Australia far from a classless society

30 October 2015

What class are you? Do the test on the ABC website.

A comprehensive new survey of Australian attitudes has shattered the long-held myth that Australia is a classless society.

Research by The Australian National University (ANU) has found Australians overwhelmingly think of themselves as either working class or middle class, and that around one in four Australians underestimate their class position in society.

But the University's latest ANUpoll finds Australians can be actually divided into five distinct class groups, based on a range of measures including income, education, social contacts and social activities.

"Social class is a little like swagger. It is hard to define, and tough to measure, but you know it when you see it," said Dr Jill Sheppard from the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.

The ANUpoll found 52 per cent of Australians consider themselves as middle class, while 40 per cent consider themselves to be working class. Only two per cent of Australians consider themselves to be upper class.

Dr Sheppard said the tendency to identify as middle class is longstanding in Australia and is likely to have strengthened with the expansion of white collar industries.

The results are also similar to surveys in the United States, where 90 per cent consider themselves either working class or middle class.

"Australians think and talk about social class less than people in Britain, France and across Europe, but Australians are surprisingly willing to identify with one class or another," she said.

While self-identification is important, it doesn't fully explain the complex class levels in Australia. Building on a similar study in Britain, Dr Sheppard and co-author Dr Nicholas Biddle analysed a range of measures based on economic, social and cultural capital.

They found Australians belonged to five distinct classes: established affluent (14 per cent), emergent affluent (12 per cent), mobile middle (25 per cent), established middle (25 per cent) and established working (24 per cent).

Dr Biddle said the classes in Australia are distinguishable in part by their attitudes to government and the economy.

He said those who describe themselves as middle class mostly belong to the middle-class categories, although almost one in four really belong in the two affluent categories.

Of those who describe themselves as working class, almost half belong in the middle classes and almost a quarter belong in the higher affluent classes.

"Australians largely understand what class they are. But they are also likely to underestimate their affluence and place in society, possibly underlining the ethos of an egalitarian society," Dr Biddle said.

In other findings, ANUpoll found Australians continue to consider the economy and jobs to be the most important issues facing the country, followed by immigration and better government.

The poll, taken before the latest change of prime minister, also found only 51 per cent of Australians were satisfied with the direction the country was heading, which is the lowest satisfaction level since the ANUpoll series began in 2008.

The results of the poll are available on the ANUpoll website.

The ANUpoll interviewed 1,200 people by phone between 13 and 27 July. It is conducted by the Social Research Centre, an ANU Enterprise business.