Wednesday 17 July 2019

The unmaking of the middle class

The Irish middle classes are in crisis. Call it downward social mobility or the 'squeezed middle', but there is no doubt that being middle class is no longer a guarantee of success in life, says Emily Hourican. Instead, what used to be the basic foundations of professional life - a nice house and garden, private school for the kids, long summer holidays - are now out of reach for most of us who were brought up to expect them.

'My kids would probably rather have the money saved on fees handed to them as a lump sum, down the line, when they want to buy a house'. Emily Hourican with her children, Malachy, Davy and Bee. Portrait: Kip Carroll.
'My kids would probably rather have the money saved on fees handed to them as a lump sum, down the line, when they want to buy a house'. Emily Hourican with her children, Malachy, Davy and Bee. Portrait: Kip Carroll.
Our childhood visions of the future were set against a backdrop of these very things rather like a child's drawing of the perfect nuclear family. Photo: Deposit.

There is nothing new about status anxiety - that feeling of fretfulness over social standing, and the various badges of belonging that come with this, goes way back. Can't you just imagine the first settlers anxiously eyeing up each other's gold collars and herds of cattle? What is new though, is a confusion over what, exactly, these badges now are, and - worse - a rapidly growing anxiety over how unreachable even the most basic of them have become.

So much of what used to be simply the normal trappings of middle-class, or professional, life - a four-bedroom house with a front and back garden; private school; three-week summer holidays; to chip away at just the tip of the iceberg - are no longer things we can take for granted.

Growing up, our visions of the future were effortlessly set against a backdrop of these very things, rather like a child's drawing of the perfect nuclear family - mother, father, two children, standing against a house with many windows and a tree, birds flying in a blue sky and a bright-yellow sun beaming down. Now, that house, those holidays, the private schools, are the hallmarks of a financially highly successful life; they are not the basics any more. They are the signifiers of conspicuous affluence, within reach of just a few. If those are the circumstances of your life, frankly, you're rich.

In my case, that merry backdrop was, to me, just a starter pack. Along with the four-bedroom house in town, I planned a country house - somewhere run-down but charming, with fields, a couple of ponies, and fruit trees - where we would spend weekends and holidays. In fact, the 'we' of this picture, the putative people who would accompany me on these idyllic trips, were far less clear than the real-estate section of the fantasy. I may not have had a clear image of the man who I presumed to be part of the dream, for example, but by the age of 15 I could have described the country house down to the smallest detail of its exposed brickwork and wooden beams. And with the house, in my expectation, came the time to enjoy it, the high-powered job that would allow me to do so, and the fancy car that would make transition to it possible.

The reality - for me, for many - is a far cry from this. There is no second house, and the effort required to buy the first house means that the longest holiday I have had in six or seven years was 10 days, and that's only because a bank holiday nestled up against one end of the week. Extra-curricular activities - piano lessons, tennis, horse riding, ballet - are expenditures to be carefully considered and weighed in the balance, and the car is a banger. When my eldest starts secondary school in September, he will be putting on the uniform of the local State school ­­- luckily, a very good State school - and I will have to finally lay to rest the small voice that agonises over this, secretly wondering if, after all, we should not have made the necessary sacrifices and sent him privately.

Now, let me quickly say - to those of you who are reading this and playing the world's smallest violin, that I know! I know these are what the kids call #FirstWorldProblems. I know there are far more difficult circumstances out there, pretty much everywhere you look. I know that we are lucky in countless ways. But I also know I am not alone in worrying about any of this. In fact, people like me have our very own media-friendly moniker these days. We are 'the squeezed middle'.

And - there is some small comfort in this - we are a source of considerable concern to politicians. "Economists may dispute the idea of the squeezed middle, but in politics it certainly exists. It's something we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about," says Edward Brophy, former chief of staff for Labour's Joan Burton. "The reasons are really complex and can be hard to grapple with. Technology has something to do with it, and the way this is taking jobs. Then there is the emergence of a global middle class, in places like Asia, which means that living standards in the West decline, because they are exposed to competition in a way they weren't previously.

"There really only is so much to go round, and we no longer monopolise such a large share. There used to be a script for a successful career, and now it is no longer clear that formula works any more. The question is, can any government stand in the way of the march of globalisation and technology? Certainly, if it tries to bolster economic security, that is going to mean higher taxes, which, in turn, leads again to less money. It's scary stuff."

Scary indeed, and clearly, my concerns are far from unique. "My parents did worry about money," says one friend, a mother of three who set up her own business after years at the top of one of the professions, "but not in the same way that I do. They worried about making it to the end of the month, but knowing they had the security of a salary forever, really, and one that would increase as time went on. I worry that I could have no source of income by the end of next week, that in 10 years' time I will have no further earning power; that I could lose everything I have overnight. It makes me very anxious."

That said, the ways in which people cut their reduced cloth varies greatly.

"We felt we had to go down the private-school route," says one friend, "because the State schools close to us aren't much good. But it means we can't move house, even though we badly need more space." Another admits to being so heavily in debt that he can see no way out. "From the outside, the picture probably looks good, but I know how fragile it all is." For yet another, the comparison with her own childhood is something she dares not dwell on. "I was raised with a silver spoon, very privileged, so I did take shelter, security, safety for granted. For me, now, the anxiety is palpable. Mine comes from a deep internal rule that each generation should stand on the shoulders of the generation that went before, and I have not done that in a material sense."

The sociologists call this 'downward social mobility', defined as a state in which people find themselves in a lower social class than the one in which they were born - and it is now A Thing. According to a major study carried out recently by Oxford University, it has been steadily rising in the UK for both men and women throughout the second half of the last century. Academics found that the later in the last century a person was born, the more likely they were to find themselves with a reduced social standing compared to their parents.

In America - the land of pioneers for so many of the social trends that will make their way over here - middle-class incomes peaked in 1999, and haven't increased since. The New York Times recently ran a piece showing that the percentage of families earning middle-class incomes fell in nearly nine out of 10 major metro areas across the country between 2000 and 2014. As a result, everything suffers, to the point where, in the States, a college education is fast becoming something only the rich can afford. No wonder Donald Trump, with his promise of easy solutions and making America 'great' again appeals to so many.

Probably worse than the lack of material trappings is the feeling of insecurity, the knowledge that we are pretty much living from pay cheque to pay cheque. The idea of savings, a 'nest egg', seems laughably remote. One friend, Trinity College-educated, working in technology, with a husband who is a highly trained professional, says frankly, "I suppose the really big one for me is the whole concept of savings, and having a rainy-day fund, and just how thin the fabric that holds everything together is. We might have a lot of the trappings of successful middle-class life, but are really only one missed pay cheque away from being completely fucked. The children's allowance is no longer a bauble to be frittered away on whims, but an essential part of putting food on the table. And an unexpected expense like a car breakdown leaves us literally scrabbling for loose change. Even piano lessons are a real extravagance - and a completely unappreciated one at that!"

Then there is the emotional and metaphysical fall-out of being part of this squeezed middle. There was, until recently, a confidence that went with being 'middle-class'; an almost unconscious sense of aspiration that was based on belief in possibility, on the expectation of better. By and large, our parents had a higher standard of living than their parents, who in turn out-did their own parents, and so on, back through many generations. Of course we expected that we would effortlessly surpass the circumstances of our upbringing, because that had long been the general trend.

Instead, we are the first to reverse this, to find much of what we grew up with out of reach, and with the pressing fear that our own children will find living conditions even more difficult.

That confidence, the right to aspire, is what underpinned the great middle-class belief in education at any cost; the belief that, if sacrifices were required, they were worth making, because the road to glory was assured: get a good education, go to college, do a degree, then reap the rewards of a good job and a secure lifestyle.

Undoubtedly, there are still some who make this equation, but I am not one of them. Partly because I can't begin to see what sacrifices I could make that would add up to €6,000 x three for the next 10 years - never getting my nails done, or shopping exclusively in discount supermarkets simply isn't going to cut it - but partly, too, because I don't believe that private school is any kind of guarantee any longer of an affluent life. The kind of 'good jobs' that the Irish Mammy traditionally pushed her children into - lawyer, doctor, accountant, bank manager - no longer come with guarantees. They are being outsourced, sometimes to technology, sometimes to the developing world (in 20 years' time, the majority of work currently done by lawyers in Ireland will be done from countries on the other side of the world, cheaper), and are increasingly under-valued. In fact, my kids would probably rather the money saved on fees was handed to them as a lump sum, down the line, when they want to buy a house. Not that they are going to get it, because it isn't there, but that might be a better use than spending it on schools with vast playing fields and Latin mottos.

Because, let's do some basic maths. In the 1970s in this country, the average age of a first-time home-buyer was early-20s. The average wage was just over £11,000, and an average-sized house in Dublin cost around half that. Now, an average house in Dublin costs eight-to-10 times the average salary, and - not surprisingly - first-time buyers are in their late 30s. In the 1970s, one salary per household was enough, now we're barely making it with two.

What this means is that, once you have bought a house, if you are ever lucky enough to do so, there is simply no money left over. And, because of the changing nature of the working world, there is very little job security, salary security - for most, it looks like a law of diminishing returns - or pension security, so that the old rules around home-ownership simply don't apply any more.

Mostly, we live in smaller houses than the ones we grew up in, and the chances of 'trading up' - another of the things many of our parents' generation did without much soul-searching, are slim. No wonder it's easier to define our 'middle-classness' by spending €8 on a tin of single-estate coffee. No wonder the generation below mine consider all their income as disposable, to be spent in restaurants and on holidays; owning a house simply isn't going to happen for them, unless their parents weigh in with a hefty loan.

Certainly in the case of the €8 tin of coffee, it's about a cheap way of self-selecting as middle class, or whatever the modern hipster equivalent is, in the absence of the traditional, more expensive trappings. After all, class is very much in the eye of the beholder. One friend recalls a hilarious conversation she had some years ago with the scion of a hugely successful property tycoon, a household name for his ability to make money. "He insisted that he was working class. His argument being that he had always worked for a living and always would. I grew up in a rented flat, with no car, telephone, no holidays abroad and no visits to restaurants, and yet I always considered myself to be firmly middle class. When I try to think of why that was, all I can come up with is that in our house we got the Irish Times, no tabloids, and we were never allowed to hang on to any 'Dublin' accent that we might try to affect."

The way things are going, more and more of us are going to have to self-select in the absence of material evidence. We're going to have to define ourselves by what we believe in rather than where and how we live. And actually, that might be OK. Because there is another side to the undoubtedly tough transition period we are living through.

As Edward Brophy says "There is a pessimistic view - that this is the end of the world as we knew it, that all the things our parents took for granted are now out of reach. And there is an optimistic view - that this is a period of transition and things will come around, and that, in the meantime, this is a time of great flexibility, that is itself a form of liberation. There is more potential now to create your own kind of life."

We're not going to hold back the tide, and we can't insulate ourselves from it any longer with law degrees or PhDs. So what do we do?

Embrace change, I guess, even if it is at knife-point. Demonstrate the classic middle-class virtues of entrepreneurship and hard work, and 'just getting on with it.' And for the generation coming up behind: our kids? What do we teach them, now that the old mantra about 'good school, college degree equals good job' doesn't cut it any more? In the absence of security and entitlement, they are going to have to learn flexibility, open-mindedness and a strong work ethic.

But, too, they should learn that now, more than ever, it is important to do what you love. After all, you are just as likely to make a fortune out of a YouTube channel devoted to showcasing your football skills as you are from a PhD in business.

Things we took for granted

Our childhood visions of the future were set against a backdrop of these very things rather like a child's drawing of the perfect nuclear family. Photo: Deposit.

A Nice House

It didn't have to be a mansion, but for most professional families, a decent-sized house and garden was a given.

No big deal. Certainly not a 10-year topic of conversation. Such houses did not cost gut-wrenching sums of money, and indeed were often paid for by the time the kids left home, meaning . . .

. . . A Nice Old Age

Old age, cushioned by a fat pension that kicked in at the age of 64, with the kids gone, the mortgage paid and perhaps a cruise or three to consider? We will not see the like of that again.

Private School

The great cornerstone of the middle classes, even when it came attended by many sacrifices. Private education was the insurance policy parents took out to guarantee the success of their kids. Largely, it worked.

Long Summer Holidays

The idea of disappearing off for three or four weeks of the summer,

to Wicklow, Wexford, Kerry or wherever, is now strictly for families where the wife doesn't work. And we already know what that makes those families . . . rich, basically.

Trading up

The idea of moving from what the Americans would call a 'starter home,' through something a bit larger and finally to something impressively lavish in later life, was perfectly normal. Now, many of us are trapped in the 'starter' homes, despite having outgrown them. If we're lucky, we're on the second rung of the ladder, but without any hope of moving up another notch. Hence the home improvements. Though really, how many times can you improve a three-bedroom semi-d without the whole thing getting a bit 'pocket Taj Mahal'?


Possibly the greatest regret of all; what used to be called 'a nest egg'. Now, the nest may as well belong to a phoenix, so mythical is the idea of such an egg. Often, the nest egg was divvied up into a 'portfolio' involving a bit of property, a few stocks and shares. The idea was to spread the risk. Now, risk is something we have internalised and live with.

A single, pensionable job

Hard to know whether we feel regret over the lack of stability, or relief at no longer having to walk into an office aged 22 and know that we would be there until retirement, at age 64. Either way, 'the good job', perhaps in the bank or accountancy firm, is a thing of the past. Unless you work for the civil service. And even there, things ain't what they used to be.

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