I have always considered myself to be working class regardless of my profession. Although I have never done the sort of job that belongs in blue-collar worker territory, I was brought up with an ethic that had more in common with the working class than with the middle-class.
Remnants of a class system are still part of Cuban life. True, they are not as conspicuous as they are in other countries, but they do exist. They manifest themselves differently and yet they still retain features that non-Cuban readers will easily recognise as elements they come across in their own backyards. Amongst these traits is the very definition of “middle-class”.
It was not until I moved to the UK that I began to think seriously about class. Not so much in terms of which class I belonged to but more in terms of how much in-your-face the class system was in this country, whilst at the same time managing to stay hidden. You could say that in Britain the class system is hidden in plain view. The person who labelled me “middle-class” was middle-class herself. Whereas in order to arrive at her conclusion she must have factored in my job, income and aspirations, I, on the other hand, had a different idea about the group that most resembled my social standing.
Let me be clear about one thing: I am not embarrassed about being called “middle-class”. I do not think anyone should be either. As you know I do not do faux self-deprecation. I just do not think that I have that status. For starters, I do not possess many of the traits commonly associated with the middle-class. I do not own the house in which I live (it’s unlikely I will ever be able to afford a mortgage, let alone buy a house). Secondly, I come from a humble background as I mentioned before in which hard work was always encouraged. As my mother used to tell me: “Even if you decide to be a road-sweeper, be the best road-sweeper ever!” I must admit, though, that my father did have lofty aspirations for me. He wanted me to read law but I have always believed that that idea owed more to his own shortcomings (he always wanted to be a lawyer himself and at some point signed up to the equivalent of Open University in Havana to read law) than to whatever academic prowess he imagined I had. The final reason is that whenever someone attempts to “upgrade” your status, it says more about the person doing it and their prejudices than about your actual social rank.
There is a fourth reason. Although the woman who called me “middle-class” was vague about the reasons to label me so, I suspect she had the following elements in mind: most of my jobs in the UK so far have been of the white-collar variety, my wife and I have created a stable home (which we still do not own, as I stated before) and brought two children up who are very well-mannered, intelligent and creative. We do own a car, not an old banger, but not an Audi, either. Furthermore, since they were little our offspring have always been encouraged to think independently. What little money we have had we always made sure that some of it went towards paying for music lessons, swimming classes and trips to places we thought would enhance our children’s understanding of the world. My wife’s job as a teacher is another reason for the “middle-class” categorisation; ours is what you could call a professional household. Our combined income hovers just over the average income in the UK (not London, however). We are both articulate and should you, fellow reader or blogger, happen to ever visit our domicile you will see copies of The Guardian, The Observer, The New Statesman, The New Yorker, The Economist, The London Review of Books and Prospect on our coffee table in addition to several books dotted around the house. So, yes, we read a lot and we read publications that make us think. Last but not least, we try to go abroad at least once every couple of years. Again, part of this decision is rooted in our belief that broadening up our children's geographical and cultural horizons is part of their development as functionally active and useful citizens.
|Typical middle-class family: coming to a Poundland near you|
Tricky question and a no less tricky answer. If I answer yes, I would almost unintentionally cast the working class in the opposite role. Yet, I know from my own and other people’s experience that this is not the case. Income does have an influential part, no doubt about that. If parents of children from humble backgrounds haven't got the dosh to cough up for music lessons or swimming classes, their children will be at a disadvantage in relation to their better-off peers. At this point I need to come clear about something: my children learnt how to swim when Labour was still in power. The local swimming pool was free for under-12s. The coalition ended that. So, perhaps the drive to get children to try something new is also there in the working class household but the money is not. The other reason why I struggle with this unsolicited “middle-class” definition fostered upon me is that it creates an unfair division in which on one side you have the cleverer, aspiration-focused, hard-working middle-class and on the other one you have the (nowadays) feckless, tabloid-reading, football-loving, dumb working class.
It is unfair to think this way, especially in our current times when the formerly ubiquitous class
system has muddle up somewhat. One outcome from the 2008 economic crisis was that it suddenly sent both hard-up families and hitherto well-off ones to the same Poundland shop or Lidl supermarket that the former was already used to frequenting. The second tier up that the middle-class stood for has evanesced. What we have now is a disenfranchised working class, a middle-class that still insists on keeping up appearances despite the fact that many of them had to sell off and move out of London or similar urban centres and an upper class that has hardly been affected by the economic downturn. Where before the aspiration void was filled up by the middle-class, now there is almost nothing. Or rather, there is, but you will have to take part in that “reality TV” show in order to get there.
My point is still the same. I do not care what my income is, or what it will be in the future. House ownership is a topic my wife and I have discussed but which we feel is too out of our reach for the foreseeable future. Being articulate, in print or verbally, is not a byword for class status. There are plenty of working-class people who express themselves in a nice, clear way. When my wife and I talk about our aspirations for our children we do not mention higher education, but satisfaction in life, contentment. “If you want to be a road-sweeper, be the best road-sweeper ever!” Yup, I have taken up my mother’s mantra. Reason enough to carry on calling myself working class.
Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 11th February at 11:59pm (GMT)