Job ads aimed at the ‘benefits class’ may be well-meant, but smack of contempt

Imagine the scene. It’s a small organisation within the creative industry – an arts centre, perhaps, or a theatre group. Around a table sit people trying to craft a job ad for a senior management role. All recognise the need for increasing diversity, to encourage applications from social groups unrepresented within the organisation.

“One group often left out,” says one of the discussants, “is the working class.” “True,” says another. “But I think many working-class people are not actually working. They may be unemployed or claiming benefits.” “Or they may have been forced into a life of crime,” observes the first. “Or perhaps they are part of the underclass.” So, they craft a line to incorporate those distinct experiences: “We welcome and encourage applications from individuals who identify as working-class, benefit class, criminal class and/or underclass.” “Perfect,” everyone agrees.

It might sound like a parody cooked up by the Daily Mail or GB News to satirise “woke” organisations. In fact, while the conversation around the table is fictional, the job ad is real, placed by London’s Camden People’s Theatre, for a new development manager. After a media backlash last week, the theatre deleted that line from the ad.

Finding it “insulting on many levels”, Anne-Marie Canning, CEO of Brilliant Club, an organisation helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to universities, tweeted: “I have never seen this expression about socioeconomic diversity before”. In fact, it’s a phrase that many cultural organisations, from theatre companies to cultural centres to arts consultancies, now use. There is even an anacronym, “WBCU”, or “WBCU-C”, for “workers who identify as working, benefit, criminal, underclass backgrounds”.

While the phrasing of job ads by certain cultural organisations may seem a relatively trivial issue, it tells us much about the way we look upon questions of class today. It is striking that nobody who drew up these ads stopped to say: “Certainly, we need to provide opportunities for ex-prisoners, as a company such as Timpson laudably does, and for benefit claimants. But isn’t that different from suggesting that these individuals belong to a ‘criminal class’ or a ‘benefit class’?” Or even: “Would people really want to identify themselves as members of the ‘criminal class’ or of the ‘benefit class’?”

There are some who insist that people do, and that they would, that such labels were introduced because “people asked for [them]”. Call me sceptical, but I have seen little grassroots pressure from people insisting that they should have the right to self-identify as a member of the “criminal class” or of the “benefit class”. It is the kind of terminology, along with labels such as “the dangerous classes” or the “residuum”, both Victorian expressions of contempt for the lower orders, that has long been imposed from the outside to demonise sections of the working class.

The Victorian social researcher and reformer Henry Mayhew, in his celebrated survey of London Labour and the London Poor, divided the working class into “those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work”. The last, he wrote, is “distinguished from the civilised man by his repugnance to regular and continuous labour – by his want of providence in laying up store for the future – by his inability to perceive consequences ever so slightly removed from immediate apprehension – by his passion for stupefying herbs and roots, and, when possible, for intoxicating fermented liquor”.

More than a century later, the American political scientist Charles Murray and the psychologist Richard Herrnstein echoed those sentiments when they wrote of the underclass in their notorious and notoriously influential book The Bell Curve that “A lack of foresight, which is often associated with low IQ, raises the attractions of immediate gains from crime and lowers the strength of deterrents”, and that such people “find it harder to understand why robbing someone is wrong”.

This belief that sections of the working class are morally unfit, or dangerous, continues to shape social policy. It’s the belief that undergirded Tony Blair’s crusade against “problem families” and George Osborne’s condemnation of “skivers… sleeping off a life on benefits”. It is visible in the two-child benefit cap, which Iain Duncan Smith claimed was necessary to teach the poor that “children cost money”, and in the imprisonment for public protection (IPP) scheme, under which many people committing relatively minor offences were given indefinite prison sentences on the grounds that they posed a danger to society.

This is the tradition into which fits talk of the “criminal class” or the “benefit class”. Of course, few of those in the cultural sector who promote such terms would be sympathetic to that history of anti-working class sentiment. So, how did organisations that consider themselves “progressive” come to deploy such labels?

In part, the answer lies in the way that diversity programmes have been imposed from the top within an industry often disconnected from working-class life. A recent report observed that fewer than one in 10 workers in the arts and culture sector have a working-class background. Another report on “Social Mobility in the Charity Sector” found that here, too, there are few employees from socially disadvantaged environments.

skip past newsletter promotion

The answer lies also in changing conceptions of class over recent decades, its meaning coming to be shaped not so much by economics and politics as by culture and identity. Class has become less an assertion of collective experience and solidarity than an expression of personal identity. Many reject “working-class” as a useful label because it does not seem to encompass their own particular lived experience.

The working class has always been segmented. But, in the past, the workplace and the community served to create a greater sense of commonality, while organisations such as trade unions helped bind workers together as a social force.

Today, not only have traditional workplaces transformed, communities become dislocated, and unions shrunk in influence, but class politics – the notion of the working class as a potentially transformative social force – has largely been buried. The sense of working-class commonality has shattered into myriad distinct identities and experiences.

Out of this emerge labels such as the “criminal class” or the “benefit class” that seek to encompass the diversity of working-class experiences but end up echoing some of the most reactionary sentiments of hostility towards working-class people.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.