The top 1% have been an easy political punching bag and scapegoat for our modern political problems. However, the top 10% are equally if not more responsible for the multiple crises within which we live. Marcos Gonzalez Hernando and Gerry Mitchell argue we need to rethink inequality if we are to solve political problems in this article based off their recent book Uncomfortably Off published by Bristol University Press.
Since at least 2008, elites seem to have been behind everything that is wrong fuelling populism of all stars and stripes. But who exactly are the elite? For most of us, the elite is a shorthand for the 1% with the most income (and/or wealth). Bankers, billionaires, Goldman Sachs, Elon Musk. The kind of people whose economic reality and worries are completely different to ours.
However, if inequality is to be reduced, a broader group must be engaged with. In our recent book, Uncomfortably Off, it’s the top 10%, those earning £60,000 and above: the professionals and managers in sectors as varied as law, accounting, healthcare, the media, the state, academia, industry, and politics.
Interviewing them for the book, we found out they mostly socialise with people they meet at work and university, settings which are increasingly segregated by class. Because of that, they do not tend to think they’re rich, and rarely know where they sit on the income distribution. This is partly why headlines such as 'the richest 10% feel they are struggling' and ‘why a six-figure salary no longer means you're rich’ are becoming more frequent.
Those we interviewed are very much aware their children will find it harder to own their own homes.
This matters because this group has political clout. High earners are more likely to vote than the remaining 90% and make up the bulk of decision makers in the institutions that design, regulate and operate our society. In the States, the preferences of both average and low-income voters have little effect on legislative changes whereas the preferences and needs of the top 10% tend to be met by policy makers, which generally means less taxation and public service provision.
However, not everything is going to plan. The link is weakening between meritocratic rewards for ‘hard work’ and social status. Work is paying less and less. Middle class jobs are hollowing out and are threatened by globalisation, automation, and precarisation. Returns on degrees are ever lower.
Education, traditionally considered the surest way to guarantee a decent living, doesn't seem as sure a bet as it used to. Remember the strikes led by previously solidly middle-class professionals such as junior doctors, academics, and barristers? Nevertheless, it is both becoming more expensive and more sought after. Think of the recent campaign by 'hard-working' relatively high earners against Labour's proposal to add VAT to private school fees.
Instead, high earners continue to align their interests with those above them in the income distribution, adapting to crises by insulating, isolating, perhaps relocating for work and they continue to enable the 1% by servicing, protecting, legitimising and growing their wealth.
There is also a dearth of affordable housing, even while the housing market remains buoyant. Those we interviewed are very much aware their children will find it harder to own their own homes. Downward mobility – both for themselves and their children – is a concern as is the risk of catastrophic events derailing their upward trajectories.
Yet sensing that conditions are lining up for further instability and that the factors behind their anxieties are wider than themselves, most high earners still don't see the connection between their actions and their broader effects. They respond with coping strategies that only serve to reinforce the distance between themselves and the rest of society. Responding to our failing fiscal health, for example, they would repeat that we need to ‘tighten the purse strings’. Not one interviewed referred to the under-resourcing of the NHS, but many did talk about mismanagement and inefficiency."
Instead, high earners continue to align their interests with those above them in the income distribution, adapting to crises by insulating, isolating, perhaps relocating for work and they continue to enable the top 1% by servicing, protecting, legitimising and growing their wealth. They don't think they will need many public goods in the future and as such, after more than a decade of austerity, they will increasingly go private if they can afford it.
Their lower levels of economic security are more likely to force them to question and then ultimately reject the hamster wheel existence most of us have chosen.
While the top 1% might not need public services and infrastructure, most of the top 10% do. It’s in the interest of the top 10% for education to provide a genuine path to social advancement, for housing to be affordable, for a hard day’s work to pay decently, for there to be a functioning and efficient state, and for there to be a democracy at all. It’s not difficult to think of authoritarian countries where the top 1% is very well catered for, and everyone else isn’t.
High earners sense that their material interests are changing, especially if they can’t rely on assets to guarantee their future livelihoods and they can’t guarantee they’ll be able to afford to live in a gated community. The strategies they have used to propel them upwards will prove increasingly difficult and less effective, but they are the only recipe many of them know.
Perhaps the best hope is that the children of the high earners we interviewed, despite not constituting a ‘youth bulge’, are nevertheless more affected by the diminishing returns of meritocracy and increased production. Their lower levels of economic security are more likely to force them to question and then ultimately reject the hamster wheel existence most of us have chosen. More may follow their peers in China who have already rejected the upwardly mobile trajectory their parents set them on and are choosing to lie flat and let it rot. Or conversely, they may simply rely on their inheritance and help reproduce a world of stagnant social mobility where ownership of assets determines absolutely everything.