I asked my sisters what social class they thought they belonged to. I was surprised that our conversation lasted over an hour because I assumed they would say quite bluntly ‘we’re working class’ because this is what we were always brought up to feel by our father and it is a position I now feel comfortable saying, particularly over the last few years, as I view it as a political position rather than a simple objective category.
My father studied sociology and was quite into Marxism, so in fact we were more often we were ‘not the bourgeoisie’. Our childhood was punctuated with avoiding bourgeois things, like holidays, certain types of furniture, types of food and certain leisure activities. Upon reflection, I think a lot of this may have been due to lack of money. So rather than say we can’t do or have certain things because we can’t afford it, my father instead say it was bourgeois. For example, we had a massive dampness problem due to poor quality housing but my dad said that mould was good for us and it is bourgeois to think otherwise (we later got rehoused and our former flats demolished).
My parents were hippies and mother Swedish so our idea of nice home furnishings for example, was very different to the traditional English working-class ‘chintz’, which I yearned to have and one birthday got my dream of a pink floral lamp on a little wooden corner shelf. But over time as a family we had a higher income we could then afford nicer food, go to cafes and restaurants, discovered opera, experienced a bit of travel and I even got a proper bouncy (bourgeois) mattress to match my pink lampshade (although sadly I had to throw the lampshade away as it was damaged by mould).
My father was also anti-school (in terms of the way it is run), but not anti-education. So my father gained his degree in 1993 at the age of 44, my mother followed soon after and only around 5 years later did I and my older sister do our degrees and then Master’s degrees.
I always felt it very difficult to categorize my social class in objective terms (e.g. father’s occupation) because my parents were unemployed for a lot of the time I was growing up in the 1980s – although my mother did work on the Vauxhall assembly line when pregnant with me which I like to think boosts my Lutonian working-class credentials. My friends parents had proper working-class jobs like builders, so easier to define – they were working!
Then after these unemployed years, my parents were students – taking in turns the role of the housewife/househusband whilst the other studied, only getting professional type jobs later in life. Until his death in 2005, my father was a counsellor and project worker for people with drug problems and my mother now works in a university as a web editor. We all went to our local university, the University of Luton (now Bedfordshire – rebranded due to a merger as well as to disguise its connections to Luton to improve its rankings), following a typical working-class pattern of staying at home.
Going to this local post-1992 university meant that we did not feel like ‘a fish out of water’. We did not have any of those difficulties in fitting in or coming across people from other backgrounds. We were among a majority of working-class students and often mature and very ethnically mixed, too reflecting the local population. Only when I came to UCL did I for the first time ever hear in the corridors ‘posh’ voices from students who were younger than me – ‘posh’ voices on older people or lecturers was fine, expected, reassuring – but on young people, I really felt suddenly out of place and inferior.
On one of my first days I had to present a quick overview of my project and I looked up the other students to check them out. I had a mild panic attack when I saw some had gone to Oxford and Cambridge and then a massive sense of inferiority came over me, but I am dealing with this and do not feel bothered by it anymore, probably something to do with my age. Also, all the people I have met are lovely!
And although I can’t pass as middle-class, nor do I desire to, I can certainly do and participate in middle-class things with pleasure. I think mixing of cultures is the best way to be.
What social class are you? And has education helped or confused your class identity?