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David Robbins: 'We are all in the middle class now' -- oh no we're not

My uncle dressed as if he were expecting an impromptu visit from royalty. He was always clean-shaven and dapper. If he'd been run over by a tram on the way to his civil service job, he would have left an immaculate corpse.

His high sartorial standards meant that he wore a shirt and tie even when playing golf, and sported a nice line in tweed overcoats. I think he considered the macintosh a little racy.

He placed a great premium on being -- and looking -- respectable. My designer stubble was an affront to him: "Stand a bit closer to the razor next time," he would say.

I always considered him utterly and completely middle class, but a report out last week made me think again.

During the boom years, 43pc of us defined ourselves as middle class. The other categories (working class, upper class and 'classless') did not attract nearly as many members.

Now, according to new follow-up research by Amárach Consulting, people who consider themselves working class are in the majority, albeit a slim one of 41pc as against 40pc middle class.

In the space of five years, we have gone from being a predominantly middle class society to being a mostly working class one. But is being a member of a certain social class just a matter of declaring yourself to be so?

My uncle did not have many of the defining characteristics of the middle class, which is, as it turns out, rather a slippery customer to get hold of anyway.

Even historian Tony Farmar, who recently published a social history of the Irish middle classes from 1882 to 1989, didn't manage to come up with a satisfactory definition.

Nowadays, marketing experts say it boils down to what you do with your money. The middle classes buy shares and invest for the future, and the working class saves (or borrows) for more immediate pleasures. Almost no one admits to being upper class -- just one pc did so in the Amárach survey.

My uncle did buy shares, for instance, but he didn't go to a private school, or speak like Ross O'Carroll-Kelly. "Dortspeak", like the Dart itself, was years away when he was growing up.

He did not eat sun-dried tomatoes, or go skiing, or have a second home, or keep a servant or practice a profession. These are all "middle class markers", according to sociologists.

He did, however, have his little pretensions. He liked to listen to BBC Radio 4, and have proper afternoon tea on a Sunday, and he didn't drive anywhere, he "motored".

His father was a post office clerk whose meagre wages were taken by his wife and transformed by some loaves-and-fishes miracle into enough to feed, clothe and educate 10 children.

My uncle would consider himself as middle class, and he probably qualifies in sociological terms by dint of his belief in education and faith in the virtues of steadiness, thrift and application.

He is of a time when most people also believed it was possible for each generation to improve upon the previous one. You could move up the class ladder gradually, just as you might ascend the civil service pay scale.

Children born into a working class family could make it into the middle class ranks through one of several well-worn paths: marriage, graft, education, or the church. In my uncle's family, there are textbook examples of each.

Last week's study shows that this steady social progression has been reversed. Families, especially those who brought in two incomes during the boom and now have to rely on one (or none), are moving back down the scale.

The idea that human society is on an ever-upward path has been dented, and we are seeing the first generation since the 1950s who may not be as well off as their parents were.

Age, experience and a certain selectivity of the memory mean that my uncle is spared the care of all this. He did his bit, put in his shift and has earned his piece of calm.

My uncle took early retirement in 1998, the same year the British Labour politician John Prescott announced grandly that "we're all middle class now". Oh no we're not.

drobbins@independent.ie

Indo Review