s satire projects to 2033 – will he stay on track?

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