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Research suggests that more class categories than many might expect are useful in explaining Australian society, but still fewer than in the UK. Rawpixel/from

How many classes does it take to describe Australians? The answer may surprise you

We don’t often think of ourselves in Australia as belonging to a class-based society. Australians think and talk about social class less than their counterparts in Britain, France and Europe generally. Plus, we don’t tend to think that we have the same level of income inequality as the US. Despite this, newly released data shows we are surprisingly willing to identify ourselves as members of one class or another.

In the latest ANUpoll, released by the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods on Wednesday, most Australians (92%) surveyed responded that they belong to the middle or working class.

A majority (52%) view themselves as belonging to the middle class, while 40% describe themselves as working class. Only 2% are prepared to admit to belonging to the upper class of Australian society (with 6% providing no answer).

Class as a factor in attitudes

There are no differences between self-described class membership on the basis of gender, but it does have some relationship with age: the youngest (18-24 years) and oldest (55 and older) Australians disproportionately view themselves as middle rather than working class.

Such self-reported questions are useful, as a number of attributes and attitudes vary by this class membership. Members of the self-described working class are more likely to report that they are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the way the country is heading (45%) compared to those who identify as upper or middle class (37%).

Class differences appear to matter a lot when it comes to attitudes to income inequality. While the affluent and middle classes are slightly more likely to be in favour of increased services, they are significantly less likely to feel that it is probably or definitely the government’s role to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.

Class as a political indicator

The modern political parties emerged to a certain extent from the social class structure of the late 19th to mid-20th century. Class differences have remained but, again, the specifics have changed quite substantially.

Our analysis of the data suggested that there were class differences in what we might call political disengagement. When asked, “If a federal election for the House of Representatives was held today, which one of the following parties would you vote for?”, around 34% of the self-described working class either stated they didn’t know or were not sure, or stated that they would vote for “Some other party” rather than the Coalition, Labor or Greens. This was almost twice the rate of the upper/middle class.

Of those who did identify a preference for the major parties, support for the Coalition was much greater among the upper/middle class (50%) compared to the working class (42%). Support for Labor was much greater among the working class (41%) compared to the upper/middle class (32%). Interestingly, the self-identified class groupings were equally favourable towards the Greens, with a slightly higher rate for the upper/middle compared to the working class.

It is also interesting to confirm that a person’s own employment status is much more important in explaining self-described class than the employment status of their parents. Of those who were employed as a manager or professional, 74% reported they were in the upper or middle classes. This compares to only 53% of those in other employment.

The differences weren’t as large by the occupation of the respondent’s father or mother. When assessing class in Australia, we look to our own employment as opposed to our parents’.

The point of this 1916 magazine advertisement for a vocational school is clear, and today Australians primarily consider their own employment in self-assessing class. Wikimedia Commons

Arriving at a five-class model

Going beyond Australians’ self-described class, the ANUpoll also looks at what people do, who they know and what they have. We use this data to propose somewhat more objective categories of social class in Australia.

Building on a study conducted by the BBC and academic sociologists in the UK, social class is measured here by respondents’ possession of certain types of “capital”. This approach draws on the work of sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu, who emphasises the role of economic, social and cultural capital in defining and entrenching social stratification.

Employing latent class analysis, a five-class model was found to explain enough variation between individuals that the classes tell us something meaningful about society. Estimating more than five classes in the model did not add to its explanatory power.

By contrast, the British study identified seven distinct classes. While influenced by it, Australia’s economic and social structures have clearly evolved along different lines to Britain.

The five observable (or “objective”) classes in Australian society can be described as:

  • an established affluent class (14% of the sample);

  • an emergent affluent class (11%);

  • a mobile middle class (25%);

  • an established middle class (25%); and

  • an established working class (25%).

These objective classes tell us a lot about social mobility. Across all classes, but particularly the working and middle classes, there is evidence of intergenerational mobility in occupational prestige. It is particularly notable in the two middle classes, where the mean prestige score is almost ten points higher than members’ parents.

The affluent classes, on the other hand, more closely reflect the positions of their parents. Members of the established affluent class appear to enjoy the benefits of their parents’ occupational prestige, earning high incomes at lower occupational prestige than all but the working class.

Our approach to analysing social class in Australia is just one approach among many. The general conclusion that we came to is that our self-perceptions of class line up pretty well with what our economic, cultural and social capital says about us. Our analysis also suggests, though, that class defines our society less than it does British society.

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