High earners from small backgrounds: social understatement

Ahen the politician Friedrich Merz announced that he placed himself in the “upper middle class” – despite an annual income in the millions – he received a lot of opposition. Merz defended his attribution by referring less to his current financial situation and more to the material and non-material character of his family of origin. As extravagant as that may seem, the subjective reinterpretation of one’s own “objective” socio-economic situation in order to move closer to a milieu considered attractive is by no means unusual. Polls in Western Europe and the US show that many respondents identify themselves as middle class, contrary to objective criteria. This misjudgment is often based on the fact that one does not compare oneself with a statistically determined average, but with one’s own reference group. There, one’s own socio-economic situation may seem normal and average because, for example, everyone there has several holiday homes in the south.

An interesting case is Great Britain. There one observes again and again that a (too) large part of the population considers itself to be working class. Most recently it was around 60 percent, and this number has hardly changed since the 1980s, although only around a third of the employees are still working in the relevant professions. In a study, British sociologists have examined the reasons and justifications for this misjudgment. The phenomenon is so familiar in Britain that the authors are able to quote a sketch by the comedy troupe Monty Python: “Four Yorkshiremen” features four men in fine white dinner jackets who, according to their dialect, come from the north of England. After a brief appreciation of the exquisite wine on offer, they begin to outdo each other with descriptions of their poor backgrounds. If it rained through the roof of one of them, the other said he lived in a water tank, the third in a hole in the ground and the fourth in a shoebox in the middle of the street.

Understatement or unconscious image cultivation

The satirical exaggeration suggests that the “race to the bottom” has little to do with the actual situation. However, she points out that socio-economic understatement can refer to one’s origin: Despite social advancement, one identifies with the social situation of one’s parents. This may explain some of the misperceptions, for example because employees whose parents had low-skilled jobs continue to consider themselves working class. The origin does not explain, however, that in representative surveys a quarter of employees whose parents were also employees do not want to belong to the middle or upper class. In addition to a certain understatement, which is intended to avoid any impression of snobbery, the focus on meritocratic standards plays a role: the lower the social background and the initial advantage it gives, the greater one’s own performance appears.

This point is particularly important for individuals who find it difficult to deny that they belong to the middle class, but who would like to attribute it to their own achievements. Among those surveyed who worked in a TV station, an accounting firm, an architecture firm and were self-employed actors, more than a third reinterpreted their family origins. In order to make this plausible, they resorted to a cross-generational self-image: they answered the question about the family background with complicated stories about the origins of not only the parents but also the grandparents. In this way, advantages such as support from wealthy parents could be hidden. On the other hand, minor disadvantages such as attending a public school became evidence of having earned the current position through personal effort. Such a “meritocratic hubris” seems to be particularly pronounced in the acting and media professions, where parental support is particularly important due to often precarious employment relationships – and for this very reason it has to be denied.

Despite its enduring popularity, however, the working class is valued as a source, not a destination: many would like to come from the working class, but far fewer want to remain part of it. With an underprivileged background, you dress up your CV because you don’t like to admit that you’ve actually always been where you’ve arrived.

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