Is the BBC Class survey asking the right question?


The BBC’s Great British Class survey will supposedly give us a new definition of class in modern Britain but will understanding class be any more helpful than understanding demographics?

I participated in the Great British Class survey this week, one of the 200,000 people that the BBC hopes to attract to fill in the 20 minute online questionnaire.

The BBC will then reveal to us later in the year a new understanding of how we relate to class and how it has evolved to match modern society.

But despite the magnitude of this study, it will take more than an online survey to give us a clear picture of the importance of class in influencing people’s chances in life.

This survey is going to need a great deal of context from focus groups and family case studies to give a more accurate indication of what class really means today and to take it beyond a dressed up demographics study.

What I do think the BBC’s survey will be useful for and doesn’t place nearly enough emphasis on, is showing how class can be transcended. It merely asks the simple question around what the main breadwinner did for a living when you were 14 compared with what work you do now.

I suspect there will be a significant amount of people who would by definition be classed as middle class today whose parents came from working class backgrounds.

Analysing this particular trend would illustrate that whatever barrier being working class might have, it doesn’t stop someone being intelligent, ambitious or resourceful and I’d argue that there are more platforms than ever for people from working class backgrounds to pursue their ambitions – with a little help from the corporate world.

Reality TV, love it or hate it, is the champion of working class heroes, taking the likes of Cheryl Cole out of a council estate and onto the cover of Vogue, and turning a bunch of nobodies from Essex into a cult hit.

Meanwhile, celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Michel Roux have taken corporate social responsibility to a new level through their training programmes giving ordinary people slick silver service skills.

All these examples show that working class and ambition are not strangers. Examining this relationship would be far more useful than the BBC’s class study in its current form which, beside the question connecting class and generation, will tell us a lot of what we already know, and what any good marketer will tell you from the results of their demographic studies that they already compile.

Understanding the link between, and the resulting journey around class and ambition, will give us a better picture of what kind of society we are becoming, and how we are changing.

Brands who can gain some insight into this will be able to figure out where they fit in terms of fuelling that ambition and bridging class divides.

Some are doing so already. For example, the new O2 Learn initiative provides online video tutorials for high school students. Orange’s Rockcorps scheme offers young people concert tickets in return for doing volunteer work. The free magazine Stylist runs reader events for a range of audiences from aspiring writers to budding business people. McDonalds’s training qualification scheme is recognised by Ofsted.

This is completely different to brands understanding demographics and choosing to reach an audience either by reflecting a reality or portraying aspiration.

There is no doubt that class exists, but from the two simple questions in the 20 minute BBC study that ask about generational differences, we will only be able to infer the level of ambition that exists between class.

Brands that can turn that inference into real knowledge can fuel the ambitions of a particular group to provide tangible inspiration rather than fluffy aspiration – and become working class heroes.



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