Two-Thirds of Britons Think People Can Work Their Way Up the Class Ladder Through Hard Work

August 19, 2020
Social Mobility | The Economy
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The UK has a long-standing reputation for the rigid distinctions between its social classes. In 1941, George Orwell claimed that Britain was ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun.’ In our latest UK polling, Redfield & Wilton Strategies explored the public’s attitudes to class in 2020.

A clear plurality (47%) of UK respondents would describe their current social class as ‘working class,’ while a further 38% consider themselves ‘middle class.’ Just 5% of respondents believe they are ‘upper class.’ Significantly, only 10% of the public ‘don’t know’ how they would describe their current social class, which suggests that the overwhelming majority of respondents have a clear opinion of what class they are in. 


Interestingly, women are more likely to describe themselves as working class. A majority (51%) of female respondents would describe themselves as working class, while 42% of male respondents hold this view. There are also notable differences depending on the 2019 General Election vote. A majority (51%) of Labour supporters from 2019 believe they are working class and less than a third (31%) say they are currently in the middle class. In contrast, although a slight plurality (46%) of Conservative voters think they are working class, a significant minority (43%) believe they are currently in the middle class.

Overall, a strong majority (59%) would describe the social class they grew up in as ‘working class.’ Less than a third (30%) consider that they were brought up in the ‘middle class.’ There are notable differences in how respondents from different age groups view their upbringing. Older respondents are more likely to believe their upbringing was working class: 66% of those aged between 55-64, and 64% of those aged 65+ think they were brought up as working class, in contrast to less than half (46%) of 18 – 24 year olds and 25 – 34 year olds. Ultimately, it seems that the proportion of working-class households in the UK is gradually declining, yet it may also be the case that what was once considered working class is now believed to be middle class. 

In general, it is more likely for respondents to believe they have transitioned from working class to middle class during their life than vice versa. Only 14% of those who currently believe they are working class state that they were brought up in middle class or upper-class families. In contrast, a significant minority (37%) of those who now say they are middle class think they were brought up as working class.  

A majority (52%) of the British public agree that social class is still important in the UK in 2020. Just 17% of respondents disagree that social class is still important, while around a quarter (26%) neither agree nor disagree. There are no major differences in opinion depending on the age, gender, region or 2019 vote of respondents. Interestingly, however, a greater proportion of middle-class participants (58%) than working class respondents (44%) agree that social class is still important in 2020 Britain. 

A strong plurality (47%) of the British public agree that social class has had a significant impact on the opportunities they have received in life. A significantly higher proportion of younger people hold this view: 58% of 18-to-24-year olds, 59% of 25-to-34-year olds, and 56% of 35-to-44-year olds believe social class has had a significant impact on the opportunities they have received in life. In contrast, fewer than half of 45-to-54-year olds (48%), 55-to-64-year olds (34%), and those aged 65 or over (38%) believe social class has significantly impacted their opportunities. There is also a sharp difference in the perspectives of Conservative and Labour voters: while 44% of 2019 Conservative supporters say that social class has had a significant impact on the opportunities they have received, a decisive majority (58%) of Labour Party voters hold this view. 

Around two-thirds (66%) of UK respondents agree that people can work their way up the class ladder through hard work, while just 11% disagree. 21% of respondents neither agree nor disagree. A strong majority of respondents across all age brackets, geographic regions and 2019 General Election vote believe hard work can result in individuals moving up the class ladder, although 2019 Conservative voters at 88% were notably more likely to agree, with comparatively fewer 2019 Labour voters (56%) agreeing.


Furthermore, among those who currently identify themselves as working class, a clear majority (61%) believe it is possible to move up the class ladder through hard work. Over three quarters (76%) of respondents who believe they are middle class think it is possible to rise through the class ladder. 

Although respondents are broadly united on the ability for people from different backgrounds to rise up the class ladder, they are strongly divided on some issues. In particular, only 27% of working-class people say that people of their class are represented in Parliament and positions of power, while a clear plurality (43%) actively disagree that their class is well represented in politics. In contrast, a majority (52%) of middle-class respondents agree that they are represented in Parliament and positions of power. 

A strong plurality (48%) of UK respondents disagree that politicians understand people like them. A clear majority (58%) of those who identify as working class disagree that politicians understand them, while 42% of self-identified middle-class Britons hold this view. Overall, only around a fifth (21%) of GB respondents agree politicians understand people like them. A greater proportion of men (25%) than women (18%) consider themselves understood by politicians. 

Ultimately, a plurality of Brits still considers themselves to be working class, although a significant proportion of those who now believe they are middle class think that they were raised in a working-class family. A majority of the UK public think social class remains important in British society, while also believing it is possible to ascend the class ladder through hard work. At the same time, a significant proportion of respondents, especially among younger age brackets, say their social class has impacted significantly on the opportunities they have received in life. Working class people are notably less likely to believe they are well represented in positions of power, while almost half of all respondents disagree that politicians understand people like them.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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