The UK is famed for the rigid distinctions between the different strata of society – but what’s the truth in the myth? And how does it compare to other countries?

Like it or loathe it, many see the class system as a quintessential element of British life, together with our obsession for tea and cake and talking about the weather.

“Class distinctions do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves,” the British sociologist Richard Hoggart once wrote. “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” A quick perusal of the foreign media would certainly paint a picture of a rigid class system, especially compared to places like the USA where ambition, talent and elbow grease are thought to be the only limits.

But how well does this stereotype really hold up? Is the British class system still as entrenched as it ever was? Or are those old distinctions a thing of the past, best left behind with the corsets and top hats of our period dramas? These questions have been difficult to answer with any certainty, but recent data has offered some surprising insights.

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As Hoggart noted, writers have been ringing the death knell for the British class system since at least the early 20th Century. Writing an open letter to his friend Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh claimed that “the vast and elaborate structure grew up almost in secret. Now it shows alarming signs of dilapidation.”  His own novel Brideshead Revisited is itself an homage to the English nobility, which seemed to be crumbling along with the titular stately home.

But although the structure of the class system may have changed since Waugh’s day, there are still very clear strata in our society, each with different levels of social, cultural and economic capital. Considering factors like education, salary, professions, and household ownership, the BBC’s own Great British Class Survey discovered seven distinct classes in total, with an elite (representing roughly 6% of the population) residing above a wide spectrum of working and middle classes.

Perhaps a more pertinent question, then, is not whether class distinctions exist, but whether it is possible to move out of one pigeonhole and into another. Just how much does your family’s background influence how well you can expect to do in life? The general consensus would seem to be that social mobility has increased with improvements in education and social welfare, but is it really that clear-cut?

One fascinating case study comes from the Up series of documentaries by Michael Apted. Picking 14 children of various backgrounds, who were all aged seven in 1964, the producers filmed them on a trip to London Zoo before following their progress every seven years after.

A few of the children have managed to change their circumstances through hard work and discipline. One boy, Nick, who grew up on a farm, is now a successful physicist living and working in America; another, Lynn, grew up in the less salubrious areas of London’s East End, but has forged a successful career as a university librarian. In general, however, the series has lacked any truly astonishing rags-to-riches tales. As the New Yorker concluded in its review of the latest edition, 56 Up: “The British class system has its protections at every level, but also – at least to American eyes – a built-in inertia. None of Apted’s subjects have become alcoholic or drug-addicted, but the predictability of most of the individual fates – working-class kids rising slightly, rich kids staying rich – makes one impatient.”

According to a 2010 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain is indeed among the worst countries for certain measures of social mobility, with the parents’ wealth strongly influencing the child’s prospects of higher education and a good salary. 

Even so, there had been a steady average rise in the population after World War Two, with each child expecting to be slightly better off than their parents. Unfortunately, the relative proportions of people moving up or down a class now seems to be reversing. “More men and women are experiencing downward mobility and fewer of them experience upward mobility than before,” says Erzsebet Bukodi at the University of Oxford, who calls it “the dark side of the Golden Age of Mobility” – with more people at the top, more have the potential to fall.

Distant connections

A child is two-and-a-half times as likely to have a managerial job, if their grandparents were of a higher class

The trouble is, the fabric of our society has so many strands, it can be difficult to disentangle all the potential factors that could influence your status. One potential issue is that most previous studies have only examined two generations – parents and children – whereas your class may depend on many more branches of the family tree. Tak Wing Chan at University College London, for instance, has found that a child is two-and-a-half times as likely to have a professional or managerial job, if their grandparents were of a higher class. It could be that the grandparents pay for education, help with child care, or offer a network of contacts that could boost their grandchild’s work opportunities.

With these more distant ties, social class may be even less elastic than we thought – even if one generation pulls away, the next may be tugged backwards thanks to the broader connections of their family at large. “If you want to predict someone’s outcome, you don’t just look at their parents – but also their uncles and aunts, their grandparents and great-grandparents,” says Gregory Clark at the University of California, Davis. “They are all predictive.”

Clark’s own work has studied the prevalence of certain rare surnames throughout history. In the Domesday Book of 1086, for instance, you can find the names of wealthy landlords, who were most often descended from the Norman invaders, such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville, Montgomery, Neville, Percy, Punchard, and Talbo.

He then examined how often such names continued to crop up in historical records during the following centuries. He scoured lists of people attending Oxford and Cambridge Universities, probate records of inheritance, and members of parliament, for instance, all of which might suggest a higher social status. If social mobility were high, you would expect those rare names to crop up less and less often, as people of other backgrounds begin to occupy those prestigious positions; if it were low, the proportion would stay roughly the same.

In fact, he found long-term social mobility to be very slow indeed, calculating that it takes around 10 generations for someone at the highest or lowest levels of society to reach the middle classes. That’s about the same rate of change you might expect from purely biological features, such as height. Most surprisingly of all, that rate of social mobility remained remarkably stable – even after the monumental changes of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of universal education.

If these results appear to confirm the “inertia” of the British class system, it’s worth considering Clark’s studies of other countries, examining attendance at the USA’s Ivy League colleges and the State Bar Associations listings of attorneys or the American Medical Association, for instance. Despite perceptions of greater social mobility, he found that the rate of change was roughly the same as in Britain. The same turned out to be true for Sweden; although the overall differences in wealth do tend to be smaller between the rich and poor, you still find the same families occupying the more prestigious jobs – such as doctors, lawyers, or university professors.

Perhaps some families are just carrying the DNA that helps them succeed

Clark’s methods have their weaknesses; his results are based on imperfect records and he’s looking at broad trends across vast time periods; it’s possible you might reach different conclusions if you were able to accurately trace every single branch of every family tree. And his explanations for these results may raise some eyebrows. Like Chan, he considers that one possibility is purely sociological. “People are embedded in a circle of connections and that social milieu is very influential in terms of people’s outcomes,” he says. Yet Clark suspects that our genes may also play a role. Perhaps some families are just carrying the DNA that helps them succeed, he says. Such genetic determinism tends to be an unpopular idea among many scientists.

Whatever the explanation for his findings, it’s interesting to contemplate just how much our position today may depend on the people we’ve never met. “Even if you do not know who your great-grandfather was, that person will predict how well you do in life now,” says Clark.

If he’s right, the British obsession with class isn’t so archaic. Whether you live in London, Beijing, New York or Stockholm, it can be surprisingly difficult to break free from the ties of the past.

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David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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