What two studies can tell us about the determinants of being considered ‘wealthy’ and ‘upper class’ in the UK

Class and wealth has always been a prickly subject among Durham students, given the rather disproportionate representation of those from affluent backgrounds and private schools studying here (37.8% and on the rise). However, two studies have tried to get to the bottom of what people think dictates our ‘wealthy’/‘not wealthy’ labels, and what people perceive as high and low incomes. Although the first was published in 2020, a follow up study and revival of its implications in a piece by the author of the write-up piqued my interest in finding out what the nation says about class and wealth, outside of the Durham bubble.


This ‘riches line’ study, so called because it was designed to calculate a public concensus for a ceiling for too much money as opposed to the ‘poverty line’ of not enough, was written by university researchers answering the age-old question of what makes one deserving of the title ‘rich’. Specifically, they asked six focus groups of people living in London (notoriously unequal as far as cities go) what represents a wealthy lifestyle, in terms of what goods or services they would ascribe to someone that’s ‘wealthy’. The participants were men and women of working age and varying income brackets, and they were asked to give descriptions of five levels of lifestyle, with the lowest being ‘The Minimum Income Standard’ which was given labels like ‘shopping at Tesco’ and ‘furniture from Argos’, and the highest being ‘the Super Rich’ and labels like ‘private jets’ and ‘many houses owned outright in several countries’. While the results show consistency in how the groups were readily able to define what they think makes a household wealthy and the various categories were consistently similar, there was difficulty in finding where the participants thought the wealth was undeserved or excessive. In other words, it was easy to recognise the status quo of different levels of ‘rich’, but there was little consistency or certainty expressed as to whether the highest levels of ‘rich’ deserved moral contempt for being excessive. The report’s authors mention that this could be due to a universal aspiration to identify as ‘wealthy’, so there is no appetite to criticise the most extravagant lifestyles, but also because people may just ‘regard the status quo as inevitable’, and so see no reason to comment openly about whether extreme wealth was deplorable.


The 2022 follow-up article to this by the New Statesman then investigated the link between being afforded (no pun intended) the label of ‘rich’ and one’s salary and habits. In partnership with researchers at Redfield & Wilton Strategies, they posed questions about people’s perception of the average UK salary, what a ‘low income’ salary would be, what occupations are associated with different classes, and goods and services associated with different classes. The findings make for interesting reading: most people think a high income is anything above £40k a year, private schooling and a private jet are the top two factors people thought made someone upper class, and lawyers and politicians are the two top professions associated with the upper class. For the middle class, it was shopping at Waitrose or M&S, going on skiing holidays and having more than one car that people voted as most relevant to that class, and for the working class it was shopping at Lidl and flying on budget airlines like Ryanair.


All in all, it’s still worth taking these studies with a pinch of salt, even if there are potentially uncomfortable truths about classism and public ignorance that can be garnered from the votes and statistics. Only the initial study has been published and peer reviewed, and the latter is more journalistic, anecdotal evidence that could do with sampling more than the 1500 opinions of those it did. Besides, should class even matter in this day and age? I’ll leave that up to you.

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