A New Zealand couple clearly remember an occasion when they were invited to dinner at the home of a well-connected upper-class family in England. The New Zealanders had been welcomed into their hosts’ home when another guest arrived, bearing a pot of homemade jam, which she gave to the hostess, a titled lady. “How lovely,” enthused the lady loudly. “I do so love the way the middle classes bring a little gift to dinner.”
The New Zealand couple were not only left speechless by the remark, but say that five years passed before they again felt able to “bring a little gift to dinner”, no matter who was hosting it.
It was the sort of remark likely to simultaneously appall and amuse many New Zealanders. And it is unlikely ever to be heard here. Outside politics, academia and the unions, New Zealanders rarely describe themselves or others in class terms.
But that does not mean there is no class structure in New Zealand. Market research undertaken by the Listener, using TNS to poll 1000 people nationwide, has revealed that 70 percent of New Zealanders think a social class system exists here, compared with 84 percent of respondents who believe a class system exists in England. Of those who believe it exists here, 74 percent say class is mostly based on money, but that education, where you live, your ethnicity, occupation and family background also play important roles.
It perhaps says something about New Zealanders’ attitude to social class that it is not a closely studied subject. In England, by contrast, considerations of class pervade many academic studies. Researchers routinely pore through the Who’s Who, for example, to determine the success of people from different public schools.
But it is clear that the early English settlers were determined not to reproduce in New Zealand the class system that they had left behind. “There was a strong feeling that they did not want English-scale inequality to re-emerge. They did not want a permanent poor,” says Otago University emeritus professor of history Erik Olssen, who has undertaken extensive surveys of New Zealand society post-European settlement. “There was a widespread aspiration that inequality should be not be perpetuated.”
He believes the country has done “reasonably well” at fulfilling the egalitarian aim of those early settlers and thinks several factors made it possible. “Although we have a monarchy, the monarch has never lived amongst us. The whole feudal underlay, or overlay, is missing. We’re 12,000 miles removed from that.”
Also, from the beginning of European settlement, there was a tendency for neither the wealthiest nor the poorest in British society to migrate. “The very poor were left behind, and so was the feudal system.”
He thinks that, when compared with similar societies, the ceiling is lower and the floor higher in New Zealand, making the gap smaller between those at the top and bottom.
That may be so, but it is sufficiently wide to have surprised Victoria University head of history Professor Don MacRaild, who moved here with his family from Newcastle, England, last August.
“New Zealand proved to be a more hierarchical and divided society than I expected,” says MacRaild. “I expected there to be much less distance between the top and bottom in class terms. That was part of the mythology of New Zealand society in the 1970s; that the bottom end was higher up and the top end was lower down, so there was more of a compression and it was a more egalitarian and equal society.
“I’m shocked here by certain key indicators; how expensive houses are against average wages and average family incomes, how difficult it must be today to be a young person trying to enter the housing market in Wellington, how expensive things are here if you imagine earning $20,000 or $30,000 and trying to raise a family on that.”
He was also surprised that the “bicultural functioning society” turned out to be myth when he looked at the position of Maori and Pacific Islanders.
“I expected to find class stratification on ethnic lines, because I would expect to find it anywhere else in the world with indigenous populations, but it did strike me as being much more apparent here than the mythology of a bicultural functioning society. There’s a moralistic New Zealand pride in the way society has been integrated here and social catastrophes have allegedly been avoided. Though it is clearly better than the Australian situation, it is not by any stretch of the imagination as good as Kiwis think it is.”
MacRaild also thinks that New Zealanders mistake being small with being egalitarian.
“I’m struck how small the networks of power are here. It’s nearly possible, as a professor of history, to imagine emailing the Prime Minister’s office and probably getting a response and maybe, if you really hit a nerve, who knows, getting a meeting with a ministerial aide. That’s not going to happen in Britain. That gives Kiwis comfort that they have a flat society, when what they really have is small society. And it mustn’t be confused with a flat society.”
Nevertheless, his impression is that New Zealand has opportunities and social mobility. “There are few things that would hold you back from significant success if you have a decent education here. But, then, that’s also true of Britain, with its obvious class system.”
There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories in New Zealand to demonstrate that, with determination, upward mobility is certainly possible. Eric Watson was a butcher’s apprentice at 16, and is now one of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs. Graeme Hart might still be able to knock dents out of his car, having once been a panelbeater, but, as New Zealand’s richest man, would certainly be able to buy a new one, instead, if he preferred. And Just Water CEO Tony Falkenstein’s two failed attempts at UE are hardly relevant to such a successful entrepreneur.
It is partly because of that ability to seize opportunities to get ahead that Opposition finance spokesman John Key believes New Zealand is a meritocracy, and without a class system.
The TNS survey reveals that men are less likely than women to agree that there is a class system, and that National voters are significantly less likely to strongly agree (24 percent) with that proposition. Key perfectly fits the doubters’ profile.
His belief in drive and education opening opportunities is based almost entirely on his own experience. His is a classic rags-to-riches story: a boy who came from a sole-parent family in a state house to achieve a glittering career in high finance.
He and his siblings were raised by their widowed mother, but it would be incorrect to characterise his family as trapped in welfare dependence. His father had been well educated and his mother shared a strong education ethic.
“My environment was physically poor, but it was rich in Mum’s outlook on what I could achieve,” Key acknowledges. “We weren’t fourth-generation Otara.”
Key’s career took a stellar turn when he was headhunted by blue-blood US investment banking firm Merrill Lynch, first to run the company’s foreign exchange dealings in Asia, then to head its global business in London. It was there, he says, that he saw real class discrimination at work.
“One of the reasons I tend to think there is only a limited class system in New Zealand, if any at all, is that there are no differentiating factors around accent. I remember in the UK seeing real discrimination against people who came from the East End of London, and who spoke with a Cockney accent. They may be good traders, but you’d never have them in a management team, to save yourself.”
It was not only prejudice, it was almost policy.
For its graduate programme, Merrill Lynch’s London office would interview only those who went to university at Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, Durham, the London School of Economics, or INSEAD in Paris.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t even give you an interview. Talk about lock people out and, of course, talk about the class system, because how many people could afford to go to Oxford or those universities?
Key cheerfully admits that, coming from Canterbury University, he would “not have had a dog’s show” of entering the company as a graduate.
“We started bonding people who went to Harvard. We would be paying the students’ association to point out to us kids that we thought in year one we should be tracking. It’s bloody sick.”
It might be sick, but it also might be why Key’s children – Stephanie, 12, and Max, 10 – go to private schools. Mostly, he says, that decision was for educational reasons. Their schools have smaller classes and are better resourced than most state schools. But he acknowledges that the connections children make are also important.
MacRaild says that when parents send their children to top schools, it is with the hope that they will enter society at a higher level than somebody else’s children.
“You’re expecting that, later, when they go for that job in government, or with a particular company, or when someone is getting a posting overseas, they will be the person who’s there come the shakedown, because it works like that. And it does, everywhere. The fact is there is a glass ceiling and there are certain places and certain jobs that, if not entirely closed to you as an ordinary person, as a member of the working class or someone without that sort of educational privilege, are massively loaded against you, or in favour of those who had those kinds of educations.”
But Key thinks that if there is a class system operating in New Zealand, it is at the other end of the scale where children at the bottom of the socio-economic heap are seen by society as having no chance. “Part of that could be poverty, but, as a society – because they’re poor and from solo parent families – we are also making a judgment call on their ability judged on the circumstances they come from.”
Although there is evidence that New Zealand is a socially mobile society, Key’s concern that many children may be being trapped at the bottom of the socio-economic heap is widely shared.
Ian McKinnon is a former lower master of Eton College and former Wanganui Collegiate headmaster and, incidentally, the first head of Wanganui Collegiate not to have graduated from Oxbridge. He says New Zealanders should acknowledge that there are social levels here, but demurs from describing them as classes in the English sense. He says that although both countries have social levels built on wealth and occupation, England has the extra dimension of family tradition.
Semantics aside, he is concerned about children at the bottom of the system and the number of young school leavers without qualifications. But he questions whether the cause of that failure is a barrier imposed by social levels.
“Where does the fault lie? Is it because these social levels are blockades, or because there has been inadequate education and inadequate support to that education by families and communities?”
At Gisborne’s Kaiti School, staff are fighting the low expectations and social perceptions that go along with being ranked a decile 1A, the lowest possible in the New Zealand school system.
Principal Darryle Prosser, 43, grew up in Tokoroa and on the East Coast. During term time, she and her brother lived with their mother in Tokoroa and in the holidays the pair would return with their father to Hick’s Bay, where for quite a time the family had no running water or electricity.
“I was a ratbag at high school until I thought, ‘Hang on a minute, I’m going to end up with nothing’,” she says. “My parents wanted more from me – to shape up.”
She believes that the limited worldview of some parents helps to trap their children into low expectations for themselves. “All parents at Kaiti School want their children to do better than many of them have themselves, but in reality they expect them to accept the opportunities in the vicinity that pay well, too. Here [in Gisborne], it could be working as a meat worker or in the forestry, because parents will say it pays, whereas going to university costs and takes forever.”
In Prosser’s case, her mother wanted her to train as a lab technician at Kinleith “to do shift work and earn a really big salary. In those years, this is what many families aspired to for their kids.”
But she wanted to be a teacher. She went to university and has taught for 21 years, all of them in low-decile schools.
“We know some people come into our school and expect to see naughty kids, rude kids and all those things that perpetuate that belief of low class and low socio-economic status. But when we do take visitors around, they see children who are happy, respectful and engaged with quality teachers in learning. They see their parents and grandparents helping out during the day. Our teachers and staff model continued learning. When people see this for themselves, their attitudes change. There’s a perception and a belief based on what people expect to find in a particular class.”
When Key first returned to New Zealand from the UK, he went to talk to the head of Auckland’s Unitec.
“He looked at me and said, ‘John, do you have any idea how hard it is for a Maori student who gets a student loan, who may be the first in their family who’s ever had that? There are huge pressures at home to use that money for alternative purposes, and rather than being congratulated for what they’re doing, there will detractors.’ Whereas I look at my own children and we don’t talk about if they go to university, we talk about what they’re going to do after they’ve been.”
But if improving one’s lot in life was as simple as talking yourself into it, surely everyone would have done it.
Many have. Olssen’s study of Dunedin society from 1890-1940, including the issue of class, “showed people marry across classes with indiscriminate enthusiasm”. The study revealed that 30 percent of the children of professional families in that period chose as a spouse the son or daughter of professionals, “suggesting that 70 percent of them did not”.
Olssen’s study also showed that only six percent stayed in the same occupation as their fathers, compared with more than 40 percent in England, and only 25 percent of New Zealanders stayed in the same social class. He says the fluidity is hard to explain. “It is a less traditional society. Maybe people have a greater sense that they can do what they want to do and be what they want to be.”
There seems a consensus that time, aided by the prime ministerships of Margaret Thatcher and now Tony Blair, is helping erode entrenched privilege in England.
“Here in the UK, it is only the middle class that’s talked about,” says New Zealander John Stace, who began his working life “licking stamps at Wright Stevensons in 1966” and later became vice chairman of the largest publicly quoted insurance company in the Lloyds market.
He attributes much of his success to being a New Zealander and, like others, including Key and McKinnon, believes that the English find it hard to slot Kiwis into the English social hierarchy.
“In many ways, whether it’s politically motivated or not, Britain is increasingly becoming one large middle class, though there are certainly people down the barometer scale who don’t enjoy any relative wealth. But politicians see the middle class as determining who’s in the governing seat.”
Stace believes that New Zealand has moved more towards class, rather than away from it, “but I think it’s in a constructive way. I remember going to the James Cook Hotel back in the 60s and 70s, where there was no question, you carried your own bags to your room. There was no one there who would carry your bags for you. They’d think, ‘You’re just as big as I am.’ Belittling yourself to serve someone properly in a restaurant was not something that anyone aspired to. But today I think hospitality is an occupation and profession and New Zealanders have become particularly good at providing services without feeling they are undermining their own class, whatever that might be.”
Christ’s College headmaster Simon Leese, who arrived here from England in October 2003, believes the key similarity between Britain and New Zealand, “and probably every other country in the world”, is the dislocation between those people who have incomes and those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, who do not.
“In the UK, there is a stronger sense of working class, which is wholesome, honourable and respected, and then there’s almost an underclass. My perspective would be there is no stigma attached to being working class or middle class, but there is a disenfranchised underclass of people challenged economically or socially and that does seem to be over here as well. But the historic, aristocratic class notion seems to be completely missing in New Zealand.”
He has, however, come across the notion, seemingly prevalent in Christchurch, of a family tracing itself back to the arrival of the first immigrant ships.
“There seems to be an implicit aristocracy associated with early settlement – if you trace your family back six generations, that’s as good as it gets. That seems to be highly regarded by people – you mention the first four ships around here and you may as well be a Tudor dynasty. Once you get beyond that, perceptions of social stratifications are less strong. There is an informality in the way people deal with each other that tends to cut across that.”
Informality has always been a Kiwi trademark. While visiting a regiment of New Zealanders in North Africa, General Montgomery remarked to their commander, General Freyberg, “I notice your soldiers don’t salute.” “Wave to them, sir, and they’ll wave back,” said Freyberg.
McKinnon says that although New Zealanders recognise differences in people’s careers, trades or where they live, he hopes that social egalitarianism will always remain part of the national psyche.
“I would like to think the New Zealand education system and people will continue to treat people the same, irrespective of their social level. I hope the New Zealand personality will always keep that class hierarchy at bay here.”
Porsche brand manager Dane Fisher says he is not sure whether it’s a tall-poppy problem or a class issue that some New Zealanders automatically call anyone driving a Porsche a prick.
Either way, he’s pleased to observe that, as a society, New Zealanders are becoming less judgmental. Class is not the same as status, but since New Zealanders believe wealth is the main determinant of class, it is logical that there will be some overlap between class and expensive status symbols.
“If you were the managing director of a public company in New Zealand five years ago, and turned up in a black Porsche to your shareholders’ meetings, you would have had a riot,” Fisher says. “But if you had had a black Mercedes Benz of the same value, that would have been fine. People would have thought that that’s what you should have had.
“Is it a tall-poppy problem or a class issue?”
He is unsure of the answer, but thinks the buoyant economy has helped improve New Zealanders’ moods.
“I think now everyone is doing better. House prices have increased, so perceived net worth is higher and life’s not bad. It’s given us more of a positive outlook, so when someone drives past in an expensive car, people don’t think ‘prick’, they might think, ‘Hey, that’s a nice car.’
“That’s a really good thing, because, although we’re not going to be like Americans and celebrate wealth in over-abundance, if you’ve really done well and worked very hard and want to buy the car you’ve been dreaming of for 15 years and you finally buy it and the first night you own it someone keys it, it’s probably not very fair.
“But if on the first day you’ve bought it and you are feeling pretty good and you drive down to the set of lights and someone says ‘nice car’, that’s a pretty good society to be in, and I think we are moving that way.”
Tomes of material are written in Britain about the class system, including whether or not upper-class women are better in bed – a subject that arose most recently in relation to soccer star David Beckham’s alleged dalliances.
Beckham and his ex-Spice Girl wife Victoria illustrate one aspect of the workings of Britain’s class system. Although role models, style setters and enormously wealthy and successful in their careers, the couple are nevertheless never going to be upper class.
“Beckham would be in some class of nouveau riche arrivistes; people with new money, like nabobs who made money in India,” says Victoria University head of history Professor Don MacRaild. “These people were looked down on by people with real money and there is that sense that it doesn’t matter how much money you make, if you’ve come out of that working class you can’t ever achieve a degree of privilege and respect in the upper-middle class, and certainly not in the aristocratic class. There, it wouldn’t matter how much land you buy yourself, or even if you bought a title to go with it.
“If Beckham bought himself an earldom or whatever, or became the Marquis of somewhere or other, he’d still be regarded as an arriviste nouveau riche oik. There’s no question about that. However, he still is a good example of the interplay between class and power.
“Why do Beckham and Oasis, and others with a trendy image, end up visiting Downing St to see Tony Blair? Because it was part of Blair’s Cool Britannia. So, those people have a use to politicians, and they have access to certain levels of privilege and after his time as a footballer is finished, he’ll work as an ambassador for something like Diana’s landmine trust – those openings will be made available to people like him.
“But you always wonder if Beckham isn’t being used more than he is using. They still move in some pretty privileged upper-middle class circles, but they never achieve the respect that goes with the status.”