September 2011        

The myth of a middle-class majority

Income is not a determinant of class. It can be used, however, as an indicator of class relations. Wage levels are usually, though not always, related to the type of positions people hold within the work-place, the type of work they do, the amount of power and influence they have over their working environment, conditions of employment, their levels of education, and so on.
     Wages, along with other forms of data, can help us achieve an understanding of how the wider economic relations play out: they can provide a skeletal framework to allow us to delve more deeply into the social, cultural and political realities of class dynamics in a modern capitalist economy.
     Despite the fact that class is not determined by income, there are enough commentators in the media, and indeed within the trade union movement, who are happy to see class purely in terms of income, who maintain that Ireland has a majority middle class, with a working-class rump and a lucky few at the top. And they cite Ireland’s wage levels as proof of the middle-class majority.
     The argument goes further, stating that higher wages alone will make more people middle class in Ireland—that somehow class is a life-style choice, not a social relation. This was taken to its conclusion recently by the present Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, who referred to unemployment in precisely those terms. “What we are getting at the moment,” she said, “is people who come into the [social protection] system straight after school as a lifestyle choice.”
     Yet even under these terms of reference Ireland does not have a majority middle class. In fact, not surprisingly, the type of wage levels we have are broadly reflective of the type of jobs we have, and an analysis of both points towards a working-class majority in the Republic.
     According to the income distribution statistics produced by the Revenue Commissioners, the median PAYE wage in Ireland in 2008 was just under €27,000: that is, about half of all PAYE workers earned €27,000 or less that year, with almost 64 per cent earning less than €35,000.
     There were almost 120,000 married couples with a single income below €27,000, while more than half of all single-income married couples earned less than €35,000.
     For single women the median wage is much lower, at €20,000, with 65 per cent earning less than €27,000 a year. The figures are similar for single men, with half earning €20,000 or less and 62 per cent earning less than €27,000.
     With regard to wage distribution, the top 1 per cent of PAYE earners had a combined wage that was greater than that of the bottom 32 per cent—in other words, 23,000 people earned more in wages than the combined wages of more than 600,000 PAYE workers. (The figure for the top 1 per cent does not include proprietary directors, nor does it include income from other sources.)
     With more than a million PAYE workers on less than €27,000 in 2008, and an average house price of €305,000, it is hard not to see the role that credit played in creating the illusion of wealth in what was in effect a low-wage economy, given the cost of living and limited access to social services.
     Wages, of course, are not everything. With regard to occupations, of the nine broad groupings used by the Central Statistics Office three refer to managerial and professional jobs, while the remaining six refer to clerical, sales, crafts, personal services, operatives, and “other.”
     About 38 per cent of the work force is engaged in managerial, administrative, professional or technical occupations. The remaining 62 per cent are engaged in skilled, semi-skilled and service-based occupations. The Irish economy has a high number of managers and administrators—they account for 16 per cent of the work force; however, almost a third of the work force is engaged in clerical work, sales, and services. Plant and machine operatives account for 8 per cent, while craft and related workers made up 12½ per cent of the work force.
     With more than a third of the work force engaged in semi-skilled and manual work, it is not that surprising that so many people exist on low wages. This is hardly a life-style choice.
     The jobs, quite simply, are not there to support the myth of a middle-class majority in Ireland.

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