The scary cost of being middle class.

  • Source: Scotland on Sunday
  • Date: 23 May, 1999
  • Author: Antonia Swinson

I have thought for some time that?it really is a very bad thing to be middle class. Note I do not say educated, for there is surely nothing?more exciting. (In fact a principle objection?I?have to dying is having to leave one's?books behind.)?But?to be?middle class in a buoyant economy?in?a?family where the parents are anything under 55, is,?unless you have strong character, lots of inherited money?and sky-high career prospects, a form of living death in a people mover.

For?the very nature of being middle class means aggressive and expensive fights?for resources such as housing, schooling and childcare?throughout?our prime income generating years.?Everyone sees us as a target market to be wooed and exploited, while somehow we are also supposed to provide for our nice?middle class pensions as well. By thirty?usually we are defining our?lifestyle by what we spend not what we earn.

The result is that we are?perpetually discontented?and under stress?for the grass is always greener and more designer-chic on the other side and the list of middle class wants is without end. Our children too grow up under crippling stress knowing what they will to provide in order to join the club.

A few days ago Daniel Johnson wrote a?piece?in the Daily Telegraph?proving that the average middle class family in London needs ?100,000 pa.?Biggest expenses he cited were: mortgage ?10K pa, school fees ?15K pa (the one non negotiable for membership of middle class London) childcare ?10K pa,?food ?6K pa?and two cars ?5K pa. I actually did not think?he was being too over the top. If anything?he was being wildly optimistic thinking that a middle class couple with social networks to keep shiny would?spend only ?2000 on entertaining, and?restaurants. He finally estimated that earning ?100,000 before tax, they would be going bust at the rate of ?10K a year. This seemed terribly upbeat. More like ?20K I thought. The article was stressful just reading it, so I was unsurprised when he pointed out that middle class London couples have an above average?divorce rate.

It was?doing such inescapable and mind-boggling sums that lured my husband and I back to Scotland. Hurrah we thought, a cohesive society where everyone attends the local school, where there is thrift and economy and a cheering conviction that public service matter, heavenly?bliss after skeletal Thatcherite public services we had endured down south.

Of course we were terribly naive, and soon?found that?the middle classes up here were alive and spending?bigtime too. And though salaries still tend to be lower, as Edinburgh?grows in power at a capital,?I am expecting an article any day in the Edinburgh Evening News on surviving?Auld Reekie on ?100K. I already know stressed-out couples juggling two cars,?credit cards, several sets of?George Watson fees plus houses they had to bid ?40K+ over the asking price to secure. Traditionally too?the pressure on private schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow?has always been every bit as fanatical as London, though with lower fees and perhaps less cause.?But as in London, I notice?a growing dislocation between the private sector middle class who often did not go to private school themselves but who are now bankcrupting themselves over school fees, and the public and voluntary sector middle class professionals who?often were privately educated themselves but now can't afford it for their own kids. Middle class tensions are at their rawest and most painful at the school gates. Spending a Saturday evening driving round?looking at property,?Morningside now strikes me as a sky-high London suburb. Every patch has?some development being spat up for prices among the fastest rising in the UK. The heat in the market rises off the pavement London-style.

Oh dear, where will it end? For the poor old?middle classes there is guilt on one hand, debt on the other. Historically, fear of life without a safety net weighs heavily on Scottish families, in many of whom lurk tales of social downward mobility during wars and depression. Middle class membership therefore comes too dearly fought for. Yet what too often we fail to recognise is that this greasy pole of consumerist middle class achievement is purely imaginary,?a?virtual totem quite different from the tangible power of the Establishment. It is all in our minds. We are not actually going anywhere. We remain the class we are, however high our professional ladder.

So I have no easy answers to the curse of being middle class if you want to live within your means and save for the future. Except?pick one or two middle class badges of honour you cannot live without and opt out of everything?else. Never, ever?refer to being broke, but choose your friends with care, drop the big spenders for they are not good for you and?cultivate blindness to their?cars, houses, holidays, private healthcare, clothes, restaurant habits, love of opera, etc. This is particularly difficult to do?in a bubbling economy,?for middle class animals are innately competitive, but you can do it! Your children will still love you, and your kitchen can look perfectly decent without a banana hammock!?And if recession comes, big spending will suddenly be out?and you'll look frightfully refined.

Wednesday, 24 April, 2019
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