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Editorial: Whatever is Happening to the 'Middle Class'?

Was it really only a generation ago that Tony Blair was telling us that we are all middle-class now?  Today, few can be unaware of the widening gap between the incomes of the owners of capital and the rest of us, or that since the credit crunch of 2008 wage and salary earners have been afflicted by a massive slump in their incomes.  To find a comparable situation, say the TUC researchers, it would be necessary to go back to the experience of our Victorian great-grandparents in the 1860s and 1870s. Back then, Disraeli had written of a country starkly divided into two nations, the rich and the poor.  Today, it seems, under the power of global capital, we, their inheritors, inhabit a planet divided into two worlds. 

So what, in this time of polarising incomes, has happened to the middle-class?  Who, indeed, are the middle-class?   Despite Tony Blair’s convictions, most people, when surveyed, are reluctant to pigeon-hole themselves into class categories, no longer certain, perhaps, how meaningful they are.  For working people in the middle-income groups, however, one thing is certain.  They are not doing well.

To be sure, they have not done as badly as industrial workers and those on low pay, but they have received serious blows to their incomes and expectations.  In the months after the 2008 crash of the big banks, there were massive lay-offs of financial services workers.  And since then, the squeeze on middle incomes has been relentless.  Like everyone else they are working harder and earning less.  Their expectations of a secure career, a comfortable pension and a good return on savings have been dashed.  More and more of their income is being eaten up by childcare and commuting costs, while private health care for the family, and foreign holidays are becoming a distant memory. With the soaring cost of private education and university fees, there is concern over the kids.

And yes, what about the kids? The children of the middle class are increasingly taking jobs well below their educational attainments.  That time as a barista is now looking less like an entertaining stop gap between university and a professional career, and more like a dead end job. They are beginning to understand that the ‘cost of living crisis’, zero hours contracts and surviving on the minimum wage are now no longer concerns only for blue collar workers.  Not for them, any more, is the desirable home they grew up in.

Tyler Cowan, an American economist predicting the destruction of the middle class, may or may not have consulted his crystal ball accurately, but it nevertheless appears that the super-rich owners of capital are only getting richer, and the poor are remaining poor or getting poorer.  And like their Victorian forebears, those in the middle income-bracket are increasingly fearful of falling into the ‘abyss’, a formless underworld of poverty and destitution. With declining incomes and job prospects, the withdrawal or reduction of benefits and reports of over a million people now accessing food banks,  that does not seem an unreasonable fear.