NRS Social Grade and Class

How do market research companies allocate people?

In The Guardian, Ash Sarkar (Novara Media) argued that using social grades to “decry Labour’s loss of the working class is completely and utterly flawed”, and “fraff” (nonsense).

The article considers the social grade system used by market research companies.

How NRS Social Grades work

In the National Readership Survey, households are allocated a social grade based on the occupation on the household’s chief income earner. For example, the ‘A’ grade is assigned to:

  • Professionals; very senior managers in business; top-level civil servants.
  • Retired people who worked in a grade A job.
  • People whose late spouse or civil partner worked in a grade A job.

There are criteria for grades A, B, C1, C2, D and E. The brackets ‘ABC1’ and ‘C2DE’ are then commonly used to describe ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ groups respectively.

Social categorisation systems have strengths and flaws. As Sarkar highlights, the split is reflective of manual and non-manual work — as “all other non-manual workers” are placed in the ‘C1’ grade.

There are other classification systems used in market and social research, such as the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC), Acorn, and Mosaic consumer groups.

In the 1985 book How Britain Votes by Heath, Curtice and Jowell, five classes were used in their analysis: the salariat, routine non-manual, the petty burgeoisie, foremen and technicians, and the working class. Class composition may change over time. In some categorisations, social class may not being based solely on occupation — using factors like upbringing or self-identification.

Different methods have been used for analysing social classes, leading to different results. For instance, an academic article published in 2013 suggested there were seven social classes in Britain.

Sarkar’s article did not propose an alternate classification system to be used instead of NRS social grades in order to analyse vote intentions.

Age really does matter

Sarkar’s article was in response to this statement by Prof Sir John Curtice (University of Strathclyde):

But of course you are no longer a party of the working class. You’re a party of young people.

Age, not occupation, is now the key dividing line in General Elections. This was the case in the 2016 EU referendum, and the 2017 General Election. As ever, we should not treat any groupings as homogeneous.

In their post-election survey, YouGov centrally estimated that 56% of 18–24 year-old voters chose Labour, whilst 67% of people aged 70 or over in their sample backed the Conservatives.

Ipsos MORI, in their amalgam of vote intention surveys, showed how this age relationship has developed in past elections:

Labour were estimated to have won in every age group in 1997. (Source: Ipsos MORI)

This dividing line has only been so clear in the past four years.

In contrast, the Conservatives were a more popular vote choice than Labour across all social grades. The relationship between social grade and vote choice has been changing over the past 25 years — sharply so in the last five.

The gradient of each line reduced sharply in 2017 and 2019. (Image: Ipsos MORI)

For critics of NRS social grades, the Conservatives led Labour in each of the four household income groups:

47% of people living in households with incomes £20–40k were estimated to vote Conservative. (Image: YouGov)

Additionally, in the same YouGov survey, the Conservatives were the most popular vote choice in each of three employed groupings (full-time workers, and part-time workers — both above and below those who work eight hours per week).

It is not that the occupational categories have developed new flaws: it is that occupation is now less associated with vote choice than age. This is what you would expect when social attitudes matter more in voting decisions, polarised in divisions highlighted and exacerbated by the EU referendum.

No, pensioners are not all ‘E’

A common misconception is that pensioners are placed in the ‘E’ category. In 2016, 10% of the population were in this category, rendering such a claim impossible. This misconception is implied in The Guardian article:

But most importantly, the NRS social grade doesn’t measure wealth. Which is why putting pensioners in the same bracket as the unemployed is an utterly ridiculous way to think about how class works in this country.

The NRS social grade does generally label pensioners as ‘E’ (“the same bracket as the unemployed”). ‘State pensioners’ — those who survive solely on the state pension — are put in this category. The guidance from the Market Research Society states:

Retired people who have a company pension or private pension, or who have private means, are graded on their previous occupations.

Matthew Smith (YouGov) has produced a helpful graph showing the working status composition of each social grade bracket:

All-student households are allocated to C1. (Image: YouGov)

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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