Socio-economic class: How do we define class?

Class is about categorising people based on their economic position in society. The higher your class the more power, status and influence you have in the economy. This has made it one of the most important ideas over the last 150 years, driving massive social change and revolutions. However as societies have changed, the definitions of class have changed. In the Industrial Revolution it was easy to know which class you were in. Now it might seem a bit more difficult.

Marx’s Proletariat vs Bourgeois¹

The famous economist Karl Marx defined class to be about who owns the “means of production”, which are basically all the physical or monetary things that can be used to make money, such as factories, tools, retail estate, computers etc. The people that own this stuff, called the bourgeoisie, can make money by simply living off the profits they get from renting this stuff out or investing it. This means they don’t need to work in order to survive. On the other hand, everyone who doesn't own the means of production has to work to live. They are called the proletariat and in Marx’s time in the 19th century consisted mainly of the new industrial workers in the factories.

Upper, Middle and Lower Class

Upper class refers to the very wealthiest and powerful people in society, often the very top percentage of the population. They are usually connected to politics and includes anyone in the aristocracy or nobility. Basically the really posh people. Defining the middle class on the other hand is a little trickier. It includes people who work in high status, secure and stable jobs, like doctors and lawyers and the people who own their own homes. Lower class or working class refers to those who have to work in order to to survive. They don’t have many savings and may even be in debt, and have low wage and insecure jobs—pretty similar to the proletariat that Marx was talking about.

Socio-economic Class

Our definitions of class have moved on, and in addition to thinking about whether you need to work for a living, class can also includes your social and cultural position and interests.² Nowadays people can define your class by what your interests are, what newspaper you read, what music you listen to or television shows you watch. You can also be defined by what status you have in society, and the status of the people you know, such as friends, family and business employees.

However introducing such a wide definition of class can make it quite hard to define where you actually belong. For example, if you grew up on a council estate, went to the local state school, and work as a manual construction worker for a low wage, people would probably call you working class. But what if you also have a posh accent, enjoy classical music and fine arts, and hang out in fairly elite circles? Does that then make you middle class?³

There is of course no purely scientific way to tell which class you belong to. If you are confused, have a go on this British class calculator.