Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hipsters vs Chavs? Talking social class in the city

  • October 17, 2015

Cities & Communities

In the post-industrial city, a variety of new class identities are emerging. But are they galvanizing class struggle or only fragmenting it further?

For years, social scientists and urban scholars have written about how the social structures of cities in the Global North have evolved over the last several decades, as de-industrialization has given way to a post-industrial, service-oriented economy. But as production shifted towards the immaterial, discourses regarding work grew increasingly abstract. Class discourse, less substantive.

In the early 2000s, urban theorist Richard Florida stepped into the resulting gap with his thoughts on the importance of the “creative class” in economic development. Florida argued that attracting and retaining highly educated professionals to urban centers leads to growth, urban regeneration and greater life-satisfaction.

His story proved convincing for city officials seeking a new progressive narrative for the post-industrial scenario. Since then, Florida’s work has become a canonical reference for a growing cohort of cities seeking to re-brand themselves as so-called “Smart Cities”, where digital technologies guide urban design to optimize the life satisfaction and economic performance of residents.

Insofar as Florida’s framework involves a spatialization of class conflict in an urban system, the focal point of class tensions in it is gentrification. But recently, he and many like-minded urban scholars have begun to strongly question the validity of this term, described by the British sociologist Ruth Glass as the displacement of low-income residents by more affluent ones.

These scholars claim that gentrification is an exceedingly vague concept that is difficult to apply scientifically. They propose that attention should instead be focused on concentrated advantage and disadvantage. That is a somewhat misleading argument, however, because it blurs a key distinction. Concentrated disadvantage is a state, while gentrification is the process by which people are displaced to such areas, or by which such areas are created by that state.

Nonetheless, the idea that the creative class is the key to a liveable city is gaining support, not least because it lends itself favorably to the fractal identity politics of the post-industrial era.

Essentially, Florida’s class scheme is a broad re-grouping of the USA’s Standard Occupational Classification into “the creative class”, “the service working class” and “the industrial working class”. He identifies the creative class with a wide range of occupations spanning tech workers, artists, engineers, musicians, healthcare professionals, business professionals, teachers, scientists, and, curiously, also lesbians and gay men, and what he calls “high bohemians”.

Characterized by individualistic lifestyle preferences and cultured tastes, the creative class is popularly associated with an increasingly relevant figure in the urban landscape: the hipster. Generally imagined as white, privileged and effete, the hipster provides critics of Florida’s “urban renewal” recommendations with a compelling enemy through which to sublimate urban class antagonisms. As a result, in recent years the pop-political critique of hipsters has rapidly emerged as a widely read sub-genre of internet literature.

Meanwhile, interest in the working class antithesis of the hipster is also growing, as evidenced by the impact of books like Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. This interest in identities that potentially embody urban class antagonisms seems to stem from the inequalities and frustrated expectations exacerbated by years of economic crisis and austerity in the global North. It is indeed tempting to view the hipster vs. chav conflict as one between the creative class and a younger service working class that has come to replace the older industrial working class.

But Florida’s conceptualization of the creative class is problematic. Let us consider his inclusion of lesbians, gay men and “high bohemians” in that group. It is revealing because it involves lumping people defined according to their preferences together with people defined by their occupations. This is a key element of Florida’s analysis because his argument regarding the impact of the creative class on the city hinges as much on their consumption preferences as it does on the work they do.

With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder if posing urban class antagonisms in terms of hipsters vs. chavs doesn’t repeat the problem with Florida’s framework by granting excessive importance to lifestyle preferences, consumer habits and occupation and overlooking what is perhaps the central process shaping social classes in the post-industrial era: the precarization of work.

Precarization splits occupational classes between insiders and outsiders by establishing a hierarchical gradient around the employment relationship. It also determines the extent to which workers—disproportionately women, immigrants and youth—are exposed to a variety of risks, like unemployment, underemployment, poverty, injury, illness and so on.

Tellingly, college-educated youth constitute a substantial and growing portion of the rapidly expanding precariat, as the economist Guy Standing has called this “new dangerous class”. Yet among college-educated young workers, those in precarious jobs are disproportionately held by people whose parents do not have a university degree.

This would suggest that social class continues to be structured by the relationships between generations more than by those within them. With this in mind, might a class discourse articulated around lifestyles and consumption preferences (which are strongly shaped by one’s own age and educational level) do more to divide and suppress an emerging class antagonism than it does to galvanise one?

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Carlos Delclós

Carlos Delclós is a sociologist, researcher and editor for ROAR Magazine. His research interests include international migration, social stratification, fertility, urban sociology, social movements and cultural theory.

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