In Britain today, there is an ordinary wealth elite who make up the top 6% of the population by wealth. Their mean household income is £89 000 and the average values of their homes £325 000. They have average savings of £142 000.
These figures mean they have wealth and income more than double that of the next class down on the Great British Class Survey, and they have got there by reaping the rewards of steady accumulation of their capital assets. The rise of rentier incomes from second homes forms a significant part of this.
Among the elite, meritocratic justification about wealth ran deep. They tended to stress that their success, income and wealth reflected their hard work, rather than it being down to the advantages they had because of the generations of accumulated cultural, social and economic capital they had benefitted from.
Others played down their wealth by positioning themselves in a relative sense, pointing out they were not as well off as their friends, and some deflected the issue by pointing out ‘accidental accumulation’: house prices having increased so much in London and the South East for example.
However, the top 6% do not see themselves as united, but are more aware of their differences There are fractures as well as solidarity at the top. In other words, the upper class layer is not a coherent and cohesive group but rather a scene of internal contestation between those with the most resources.
Cultural Capital and the Elite Class
The contemporary class elite defies traditional ‘upper class’ presumptions. It is a differentiated and heterogeneous formation which lacks a unitary defining feature.
Its cultural motifs vary and its members conform to a highbrow norm, although they are the most likely to express a preference for opera, classical music and so on.
While the traditional elite of the past marked their distinction by selectively consuming only the visible prestigious forms of culture, members of today’s elite are also in tune with contemporary and popular culture.
Occupational diversity also makes up part of this constellation. There is no unitary group to be found among the wealth class. Different professions such as business, law, academia, media and science compete with each other to assert their authority in the public domain.
These elite occupational blocs may have distinctive cultures of their own and so form niches, and this is especially true for some of the older professions such as architecture and law.
In spatial terms London is where the elite class predominately live. Having a relationship to the London scene and being prepared to work in London are essential. There are also regions within London, niches dependent on property prices.
You don’t necessarily have to have been born in London, but living close to it and being familiar with its geography are important.
There are also cultural elite bubbles in places such as Hampstead and Hackney and a legal elite around Waterloo station for example.
The elite class and meritocracy
The ordinary elite class strongly believe they got to where they are through meritocratic means, through their own hard work and effort, and they often contrast themselves to those who are not, like them, hardworking, but we shouldn’t take these beliefs at face value.
While it is true that they often got into their current high paying jobs by performing well in the education system and then succeeding in the cut throat professions they have also benefitted from their parents’ economic, cultural and social capital.
Many of them went to private schools and Shamus Khan has pointed out that private education is today about imparting the ‘meritocratic skills and practices’ that are required to get ahead in corporate and professional jobs. Ironically because these skills are taught most effectively in fee-paying private schools this means this is NOT meritocratic.
However there is still recruitment to this class from the outside: 25% come from comprehensives.
Elite universities play a role in separating out the very top professions: a boundary separates those who went to Oxbridge from the even those who attended Russel group universities.
The ordinary elite is not very glamorous nor glittering or self-recruited. It is not socially closed. However, people do have to perform to join it. They have to display knowingness, it is hard work being a member of the ordinary elite!
The Elite and the GBCS
The elite were more likely to do the Great British Class Survey. Despite making up only 6% of the objective class structure, 21% of the sample doing the GBCS were from the elite class.
Due to technocratic confidence they have the intellectual confidence and interest to take part, and taking part was a chance to obtain the private gratification that they had made it to the top.
They saw doing the survey as self-affirming, as a chance to have their elite status confirmed and flocked to it in disproportionate numbers, and the GBCS obliged them by awarding them with an ‘elite coat of arms’.
Many of them then flocked to Twitter to communicate their ‘official’ elite status to the world. One example:
‘According to new #bbcclass survey I am elite. Nice to see a long-obvious reality reflected in hard data at last. Knee! Bow! And so on…’
What this (representative) tweet shows us is that the elite wanted to boast about their now socially recognised status, but dressed it up in a tongue in cheek way with humour to deflect away from this bragging.
It was also as if doing the survey gave this group a kind of scientifically based legitimacy to brag about their status: rather than them judging themselves as ‘elite’ the survey had done it for them, so all they are doing here (apparently) is stating ‘facts’.
This material was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.
This material is relevant throughout A-level sociology but especially relevant to the Culture and Identity module.
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