The new model of social status in Britain, developed from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, sounds strangely un-British.
We know Britain as a country dominated by Old Etonians and Oxbridge elites, where the first words you utter reveal your place in life.
But by redrawing the boundaries of Britain’s classes, and expanding the range of social groupings, sociologists have created a system that sounds much more Canadian.
Modernity has confused class consciousness across the developed world. The polarized poor and rich will always be with us, but it’s in the fragmented middle that a fluctuating economy has rewritten the rules of class.
In Britain, as in Canada, working-class industries have been disappearing, low-skill jobs have moved offshore, and the service industries and tech jobs that fill the void don’t offer the long-term certainties that carve out secure class boundaries. There’s a sense of mobility both up and down that makes it much harder to generalize about taste or consumption. An influx of immigrants who repeatedly challenge entrenched values skews the stereotypes further.
To us, this is a Canadian world – a classless society, we like to think, when what we really mean is that the old class-conscious values are much less secure.
Britain tries to have it both ways: Both the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are Old Etonians, as if nothing ever changed, while global money now throngs London with modes of behaviour that are indifferent to the correct pitch of your vowels.
Canada, being much less self-conscious about indicators of status, is much more opaque. Politicians are no guide to the place of class in Canada, given their pronouncements that we are all ordinary Canadians, hard-working families and/or members of the middle class.
In the U.K. and the United States, there is a sure path followed by the governing elite that leads through prestigious private schools and select universities. Canada doesn’t have the same dependability. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars to send your child to Upper Canada College, or buy a house in a cohesive neighbourhood known for its outstanding public schools and await the likely results. But it’s accepted that many immigrant children without these advantages will fare just as well economically and professionally – it just might take them a little longer to become CEO of a Canadian bank.
Canada is so disparate that even at the corporate level, elite status is hard to define. What do Toronto’s Bay Street financiers have in common with Calgary’s oil-patchers or Montreal’s construction magnates? Yes, there’s always a Power Corp. or an Onex Corp. adept at working the connections, but even influence in this country is more opportunistic, less grounded in the old ways. There is no equivalent of Eton busily grooming future leaders of the next resource sector to take off, and the closest thing to an old-boy tie in Ottawa is an Alberta Reform Party membership card.
At a more fundamental level, consider hockey as a measure of our confusion about class. It is a sport based on outmoded Gordie Howe rural values, played by the children of prosperous middle-class parents who can support an activity poorer immigrants can’t afford, and richer immigrants may not see the value of – compared, say, to violin lessons.
And even the supposedly unifying national game has a way of fracturing across class lines when the violence starts – concern about concussions is a definite indicator of status.