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Building working class power

How to address class inequality today
Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
Who’s working class now?

However you define ‘working class’ it’s clear that working people’s interests are under attack.

There’s a long historical tradition of contested definitions and meanings of the term class. One understanding see only two classes – those who own capital, and those who exchange their labour for a wage. And we know that workers as a group have lost out over the last forty years: the share of GDP going to wages has shrunk from an average of 57 per cent between 1945 and 1975 to 49 per cent in 2018.

Throughout the twentieth century narrower definitions of class have been developed based on occupation. The Office for National Statistics now use a classification system called ‘The National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SES)’, based on “ employment relations, i.e. aspects of work and market situations and of the labour contract”. with the categories ranging from ‘higher managerial occupations’ to the long term unemployed . [1] ‘Routine’ and ‘semi-routine’ jobs are often seen as ‘working class’ jobs on this definition.

NS-SEC Analytic classes


1 Higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations

   1.1 Large employers and higher managerial and administrative occupations
   1.2 Higher professional occupations

2 Lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations

3 Intermediate occupations

4 Small employers and own account workers

5 Lower supervisory and technical occupations

6 Semi-routine occupations

7 Routine occupations

8 Never worked and long-term unemployed


Using this definition (which changed in 2011, so there’s a break in the data in the chart below), over the past twenty years, the largest area of jobs growth has been in professional jobs, leaving the ‘semi-routine’ and ‘routine’ jobs often identified as working class as just over twenty per cent of the employed population.


[1] ONS ‘The National Statistics Socio-economic classification (NS-SEC)’ available online at https://www.ons.gov.uk/methodology

Source: ONS
Source: ONS

This definition is commonly used in monitoring of people from various backgrounds – and there is a clear value in this long-running measure which allows us to compare experiences over time and place.

However, research conducted in 2015 found that 60 per cent of people identified as working class – a figure unchanged since 1983 – including 47 per cent of those in jobs classified as managerial or professional. [2] Some of these workers may be those with a working class background, rather than those in working class jobs today. But we know that aspects of work often identified with ‘working class jobs’ – low or stagnating pay, a lack of autonomy, and intense and exhausting work are experienced by increasing numbers of working people:

  •  Pay has stagnated: Workers in the UK have experienced the longest pay-squeeze in 200 years.[3]
  • Workers often don’t have a voice at work: Research in 2011 found that less than half (47%) of employees thought that managers were good at responding to suggestions from employees and just over one in three (35%) said that managers were good at allowing employees to influence decisions[4]. The number of workers who can negotiate their terms and conditions through a collective bargaining agreement has declined from over 70 per cent in 1979 to just 26 per cent today[5].
  • Work is getting more exhausting: recent findings from the national Skills and Employment survey found work intensification increasing, with the proportion of workers in jobs where it was required to work at ‘very high speed’ for most or all of the time rising by 4 percentage points to 31 percent in 2017.[6]

In our work on how class relates to pay and public services, we therefore look at a broader group of people, concentrating mainly on those earning below average incomes.

In our work on how class relates to pay and public services, we therefore look at a broader group of people, concentrating mainly on those earning below average incomes.

Finally, there is also a strong sociological tradition of looking at ‘cultural’ as well as economic capital, exploring the ways that cultural choices like the way people dress, or the type of music they like, have been used a way of marking and maintaining class distinctions. For example, researchers have  used  findings from the 2015 BBC survey on class to suggest a new classification of seven classes, based on groupings of economic, social and cultural factors.[7] Research has shown that these type of distinctions can be important in explaining economic differences, such as the lower pay experienced by those from working class backgrounds, even when they enter into professional jobs.[8]

We think that each of these measures can tell us something important about class. But rather than ignite a lengthy debate about definitions, we want to focus on how to tackle the persistent class inequality that still exists in Britain today. In the rest of this report we set out how:

  • Pay in working class jobs has stagnated;
  •  A decade of austerity is having a disproportionate impact on working class families; and
  • Class discrimination means that those from working class backgrounds are still shut out of opportunities. 

In future reports we will explore other aspects of working-class experience in Britain today


[3] Geoff Tily (2018) ‘17-year wage squeeze the worst in two hundred years’ available at https://www.tuc.org.uk/blogs/17-year-wage-squeeze-worst-two-hundred-years

[5] National Statistics, Trade union statistics 2018, Trade union membership statistics 2018: tables, 30 May 2019

[6] Francis Green, Alan Felstead, Duncan Gallie and Golo Henseke (2018) Work Intensity in Britain: First Findings from the Skills and Employment Survey 2017 available at https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/1309455/4_Intensity_Minireport_Final.pdf

[7] Savage, Mike, Devine, Fiona, Cunningham, Niall, Taylor, Mark, Li, Yaojun, Hjellbrekke, Johs., Le Roux, Brigitte, Friedman, Sam and Miles, Andrew (2013) A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey experiment. Sociology, 47 (2). pp. 219-250 available online at http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/49654/1/Savage_New_model_social_class_2014.pdf

[8] Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison (2019) The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, Bristol University Press.