So you think you’re working class

The Labour primary has led to discussion of the ‘working class’. Lots of people in the Labour party claim to be working class, without having any of its disadvantages. I’m looking at you, Labour left –but I’m also looking at myself.

Andrew Little: The candidate with the best understanding of the working class?

Andrew Little: The candidate with the best understanding of the working class?

So what makes someone working class? No doubt there are ivory towers full of academic definitions, but that wouldn’t be a very working class way of settling things, would it? So I will not be talking about modes or means of production.

I think it’s best to respect working class epistemologies when attempting to define ‘working class’. But here’s a rough indicator: If you knew what ‘epistemology’ meant several years ago, you probably aren’t very working class.

So here are my thoughts as someone who spent the best part of a decade doing low-paid low-status manual labour. No one attribute is sufficient, but in my opinion it is necessary to have at least one. I acknowledge that identity and culture are complex and layered, but hey, things need to be discussed. I will try to make do with imperfect words and good intentions.

Working and Struggling
I think the primary attribute of being working class is having actually worked. By that I mean struggling to get by in a job that is neither highly paid nor high status. I don’t mean a transitional period of work, like a summer job while living at home, before heading off to university.

Lived Experience
A lot of people who claim to represent the working class were raised in a working family with values different to those of the middle class. Their caregivers struggled financially. They had to learn to decode middle class culture (and it is a culture). This experience shaped their class identity.

This might go without saying, but it is harder to claim you’re working class when you have a high income or a lot of assets. To be working class is to have struggled, at least for a time.

Outward expression
One of the chief markers of class is outward expression. By this I mean accent, vocabulary, and attire. To attempt to detail them would be to pull on a very long and complex thread.

Social treatment
This is similar to outward expression, but relates more to how others treat you. If other people treat you like you are uneducated and not affluent, then you have this attribute.

To feel out of place around middle class people is, in my opinion, a quintessential working class attribute. If you have worried about violating unspoken middle class rules by saying or doing something ‘provincial’ or ‘uneducated’, then you are probably not middle class. Sure, you can learn their codes eventually, but sometimes you just want to say ‘fuck em’ and eat with the ‘wrong’ fork.

Rough indicators
The tongue-in-cheek generalisations below can serve as proxies for the attributes above. But yeah, class is complex, layered, diverse, cultural and economic, et cetera.

  • You say ‘I am good’ instead of ‘I am well’.
  • You did not know what trusts, term deposits, or compound interest are.
  • You knew words like ‘practical-ness’ long before words like ‘practicality’.
  • You couldn’t understand why anyone would go to a restaurant when fish and chips and a 2 litre of coke are 1/3 the price.
  • You trust anecdotes, truisms, and testimony from friends as much as/more than evidence or abstract logic. Because a leopard doesn’t change its spots, right? Damn right.
  • You thought it was funny when you learned the word ‘pretentious’ is another word for ‘know-it-all’.

You might have noticed that most of these are past tense. That is because I have survived the cult of the middle class: university. I have traded the calluses on my hands for fancy words and a bit of paper.

Regardless of how many of these indicators you have, one thing is certain: you can shift to middle class easier if you are white and educated.

So before we go claiming that we are working class, have a little think. Are you still working class? If not, be careful about claiming to represent them when you don’t face their challenges.


2 thoughts on “So you think you’re working class

  1. I’m not sure sure on the wealth one – If they have built up thier assest base through hard work and struggle, having wealth doesn’t automatically exclude them from being working class.
    Example – a bloke I know (who is now pushing 60), started out as a builder, but moved into property renovation/development. He is now, by many standards, wealthy (asset rich), but it’s all in residential property. Doesn’t trust the sharemarket, or associated financial industries, and tolerates banks and his accountant as a necessary evil. To my mind, a very working class point of view, despite the fact his net worth is into 7 figures.

    BTW – Great blog you run here – very interesting reading and much food for thought.

    • Thanks J! I think you’re right there, I probably should soften that one a bit.

      It can be pretty tough to untangle the economic and cultural elements of working class identity, especially now that it’s so diverse (ie ranges from brown women in Auckland to white blokes Fielding). I decided that a serious analysis would be very complex and nuanced (read: long and wordy), so better to not start pulling on that thread. Hence, simple principles and kinda vague generalisations. But yeah, it’s an endlessly interesting subject, and it’s really important since Labour have become such a shambles.

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