Middle Class Flight is Not All it’s Cracked-Up to Be

By - Wednesday 5th December, 2012

The Evening Standard’s poor coverage of Croydon has struck again – the most troubling thing is there’s some truth in it. But we might be glad to be rid of Mike Webb’s “middle class” after all.

In sadly predictable fashion for the Standard (see here), a complex local demographic issue has been rendered into a simplistic, baseless story about riots causing some sort of middle class exodus. The utter lack of local knowledge, and the real logic behind this article are plain to see:

1. Riots are bad.

2. Riots happened in Croydon.

3. A man says the middle class are fleeing.

Therefore – this must be because of the Riots.

That fact is that if you’d been in Croydon in the last 20 years, you’d know that the sort of middle class people that Mike Webb, of Allianz in Croydon describes, have been leaving Croydon for a long time. I say sort of middle class, of course, because  “middle class” is the biggest dustbin term in sociological history. Everyone has their own definition of the term and the only common link between them is that the group is the most uncontroversially desireable social construct to live near; a unique claim to fame in our class strata. Conversely they are the only group whose departure could be a universal fear – the most exploitable kind of fear the old fashioned hack uses to get you to buy his copy (or glance at his ad space).

The sort of middle class that Webb is really describing is a group I like to call – in the style of many loose culturo-socio-economic personas – “Bluewater man”. He’s a hard-working lower middle class person, who places a great emphasis on family values and an attractive home.  A person for whom the acquisition of physical goods at a retail experience like Bluewater might be more valuable than paying for education. A person with little interest in culture or intellectual pursuits, but with a strong sense of old-fashioned civic pride in public space. A person with an unconsciously right wing political bent and an active distaste for the left. A person who has perhaps the greatest distaste for the ‘Chav’ among all social groups, precisely because, were it not for their work ethic, they would not be so different to them.

How do I know this? The clue, that no one else has spotted so far, was in the description of the education level of these “middle class people” Mr Webb finds so apparently difficult to recruit at Allianz Global Assistance. I’m not talking about the highly suspect classification of “hard working and enthusiastic” as exclusively middle class attributes. I’m just about prepared to give Mike Webb the benefit of the doubt in this case, as these were just about off-the-cuff remarks. The real key is this: “Not necessarily graduates” .

"Red Bricks to do list" by Pete Boyd licensed under creative commons

Now THIS is “middle class”

But to my understanding the most archetypal  attribute of the middle classes is that they are university educated. They are lovers of culture, they have high-powered jobs, they run the media, the law, the arts, and the highest echelons of business, and they control the education of our children. They are a strange mixture of a hated top echelon of earners (but not super earners) and those whose political principles would cause them to curse me for putting them all in the same bracket.

Bluewater Man, on the other hand, is the very exception to this rule; the man whose progeny may become safely middle class, but who himself sits awkwardly between class worlds. It is the man who is happy to work his way, without a degree, up the ranks of an insurance business where a high level of education was not a pre-requisite; not the fast-tracker nor the ambitious graduate looking to fly high in central London.

And while I have seen a gentle, but increasing trickle of bright young, university educated, things congregating in Croydon, (especially at hubs like Matthews Yard) it is abundantly clear that Bluewater Man has left in droves; generally looking for safer havens in the small market towns of Surrey and Kent or, if he is close to retiring, far away in depths of the country.

His exodus has little to do with the riots, though he may take it as further proof that he was right all along. The seeds of it began the moment Croydon began to become the place it is now; fundamentally urban, dynamic, highly diverse, and at times, if we’re honest, a little scary. That’s why the places he seeks out now are like Croydon was 50 years ago. Places that are being sucked into London culturally, are almost sucked in physically, and have been completely sucked in economically. He wants a market town, he wants safe, and he’s not very interested in the good things a city brings. Perhaps he’s happy with dull. After all, its not dull from his perspective – just my massively biased one.

In the short term, his slow, gradual movement away (not a rapid flight as the Standard’s fairy story would have it) costs us all a more groomed street scene, safer streets, and a moderately healthy, but unspectacular, economy. But in the long term, we might be glad of it. Because it was Bluewater Man that got us here in the first place. He didn’t put up a fight for the arts and he’ll never struggle to make Croydon a hotbed of entrepreneurship. He has, for 40 years, elected a series of slow, imagination-deprived councils of varying political complexions who have failed to realise an abiding truth – that Croydon will never be a market town again;  that its future lies in embracing, not rejecting, its urban state and becoming truly city-like. Let Webb’s “middle class” go. Only then can we progress into the next phase of our history.

James Naylor

James Naylor

James grew up in Coulsdon. After a brief spell in Somerset he returned to central Croydon as a useful London base. Since then however, his enthusiasm for Croydon has slowly grown into obsession – leading him to set up Croydon Tours and eventually the Croydon Citizen. James is particularly interested in the power of local media to foster new ways of thinking about communities and how to empower them. He is most interested in putting Croydon in a wider context within London, the economy and across time. During the week, he works for an advertising technology company hailing from Silicon Valley. When he’s not working on Croydon-related projects, he enjoys desperately nerdy but hugely enjoyable boardgames. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/christhegoth Chris ‘thegoth’ Wilcox

    That’s how I see it. Our managers for the past 30-odd years have done the bare minimum to get paid, propped each other up, and have pretty much done bog-all for the town. Hence why we now have this 30-year decline.

    Until you shift them you’ll have nowt to work with. And, and I’m confident others agree, I refuse to put a ton of work in just to make some other bloke rich ( like them ) as they’re the one in power at present. I’d rather shift the dodgy one that’s in power, and get the wealth I deserve for my Labour ( rather than just scraps ).

    Scraps? The wages….

    We are so incredibly uncompetitive with our wages. Croydon is a notoriously low-paying area. That’s why people leave for better-paying climbs in other neighbouring boroughs. We see it all the time in Mental Health. It’s a genuine race-for-the-bottom in Croydon, and until it ends the talent just won’t stay.

    Croydon Labour are pushing for the London Living Wage. I have no idea what the Croydon Torys have planned at this stage. Anyone?

  • http://twitter.com/CroydonClown Jeremy Morris

    Mike Webb has certainly hit a nerve here, partly because perhaps there’s something in what he says but also because I think people are struggling to work out exactly what point he was trying to make.

    In my 23 years in Croydon, I’ve certainly noticed that many people who were born here didn’t stay beyond their teens and also that the most vitriolic comments about the town come from some of its own residents. But, that aside, there are still a lot of people in and around the borough with a huge range of social and intellectual backgrounds and I’m absolutely sure that a decent local company ought to be able to fill its offices. So I would turn this around and ask whether Allianz and other local employers are doing enough to attract the right kind of people to live and work in the town. Sure, Croydon needs new ideas but it also needs its existing institutions to do their bit to create the right conditions for success. Perhaps the middle class locals, whoever they may be, are simply exercising their choice to work elsewhere. Is it just possible that the insurance industry is no longer the sexually charged beast that it once was?

  • James Naylor

    Haha liking the last point Jeremy!

    Thank you to both Chris and Jeremy for your comments! Rather than respond separately, I thought I’d answer them together as I feel there are strong connections here.

    It sounds like low wages could be a problem, certainly it’s an area I’d like to know more about. However, if the wages are low then I would have thought that’s partly a factor of the kind of employment we have (although a lack of London weighting, which we really should have, may be an issue – I’m not sure).

    Although I suspect our many local insurance employers are not among the least well paid, I suspect, compared to central London, where most of London’s white collar work is located, the average pay-packets are much lower. That’s probably because Croydon, especially these days, is dominated by back office administration work and call centres – not the client-facing, strategic or product related roles that tend to attract more educated people. Trying not to be too conceited here – I’d like to offer myself as an example. Personally I would love to work in Croydon itself as well as live in it, but right now there are not many opportunities for me around here. We don’t have have many international business HQs or well funded start-ups around – the kind that will pay good money and, even more cruically, have really intellectually demanding roles on offer.

    So the problem may be two-fold. If you’re like the character I paint in my example, who might be happier to work in the kind of insurance businesses we have, you probably don’t like Croydon as much because of what it’s like as a place. If you’re more like me and you actually find it’s very urban feel appealing, you probably still can’t work here even if you want to because it has the wrong kind of employers.

    Personally I think it’s not necessarily a problem if Croydon gets a bit more residential in the centre for now. It’s a great place to commute into London from and the prospect of a high-rise minature city with everything on your doorstep is exciting. But I think in the long term we should be ambitious for new kinds of employers. I think the strategy suggested by developers like Mark Glatman of Abstract (who are building some new offices by EC) is actually wrong. More back offices won’t solve the problem. We need more innovative digital business and more Corporate HQs – especially of companies in interesting high-margin spaces, not FMCG like Nestle was.

    You both raise really particularly interesting issue about people moving away and I’m in 100% agreement with you both on that one. There’s an essay in itself on this issue. Our ability to raise talent and then let it leech out everywhere else is mindblowing. But I would say that the reason they move away, Chris, (rather than just work somewhere else) is much more about desirability than pay: If you live in Croydon, it’s very easy (with the right skills) to work in central London in a well paid, interesting role.

  • http://twitter.com/hot_gordon Douglas Gordon

    Naylor seems to have hit the nail on the head with his observations. My concern is how long it will take for these young graduates or “Urbanites” to replace “Bluewater Man”. Naylor suggests that these Urbanites are only “trickling” in and that “Bluewater Man” has been around for many years. Croydon needs to work quickly on becoming more attractive to these young graduates – a diverse and alternative arts and cultural scene supported by the council/GLA would be a good start!

  • Guest

    Naylor seems to have hit the nail on the head with his observations. My concern is how ong it will take for these young graduates or “Urbanites” to replace “Bluewater Man”. Naylor suggests that these Urbanites are only “trickling” in and that “Bluewater Man” has been around for many years. Croydon needs to work quickly on becoming more attractive to these young graduates – a diverse and alternative arts and cultural scene supported by the council/GLA would be a good start!