Aiming for the squeezed middle

Have you had a go on the Guardian Breadline Britain income comparison tool yet? Go on, it’s fun. I’m not sure exactly what the purpose of it is, though. The only thing that seems certain is that whatever label you get given – in poverty, on the edge of poverty, squeezed middle, right up to super-rich – you will feel bitter about it and sense that, somehow, you’re the one who’s really worst off.

I had a go at it and found myself to be in the very top category – super-rich. This surprised me – I know we’ve fallen on hard times, but it comes to something when my own life constitutes living the dream. Then I realised that I’d accidentally added in an extra nought (my propensity to do stupid things like this being one of the many, many reasons why I am not super-rich after all). So anyhow, I had another go. It’s amazing the difference a nought makes. Turns out I am in fact on the edge of poverty.

This allocation also surprised me. Financially, I’m not doing brilliantly, but I didn’t think things were that bad. To describe myself as “on the edge of poverty” feels, to me, a little like glory hunting. In the grand scheme of things, life’s just not that bad. I suppose “on the edge” means if the slightest thing goes wrong (or the “accidental” third baby makes an appearance), I could be in serious trouble, and that’s possibly true. But hey, let’s not get all dramatic about it just yet. What would be the point? After all, things could be about to change for the better.

Tomorrow my partner has a second job interview, following on from the one he had on Friday. If all goes well and he gets the job, we’ll be moving on up – all the way up, in fact, into what the income comparison tool calls the “squeezed middle”. Way-hey! Crack open the Blosson Hill – or is it Jacob’s Creek I’m on now?

Now in financial terms, I’m quite looking forward (fingers crossed) to joining the “squeezed middle”. Materially, my life won’t be especially different, but there’ll be fewer panics and fewer credit-card grocery shops. Plus, I’ll be getting away from having to deal with all the expense of being poor (phone reconnection charges, informal overdraft bills, spending £100 on ten pairs of rubbish shoes because you can’t spend £50 at once on a pair that will last … I tell you, not having money is more expensive than sending your kids to Eton). In terms of how I’d want to define myself, though, I can’t think of anything worse than being in the “squeezed middle”. I hate, hate, hate the term. I know it’s now widely used, but couldn’t the Guardian have come up with something better? What’s so wrong with “ho hum, muddling along”?

“Squeezed middle” is a term dripping with self-pity and resentment. It taps into the very bitterness that David Cameron is in the process of trying to stoke in order to justify benefit cuts. Poor, poor “squeezed” me. “Squeezed” on either side, by the scrounging poor, and by the bloodsucking rich. It’s a term that suggests it’s legitimate to resent anyone who isn’t like you when actually, all that’s happening is, you’re not well-off, but things could be a whole lot worse. Why resent those who have less than you? If you’ve reached a wage threshold that means you’re being “squeezed” and you don’t like it, there’s an obvious solution. Reduce your hours or ask for a pay cut. Give up work altogether. That’ll make life better, won’t it? Oh, but you’re too good, too moral. Meanwhile, resentment for the rich who are “squeezing” you is only cursory. When politicians use the term “squeezed middle” it’s to suggest they’re on your side, but they’re not. On the contrary, the politicians we have are still allowing the super-rich to crush you and everyone else, with the help of their extra naughts.

A million years ago (2008), before the recession really hit, the Telegraph ran a series on the self-identified “coping classes” i.e. its readership, people who were earning decent wages but who nevertheless felt they were bearing the brunt of, well, everything:

In theory, they are the prosperous bedrock of the nation – but in reality,Britain’s middle classes are struggling to survive.

Taxed at every turn, mortgaged to the hilt, the nouveau pauvre nevertheless strive to retain the values they have always held dear: self-sufficiency, hard work and education, education, education. […]

And with the cost of independent schooling having risen 31 per cent over five years, compared with a rather more modest 15 per cent rise in our salaries, the middle classes are being priced out of the private education market. And that’s even before university tuition fees kick in.

Bring out the violins (providing your state school is still offering music lessons). To be quite honest, affording private school fees has never, ever crossed my mind as even the remotest possibility. I’m not suggesting choosing schools is easy (insofar as anyone even has a choice). Obviously as a parent you’d love your kids to trample all over everyone else’s; I know I would. But the vast majority of children go to state schools, and to suggest that there is some great injustice in not being able to remove your children from the system is to confuse parental selfishness with actual fairness. In fact, to me few things scream “sense of entitlement” more than the above Telegraph quote.

Of course, the “coping classes” had it easy compared to the “squeezed middle”, who are now really, really pissed off. And I don’t wish to belittle that. I don’t think people shouldn’t be angry about injustice. Far from it; I’m a right grumpy sod most of the time. Nor do I think that there aren’t people, both rich and poor, who exploit the work of others and do little themselves. But I’d like to think they’re in a minority. Morever, I can’t help feeling  that once you decide you’re one of the “squeezed middle”, you’re far more likely to develop the mindset that will turn you into an exploitative bastard yourself, should you ever become very rich or very poor. You’ll think you’ve done your time and earned the right to be mean. But that is a bad thing to think, and it creates the problem which up till now you’ve only been imagining. *sanctimonious face*

Anyhow, I’m not even part of the “squeezed middle” yet. I’ve no idea what a total nightmare it actually is, although I might have by tomorrow. At least, I bloody hope so. They’re down to the last two in the interview process. Obviously if my partner gets the job, this will mean someone else doesn’t and that other person may, I don’t know, end up having to become a benefit scrounger. And actually, the more I think about it, the more I can feel the “squeezed middle” resentment at this welling up in me already. Ooh, that other job applicant! He/she is such a total sod, what with his/her laziness and greed and entitlement, sat around doing nothing while my partner is (potentially) doing the job he/she wanted! What a complete bastard! Perhaps I should ring the interviewers in advance and let them know what a (potential) tosser they’re considering for the post?