Throughout history, many countries have acquired technological leadership, from German engineering and Japanese electronics to Indian software and Israeli cybersecurity. Patterns in the rise and fall of technological leadership show that such dominance should be understood from traditional factors that signal industrial power, geography and national ambition, and the complexity of emerging technologies.

Our observations

  • Many understand the current wave of populism as a working class revolution. In the lead-up to the U.S.
    presidential elections of 2016, we wrote about the crisis of the white working class.
  • The BBC’s Great British Class Survey identifies a new model of class with 7 classes, from top to bottom: Elite (6%), Established middle class (25%), Technical middle class (6%), New affluent workers (15%), Emergent service workers (14%), Traditional working class (19%), Precariat (15%). In 2014, Guy Standing published “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class”.
  • The BBC report finds that middle class and working class stereotypes are out of date. Only 39% of British
    people fit into the Established middle class (25%) and Traditional working class (19%) categories.
  • The Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), in its report Verschil in Nederland, found a similar model for class: Elite (15%), Working middle class (27%), Young and promising (13%), Insecure and working (14%), Comfortably retired (17%), Precariat (15%).
  • In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1889), Thorstein Veblen introduced a different way of thinking about class. In contrast to the Marxist tradition of viewing class as a result of one’s productive contribution to society (type of labor, occupation), Veblen understands class through consumption. More than the goal of productive effort, consumption is a source of meaning and personal identity

Connecting the dots

Conceptions of social class, provided that they fit their time, are useful to identify trends that shape society, especially in relation to politics and consumption. Traditional conceptions largely fail to this end: for example, if Brexit is understood as a working class revolution, we fail to see that less than a fifth of the British population can be categorized as traditional working class people. The British and Dutch surveys have devised new conceptions of class that fit our time, which we can use to distill trends that are shaping our society.
The new conceptions of class indicate the emergence of new groups that could have a political impact in the future. Perhaps the Traditional working class (living in industrial areas, manual labor, few graduates) still partly shaped recent elections, but this group is disappearing. Meanwhile, the amount of Emergent service workers (a young urban ethnically diverse group, often employed in the gig economy) is growing rapidly. Moreover, the rise of a highly vulnerable group of people in big cities, the Precariat (high unemployment, ‘disconnected’ from the big city), is a worrisome trend. Besides the amalgamation of the Precariat, a new working class is taking shape: more internationalist, better educated and much more ethnically diverse than the older generation, but in many cases more economically insecure. Politicians of the future will surely speak to the concerns of these groups.

Meanwhile, new conceptions of class also reveal the changing nature of consumption. Through rapid urbanization, new types of consumers are emerging. The Technical middle class is a small subset in big cities with high spending power, deeply interested in science and technology, but disengaged from cultural consumption (both popular culture and traditional highbrow). Moreover, the reports also suggest that popular culture (or emerging forms of cultural consumption, such as modern music, games and movies) has become meaningful consumption. People across all classes consume popular culture – a break from the past, before the advent of digital technology, in which there was a distinctive difference between lower classes engaging in emerging culture, and higher classes being interested in highbrow culture.
All in all, any conception of class, in which we categorize people into groups, is arbitrary and limited in scope. This is why concepts such as the traditional working class can lose their relevance over time, as society changes. However, any conception of class that fits the changes of our time (e.g. globalization, urbanization, digitalization) is useful to monitor trends that shape society. These are useful perspectives to understand behavior (e.g. voting, consumption, the way we work, live and interact in cities). Hence, the reports that measure the accumulation of economic, social and cultural capital across society reveal trends in, for example, disadvantaged groups (e.g. from non-urban industrial to urban precariat), the changing nature of work (e.g. from industrial to gig economy), and the changing nature of consumption (e.g. the universalization of pop culture).

Implications

  • A digital-age working class is emerging among millennials, which is internationalist, highly educated, ethnically diverse, and economically insecure. These people are mostly employed in the low-end service sector, predominantly live in cheap areas of big cities, are overrepresented in the arts and humanities, and attach value to social networks and popular culture. It remains to be seen whether this group will identify themselves as a class, and organize themselves accordingly politically to the same extent as the previous industrial working class.
  • The shift from the old industrial working class to the digital-age working class is also a consumerist shift from materialism and conspicuous consumption to post-materialism and inconspicuous consumption.