Contemporary Britain has seen many changes affecting its class structure

Information shows that there has been a long-term trend during the 20th century for the proportion of non-manual jobs to increase and for manual jobs to decrease. Less than half of all employees now have manual jobs, whereas in 1911, according to Routh, 79% of jobs were manual. According to the General Household Survey, the proportion of manual and service workers declined from 55% to 46% between 1975 and 1994. There has also been marked increases in professional, managerial and routine non manual work.

In the Register General’s scheme, the working class is represented by ‘manual workers’ (classes 3M, 4 and 5). Using this definition, it is clear that the working class has been getting relatively smaller. It accounted for 75% of the total population in 1951, but declined to less than half by 1991. Roberts et al (1977) believe that the working class has become not only smaller, but also more homogenous. Internal differences in pay and status have declined and so it now contains fewer clear ‘ranks’.

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On the other hand, some sociologists claim that new cleavages have opened up. Crewe (1985) draws important distinctions between the dwindling ‘old’ working class, who were mainly council tenants living in the North or Scotland, employed in manufacturing and the public sector, and the ‘new’ working class who are likely to own their own homes in the South, be employed within the private sector and are unlikely to belong to unions. He states that the working class is split in different ways. That their market situations are now different from how they used to be. They used to typically mine coal and build ships, all of which were hard manual labour, however, those job opportunities are no longer available to them, so they increasingly find themselves in ‘middle class’ professions.

From the views of Ivor Crewe, it is apparent that the working class has become fragmented and that there is a vertical cleavage. The boundaries of the middle and working class have become blurred.

In 1958, the then Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, boasted that ‘Britain had never had it so good’. Britain was leaving an era of post-war rationing and hardship and entering a new age of prosperity. Over the next few decades, the rising incomes of workers allowed them to enjoy better living standards such as home ownership, possession of washing machines and televisions etc. They also had wider opportunities such as being able to go on holidays abroad, which was something they would never have been able to afford previously. It appeared that the working class seemed to be catching up with, and even surpassing, some middle class groups. This was called embourgeoisement, the process by which members of the working class appeared to be adopting middle class lifestyles and standards.

Goldthorpe et al (1969) decided to test this theory by studying affluent workers in Luton, an economically prosperous area. He thought that if embourgeoisement did not apply to the Luton workers, then it was unlikely to apply anywhere. What he found was that the working class were getting more affluent, they had gas fires and indoor toilets. Were able to take foreign holidays and that their wages were increasing as the economy was doing so well. He also found that although the working class people involved in the study had the same norms and values as the middle class, they did not mix together socially and that there was still a difference between classes. Overall, Goldethorpe ; Lockwood concluded that there was no embourgeoisement, but rather a normative convergence in home centeredness and instrumental use of unions for self interest between middle class workers and affluent manual workers.

Crewe argued that there has been a decline in Labour support as a result of increased secionalism between home owners and tenants and union members and non union members along with instrumentalism or self interest in economic terms.

In contemporary Britain the disappearance of the traditional ‘heavy’ manual industries has been accompanied by a growth in the service sector and a rise in consumerism and property ownership. Close-knit communities have disappeared and non-manual work has also changed. Many companies have lost staff due to ‘downsizing’. There is less job security and more fixed term contracts.

Manual workers are better off than ever before. Real wages have risen over time, which is to say that the actual purchasing power is greater than it used to be. Also, various acts of parliament have improved some of the fringe benefits of manual work. Longer statutory holidays are also an improvement, so too is the introduction of redundancy payments.

On the other hand, the source of the manual workers’ income and their opportunities for promotion are probably the same as they were in the late 1940’s. However, the general improvement in market situations alone are insufficient to state whether the working class remains distinct from other social classes and whether the working class is internally divided.

Some recent changes have tended to reduce the differences between manual and other workers. During the 20th century, the average male manual wage, especially of semi and unskilled workers, has increased to that for routine white-collar workers. The 1998 New Earnings Survey showed that the average full time manual wage was £307.00 whilst the average for clerical work was £292.00. The average non-manual wage for men was much higher at £425.00. The convergence of the weekly wage of clerks and manual workers nevertheless obscures differences.

Firstly, manual workers work longer hours; secondly, manual workers have a less attractive profile of earnings over their lifetime than non-manual workers who have career structures in which promotion and / or regular salary increments increase their income until fairly late in their working life. Thirdly, manual workers suffer from greater insecurity of employment. They are frequently unemployed. They are rarely entitled to sickness pay, are unable to take paid time off to deal with family emergencies and usually have their pay deducted for lateness.

Therefore the contractual situation the manual worker is distinctive and inferior in certain respects. Although the differences compared with the more routine white-collar occupations are diminishing, it can be argued that new patterns of consumption, especially of houses, divide the working class internally. Consumption cleavages have arisen between households with predominantly private access to housing and transport and those which depend upon public provision, namely council housing and public transport.

In 1988, 64% of manual workers were owner-occupiers and 68% owned a car. Most owner-occupiers have benefited financially since the 1960’s because house prices have risen faster than the rate of inflation. The gains are relatively at the expense of the tenants living in rented accommodation, who by 1990 were almost entirely working class.

The growth of the middle class is most noticeable due to the steep decline in manual occupations and the growth of middle class occupations. There are also gender differences within occupational movements. Significantly disproportionate numbers of women have moved into clerical and related positions. However, during most of the 20th century, men have tended to go into higher working class jobs and women into the more routine ones.

Although women are increasing their proportion of the higher positions, the process is slow. Women still cluster heavily in the less prestigious and less rewarded non-manual jobs. Rates of pay for these positions are overall low and promotion prospects are somewhat limited. There is also no great job security in these positions as often they are temporary or short-term contract.

A major implication for social stratification of today’s economic change is the decline of the traditional authority hierarchy and class relations. Current technologies require fewer unskilled workers performing routine tasks, or a large middle management to coordinate them. This is contrasted against the more traditional industries of ship building or coal mining. High tech means increasing automation of routine tasks. It also demands more professional autonomous decisions.

Marxists would look at modern Britain in terms of conflict between the business owners and the workers and would see that the workers are still being exploited. Marxists would see new occupations such as telephone call centres as ‘White Collar Factories’ where proletarians are exploited through low pay, surveillance and ‘flexible’ working hours and maintain that the bourgeoisie are still exploiting the proletariat and that irrespective of their employment position or salary.

Weberians on the other hand would show how call worker share a similar market situation. Their income and ‘life chances’ and lifestyle and different to those of manual workers or managing directors. Weber’s ability to differentiate between strata make his theory more flexible and useful. It is also the reason why Weberian theory has influenced the ‘new’ ONS classification of occupations.

Class structures have undergone important changes in recent decades, with the rise of post industrial societies. The birth of new sources of inequality does not imply the death of the old ones. However, it is important to recognise that the manual working class has declined in recent decades while the proportion of the labour force working in the service sector has increased. Such changes are important. The persistence of class based inequalities in capitalist societies suggest that in the foreseeable future the concept of class will – and should- play an important sociological role.

As new patterns of social stratification emerge, the key trend could be described as ‘Fragmentation of Stratification’: the weakening of class stratification, especially as shown in distinct class- differentiated lifestyles; the decline of economic determinism and the increased importance of social and cultural factors; politics less organised by class and more by other loyalties, social mobility less family determined and more ability and educational determined.