The six-class system: dispelling myths of an egalitarian Australia

The story below is based on one from Britain but is all fair enough. It is one way of scoring social prestige.  In my survey research on the subject in 1971, I found that the manual/non-manual division of employment was nearly as good as any in dividing people into classes but the most meaningful of all was where you saw yourself as belonging.

And any overall measure of class is clearly too broad for most uses.  Occupation, education, wealth and income are not all highly correlated so should on most occasions be considered separately.  People may, for instance be high class on income but low on education -- and vice versa.

And there is an elephant in the room in these studies: IQ.  Charles Murray famously showed two decades ago that IQ has big effects on life chances -- including being a good predictor of income.  So class studies should all consider IQ. From what I see, I suspect that IQ  divides people up more strongly than anything else.  What I see described as upper class or upper-middle class behaviours are ones I know as also being high IQ behaviours.  What is attributed to class may be nothing more than an IQ effect.  A prestigious person will usually be a very bright person, rock stars excepted, of course.

As just one instance of that, there is a huge literature on breast feeding and the clearest finding from that is that in modern Western society there is a very strong class division. Prestigious women breastfeed and working class women give it up early on.  So much so that an upper middle class mother who fails to breastfeed gets a lot of social opprobrium -- with  medical reasons  being her only acceptable excuse.

So it is not surprising to find in that large literature a study that made an attempt to look as comprehensively as possible  at all the social predictors of breastfeeding.  The finding?

"The mother's IQ was more highly predictive of breastfeeding status than were her race, education, age, poverty status, smoking, the home environment, or the child's birth weight or birth order."

It was all IQ.  What looked like an effect of social class was in fact an effect of IQ.

And I think that is particularly so in Australia.  Australians do as a matter of belief ignore social class considerations. A person in humble employment will cheerfully strike up a  conversation with a professional person and get a civil reply.  It is only  when the professional starts to use words of high generality that the conversation stops.  His IQ strongly influences the words he uses and that can lead to a communication breakdown.  So it may be that in Australia IQ is the ONLY significant form of social stratification. What seem to be other forms are in fact simply side-effects of IQ level.

While most of us have an intuitive understanding of social class, we often struggle to define it beyond simple financial metrics, like how much money someone has in the bank.

The three-stratum model, which splits all of us into either the working, middle or upper class, is a mainstay of 20th century sociology.

It's a rigid structure, but a recent report out of the Australian National University posits a more nuanced approach to the way we define ourselves and where we sit on the social ladder.

The end result? Six social classes.

Australia might like to consider itself a classless society, but these new methods of social modelling tell a far more complicated story.

We're looking for Aussies to take part in a new RN show about class in Australia. Here's how to get involved.

Social and cultural capital

Jill Sheppard, who co-authored the report Class, Capital and Identity in Australian Society with Nicholas Biddle, says recent studies of social class, particularly in Australia, have been one-tracked.

"For example: do you have a blue-collar occupation or do you have a white-collar one? Do you do low-skilled manual labour or high-skilled manual labour?"

Dr Sheppard says this method, while easy to use and measure, ignores the more complex, social aspects of class.

As part of their research, Dr Sheppard and her team surveyed 1,200 randomly selected Australians, and asked them questions about their relative wealth, their pastimes, and the occupations of the people they regularly socialised with.

She says socialisation — what those around us think and feel — has long-lasting effects on how we manifest our class behaviour.

"What your parents did, where you're from, all these little things that leave little indelible marks along the way, … [they] are really hard to shake off," Dr Sheppard says.

The new, six-class model that the ANU report proposes, based on a similar study in the UK, takes these complexities into account by measuring, along with savings and income (your economic capital), two other metrics: social capital and cultural capital.

Cultural capital, Dr Sheppard explains, is broadly defined as how you spend your free time.  "If you have the night off or away from the kids, what do you do? Do you go to see a movie? Or do you go and see the theatre or do you sit at home and play on Facebook?" she asks.

The activities are tabulated along a scale of relative prestige and used as an indication of education, socio-political access and spending habits.

Similarly, social capital is measured by prestige — but it's also contrasted by variety.

"We ask subjects the kinds of people that they know from a range of occupations. That is, 'what sort of jobs do your friends and family have?'"

"We're working on the basis that there is a difference between people who only socialise with people who do the same things as them, and people that have a broad range of social contacts."

If you mostly socialise with people who do the same things as you and those things rank lower on the prestige hierarchy (looking at Facebook vs. going to the opera, for example), then your overall score will be lower.

The six classes

While Dr Sheppard accepts that no demographic study can account for all of society's complexities, she believes the resulting six classes are as close to accurately representative as possible — at least in Australia.

The precariat – Accounting for 13 per cent of the sample, the precariat comprises Australia's most poverty-affected citizens. They have the lowest mean household income, many are unemployed or claiming government aid and their social and cultural capital scores are the lowest.

Ageing workers – This class has the highest mean age of any of the classes (58 years) and counts for 14 per cent of the population. A large portion of this class are pensioned retirees and are the least likely, along with the precariat, to be engaged in gainful employment.

New workers – In contrast, almost half of all new workers, whose mean age is naturally younger, are employed fulltime. While the relative prestige of the occupations of people in this class is slightly lower than that of ageing workers, they are more financially successful and have better social and cultural capital scores over all.

Established middle – While reporting slightly lower fulltime employment rates compared with new workers, the established middle class "appear more entrenched and comfortable in their status than the new worker class." Due to more accumulated wealth, they also enjoy "greater advantages" overall than new workers.

Emerging affluent – The emerging affluent class reports higher income levels than the established middle but, interestingly, lower "wealth accumulation" (i.e. assets and savings).

Established affluent – The closest Australia has to an aristocracy, reporting the highest scores of social, economic and cultural capital of any class.

One of the most compelling aspects of the report's results, Dr Sheppard says, is the fact that the six classes seem to make intuitive and anecdotal sense.

The mythology

While we're starting to dismantle the idea that class is meaningless in Australia, we still like to think of ourselves as a society that's blind to these kinds of social divides.

"One problem is that lots of people have written really well about this issue in Australia," Dr Sheppard says.

"But they tend to be academics who don't have any incentive to make their work accessible — and while that work remains inaccessible, this sort of mythology can persist."

The idea of the Australian 'fair-go', and the notion that we're all egalitarian, is part of the mythos around Australian identity.

And Dr Sheppard believes this is, in part, related to a historical anti-British sentiment.

"We're like their rebellious daughter, who wants to kick back against everything we see in the United Kingdom," she says.

But it's not all bad news — there is one small thing in which Australians can take solace. "There is good evidence to suggest we aren't as socially hierarchical as England," Dr Sheppard says.


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