Brexit aside, if there’s one subject that’s going to set a conversation between people in Britain alight, it's class. Social class runs through British society like writing through a stick of rock and lurks everywhere we turn – from discussions of the ethics of reality TV and clean eating to climate protests and the aforementioned B-word. It’s in the invisible behavioural codes we’re forced to adhere to in the workplace, and in the cultural references we make (or miss) in debates at the pub. Yes, it’s a cliché, but we’re still a nation uniquely obsessed with class – and it’s women, particularly women of colour, and millennials (who are being increasingly forced out of the middle class, despite the media portrayals of us as overprivileged snowflakes), who are at the forefront of the discussion in 2019.
But what does 'class' actually mean these days? In a country where it's increasingly the norm to get into debt in pursuit of a university education, only to graduate and find yourself forced to take on insecure gig work and #sidehustles to make ends meet, and where it’s simultaneously 'cool' to be a socialist but many millennials' long-term goal – despite the odds being heavily stacked against us – is still to one day own a home, 'class' is complicated.
Our class is still most often defined by our occupation – the government’s NS-SEC classification system – but a more expansive definition of the term is "an economic, social and cultural account of structural inequality between groups of people," explains Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent. And these factors reinforce inequality or advantage in other areas, such as education, housing and health.
Class can't be divorced from gender and ethnicity – black and minority ethnic workers are far more likely to be trapped in insecure work, while women bear the brunt of government cuts and both groups have lost out more than white men thanks to austerity. "In recent decades, with the institution of austerity economics and the privatisation of the welfare state, class divisions have become more marked," says Harriet Bradley, professor of women's employment at the University of the West of England, who adds that wealth is a particularly important signifier of class at the moment because of our low wages, just as it was in the 19th century. With social mobility – our ability to move between and within classes – having stagnated over the last four years, and the UN’s rapporteur on extreme poverty this year comparing the impact of current welfare policies to the creation of 19th-century workhouses, a deep dive into class feels urgent in 2019.
All this week, in 'A Class Act', we’re delving into some of the underexplored ways in which class affects young women's lives. Of course, class is about economics, but as the name of our series suggests, it's also performative and tied to status. Class is inherently social and cultural and doesn't exist in a vacuum – the way we speak, dress and groom ourselves, our hobbies and interests, and even the people we date, reflect our class status, whether consciously or not. Perhaps you’ve thanked someone for 'supper' when 'tea' would have come more naturally, or dropped your -ts to disguise your private education.
"There are definitely more middle class people my age than it looks, but this is due to fashion at the moment," says 21-year-old Vikki Murray, 21, from Aberdeen, who identifies as working class. "It's popular to look poor." We're going to be exploring what happens when young working class people reclaim the trends and streetwear culture from the high fashion brands that have appropriated them for so long without acknowledgement; how acrylic nails, previously regarded as tacky, gaudy and even – that most abhorrent of class-based slurs – 'chavvy' in years gone by, became an unlikely status symbol among wealthy women and celebrities; and how it feels when you’re being paid minimum wage to sell designer clothes to some of the richest people in society.
We'll hear how the mainstream music industry appropriates the music that's painstakingly nurtured by working class subcultures, and how this affects the young masterminds behind it. Do they reap any of the rewards? And we'll meet the young women left behind by the gentrification of our big cities. What happens to working class women and communities of colour when luxury flats and microbreweries spring up to replace the small shops and community services they've relied on all their lives?
Then we'll be investigating how class intersects with mental health: who gets to be anxious and depressed? Are working class women's issues viewed differently from those of middle class women? And what role does the lack of mental health support play in all this? Then there's inter-class romantic relationships – what happens when you date someone from a different class background. Envy, shame, resentment and feelings of moral superiority are bound to crop up, but is it ultimately an enriching experience or are the differences simply too vast to bridge? Heartening, enraging, enlightening and galvanising, we're having these conversations about social class all week. Whatever your background and whichever class bracket you slot into, we hope you'll join us.