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The British class system? Needin' a makeover, innit

Pedestrians cross London Bridge during the commute to work in the City of London, June 22, 2012.

© Luke MacGregor / Reuters/Reuters

Ask just about anyone to define the class system and the answer will likely include "upper, middle and lower" classes.

But a group of British sociologists says that's far too simplistic for today's world and they have come up with seven distinct classes, ranging from a tiny group of elites at the top to a larger number of so-called "precariats" – or "precarious proletariat" – at the bottom. The groupings, part of a study released Wednesday in London, are not only based on wealth but also take into account factors such as social contacts and participation in cultural activities.

"The old upper, middle and working class is changing a lot," said Michael Savage, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics who co-authored the study. "There is much more fragmentation between different kinds of middle-class groups. It plays into the sense of uncertainty about how you fit these days into the middle class."

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The findings reflect the changing nature of Western economies, with the rise of the Internet and computers as well as "emerging" forms of cultural activities such as video games and social media. For example, the researchers came up with a "technical middle class," a relatively small group of people working mainly in technology-related fields who earn a decent income but have few social contacts and are disengaged culturally. They defined another class as "new affluent workers" who also earn a moderate income, but own an expensive house and engage largely in "emerging cultural activities." Another group, "emergent service workers," earn a fairly low wage – about $30,000 – and generally rent their homes, but they have significant social contacts and are culturally active.

Academics and economists have been studying social classes for generations, but most of the divisions have been largely based on occupation or income. In recent years, sociologists have expanded their research and examined class distinctions on the basis of ethnicity, education and immigration. University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida has come up with a new group called the "creative class," consisting of musicians, artists, scientists, teachers and others whose job is to be "creative." And others have focused on the top "1 per cent" of society.

Prof. Savage and his colleagues went further thanks to a treasure trove of information gleaned from a pair of large public surveys, including one hosted by the BBC that involved more than 160,000 participants. Based on that information, the researchers looked at social class on a multidimensional basis taking into account what they called economic, social and cultural capital.

Economic capital looked at annual income, savings and house value. Social capital examined how many people the survey respondents knew in different occupations. The average respondent knew someone socially in 13 out of the 34 specified occupations, which ranged from professionals such as lawyers and doctors to labourers. Cultural capital measured both "highbrow" activities, such as engagement with classical music, museums and art galleries, and "emerging" activities, including online entertainment and attendance at sports events.

The results showed that the traditional concept of middle and working class has vanished along with notions of blue- and white-collar workers. While the researchers found an "established middle class" and a "traditional working class," which both conform to old stereotypes, only 39 per cent of the population falls into these categories.

"Instead, the majority fall into classes which have not been registered by more conventional approaches to class, and require a more fluid understanding of the redrawing of social and cultural boundaries in recent years," the study said.

The study also found a distinctive elite class, making up roughly 6 per cent of the population "whose sheer economic advantage sets it apart from other classes." In the past, these people have been largely lumped in with other professionals and not specifically identified as in this study, which showed that this group has the most privileged background in British society. Conversely the study also uncovered a significant bottom class, people making about $12,000 annually who are essentially cut off socially and culturally from other social groups. This group makes up roughly 15 per cent of the population, according to the study. And while there is movement among those in the five middle classes, with people moving in and out of each class, there is virtually no movement involving those in the two extreme groups.

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"I was particularly struck by the way in which the elite class, who are extremely wealthy, very well off, are pulling apart from other groups in society," said Prof. Savage. He added that the gap between super wealth and extreme poverty isn't confined to Britain. "I think the changes that are happening in Britain are happening in other countries, particularly the way in which the wealthy and elite are pulling apart from the rest of society."

The researchers plan to do more work on the survey results, looking even more closely at cultural activities and how they affect social classes. "I think this encourages public discussion," said Prof. Savage. "In Britain, there is a lot of anxiety about how we are becoming more unequal. This will feed the debate about social change."

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