Britain is spilling into seven distinct tribes due to insecure work, increased automation, and a growing ‘cultural values divide’ on issues like patriotism, a new report finds.
Snapshots of Insecurity by the RSA (royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce) explores the relationship between levels of economic security and cultural issues, such as respect for traditional British values.
The study finds that economic insecurity is widespread in the UK — one-in-four (25%) Brits would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £100, and half (47%) a bill of £500 — but some social groups are more much affected.
For instance, in the three most insecure groups:
- Two-thirds of the 'discontented right’ — the group drawn least to mainstream political parties, and among the least likely to think diversity has improved the UK — could not afford an unexpected bill of £100. They also face low-pay, low-progression work, and have the least autonomy at work among any group, as well as high levels of debt. They are also the most likely to rent from the council or a housing association, at 38%.
- 75% of the ‘metropolitan precariat’ in the cities are anxious about high housing costs — they are the group most likely to rent privately — and almost half this group see their income “yoyo” from month to month as a result of insecure work, often in the gig economy, which means they often need to borrow money.
- Meanwhile 82% of the ‘progressive working class’ fret about money “constantly” — the highest of any group — and face older age with little in the way of savings or pensions, with high rates of unemployment.
This insecurity will sharpen even further without action, the RSA warns, as the most insecure groups are the ones most worried by automation and new technologies — not only on their pay and job security, but also of the increasing supervision new technologies create.
Polarisation, place and precarious work are reshaping Britain
Based on survey data [see Methodology], the RSA used a range of metrics including whether people could afford an unexpected bill, political party affiliation, whether people identify as feminists, housing occupation type, and location to cluster the UK adult population into seven distinct groups:
- Progressive working class: Progressive, Labour supporting, mixed ages, and highly economically insecure: 68% would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £100. 82% say that they worry about money constantly, the highest of any group. High levels of unemployment or living off a state pension. Typically live outside cities, in towns or rural areas. Most likely to say they are more working-class than middle-class and to believe the government should reduce regional inequalities (92%).
- Discontented right: Economically insecure, pessimistic, conservative, and disengaged with the political system. Likely to hold very traditional views, with large numbers saying that they don’t support any party, alongside support for Brexit parties. More than two-thirds would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £100, and almost none say they have money to save at the end of the month. 56% say they are worried about the amount of debt they’re in. Just 14% think diversity has improved the UK, and almost none identify as feminists. Of those in work, 62% say they do not have freedom and control over when they start and finish, and only 28% say they can influence their working conditions, the lowest of any group.
- Metropolitan precariat: This group works some of the longest hours, but faces some of the highest levels of economic insecurity. They are very young – around a third are 18-24, and another third 25-34. They rent and 75% worry about housing costs, while half say their income varies significantly from month-to-month – perhaps why 62% say they’re concerned by the amount of debt they’re in. Around 60% of this group is university educated, also very closely mirrored by wealthy millennials. More likely to live in urban areas and come from BME backgrounds. But 77% are excited about their future and most feel they have good opportunities to progress at work.
- Squeezed moderates: Relatively decent incomes, but 60% live pay-cheque to pay-cheque. This group is torn between the Conservatives and Labour (29% to 33%) and neutral on their future economic prospects – not significantly pessimistic or optimistic about their future. They agree on both the importance of traditional British values (65%) and diversity (47%) but very few say that they would call themselves ‘feminists’.
- Professional urbanites: Young, very progressive, economically secure millennials. Concentrated in cities, especially London, and likely to have a steady stream of income and professional jobs. They are the most likely to feel their jobs give them opportunity to progress and to live a fulfilling life. Socially liberal, they skew to Labour but there are also large numbers of Tories, Lib Dems and Greens. Typically own with a mortgage or rent, and the group most willing to pay higher taxes for more generous benefits.
- Established liberals: Wealthy, older and socially and economically liberal. Highly economically secure, and likely to be based outside of London and work in the public or third sectors. Like the young professional group, they hold many values we might consider progressive, such as on the environment and diversity, but still contain large numbers of Conservatives, alongside other parties. Around a third are retired, and this group is largely over 65.
- Arch-traditionalists: older, typically male, homeowning and likely to be on private pensions, this group is against improving the welfare state and many other issues. Almost half of this group feel that the Conservative party matches their values. Very traditional across a range of issues: only 17% agree that diversity has made Britain a better place, while 46% disagree. Almost none identify as feminists, and they are not in favour of closing the pay gap between men and women. They are highly secure across all of our metrics of economic security, and a large proportion retired on private pensions.
The RSA defines economic security as “the degree of confidence a person has in maintaining a decent quality of life, now and in the future.”
The concept focus on people’s subjective sense of their own finances and so can better measure feelings than concepts such as poverty or inequality – for instance, why people on relatively high incomes increasingly feel anxious, and how this affects politics.
The report urges UK politicians to look at lessons from the US, where President Biden’s policy agenda spans across economic security — including higher wages for ordinary American workers — with a shared mission of national unity that speaks to all parts of America.
In particular, the report calls for:
Retention of the £20 uplift in universal credit: this is, as many have said, a short-term gap-fill and not a long-term solution. But it is currently a lifeline for many and crucial in keeping their head above water. Scrapping this now would remove important support and could push people to take further risks with their health to survive financially.
Greater universalism: as President Biden looks to extend the equivalent of child benefit in the US, the UK should look beyond 'targeting' — which the RSA believes misses much of those who it's supposed to help —in favour of more universal benefits. Highly-targeted benefits, what's more, could antagonise polarisation if certain groups are seen to be benefiting, especially if these are perceived as 'client groups' of particular parties, given at the expense of others.
A focus on good work, including greater commitment to the living wage, integration of the UK’s labour bodies into a single enforcement agency, and stricter controls on employers’ monitoring of employees.
Greater devolution of employment and welfare: over time, central and local government, including devolved bodies in the UK's nations as well as combined authorities in England, should allow local areas to experiment with innovative forms of employment support by devolving more welfare, particularly housing and employment support, to local areas.
Anthony Painter, chief research and impact officer at the RSA, said:
“Whether it’s low-pay, low-autonomy work in the red wall, or high housing costs and gig economy work in our cities, deep economic insecurity is the new normal for millions of hard-working Brits.
“Progressives need to focus on belonging, culturally and economically: this means a focus on our shared values, good work for all, and universalist welfare policies, as Joe Biden is doing with his plan for national unity alongside a huge expansion of universal child benefit and a higher living wage.
“Technocratic and micro-targeted welfare policy will just stoke more anger and discontent among those who miss out — especially in the red wall.”
This research used data drawn from a bespoke survey with Yonder (formerly Populus), who polled a nationally representative online sample of 2,012 people between 14-15 December 2020. Yonder is a member of the British Polling Council.
The analysis used factor analysis: a statistical method used to describe variability among observed, correlated variables in terms of a potentially lower number of unobserved variables called factors. We used k-means cluster analysis to segment individuals into distinct groups, with the aim of maximising heterogeneity between groups and homogeneity within them. In simple terms this means making sure that individuals within each cluster are more similar to other individuals within their cluster than to those in others. There are numerous different ways to decide on the number of clusters in this kind of analysis: we clustered based on 5, 6, 7 and 8 clusters, and trialled different combinations of factors, ensuring that the size of the clusters did not vary too significantly, and that the algorithm did not produce clusters highly similar to one another.
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