Quentin Newark: It’s just a touch of class

With the Office of National Statistics ‘Count me in’ UK census 2001 urging us to take part on 29 April, Quentin Newark is shocked by the new class system

In case you needed confirmation of it, you are a far lesser person than your accountant. Worse, you are officially considered of a poorer quality than the inarticulate trainspotter who fixes your Macs.

The “Dickensian” Office of National Statistics has rewritten the classes for the upcoming national census. There are now seven classes, which they claim allows for more accurate “grading”, and, instead of the old distinctions are based on the “employment contract”. It’s so infuriating and frustrating; all those polyester-suited accountants toast each other with champagne in class 1.2, pasty-faced IT technicians sip martinis in class 2 and designers get stale bread and water in class 3.

I have sat in numerous meetings, round-tables, seminars and brainstorms about the design industry where someone has made made a vigorous and red-faced argument for design becoming a “profession”, as a way of us getting our due. If you thought design was a profession, you are right, but a profession means it is open only to those with specific qualifications, like the professions of architecture, medicine and accountancy. It’s bewildering, this idea that exams will lead design into the promised land, as doctors don’t seem like a particularly attractive or competent bunch, and what good have qualifications done the accountants responsible for ailing high street retailers?

I think this obsession with examinations and comparing grades leads back to the grand days of the Empire, when the upper and upper-middle classes trained themselves up to rule over the natives with big doses of Aristotle and Matthew Arnold. The responsibilities of ruling meant the population had to be separated into predictable, labelled packets. The right class and professional status guaranteed not so much breeding, as the devotion to certain values – traditional ones.

But as Mao Tse-Tung said, “Every kind of thinking, without exception, is stamped with the brand of a class.” And this sort was based on the way things had always been done and all that brought with it, the ability not to use your imagination at all.

The new classes are cast from this same mould. Oily, treacherous estate agents are class 2 whereas the years of craft and dexterity that produce self-employed carpenters land them in class 4. The inventiveness of Web designers wallows in class 3, while the mundane familiarity with software of computer analysts boosts them up to class 2. The most telling illustration is that with this new system the paradigm-shifting intelligence and imagination of Stephen Hawking (class 1.2) is set below William Hague (class 1.1).

The truth is that no one knows which way is up anymore, if we ever did. What we do know is that class labels doled out by an academic – a certain Professor David Rose (class 1.2) of the University of Essex – mean diddly-squat. To establish a chart that sets class based on “life chances”, those that your parents, education and social context give you, is to rely on one single limiting criterion. Certainly, most moderately successful designers I know earn more money than senior civil servants, and I would guess that we generate more wealth too.

What matters most in our society now, in any society, is wealth-generation; the generation of productive change, innovation, imagination, the creation and expansion of businesses. The task that confronted Professor Rose, and one which he has obviously refused to tackle, is the near impossibility of measuring the values that really count in the modern world; the mercurial, coming-out-of-left-field nature of entrepreneurialism and creativity.

The sociological writer Charles Leadbeater (class 2) says, “Collaboration is the driving force behind creativity.” What we need is not the cold 19th century mentality of selection and division, but some funky cross-platform sampling and hybridisation.

Maybe compared to a bunch of over-educated senior consultant surgeons (class 1.1) and higher echelon civil servants (class 1.1), designers might appear lightweight. What we do is still seen by the ignorant as being inconsequential, all bright colours and decoration – candyfloss. But as confectioners (literally, those who make things come together) we have far more to offer all those around us with our ungradable unpredictability and irrationality, than a Millennium Dome full of portly bureaucrats.

As Homer (class 1.2) himself said, “It is not strength, but art obtains the prize.”

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Opinion section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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