Story: Class

Page 7. New groupings

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Class consciousness

Despite the increase in inequality in the 1980s and 1990s, there was for a long time little class analysis of New Zealand society. In a 2009 survey few people regarded class as important to their identity. There were several reasons for this:

  • The international collapse of communism weakened allegiance to Marxism.
  • The rise of employment in the services sector and the reduction of manual labour in manufacturing and agriculture reduced traditional strongholds of working class consciousness.
  • Labour reforms reduced the power of unions. Trade union density in the workforce fell from 70% in 1980 to just over 20% in 1999.
  • The identification of the Labour Party with manual workers and working class consciousness weakened. In 2011 more manual and service workers voted for National than Labour.
  • The growing Māori population and major immigration flows from the Pacific and Asia placed a focus on ethnic divisions rather than on class.
  • The increasing participation of women in the workforce complicated the old association between the male breadwinner’s occupation and class identity.
  • Some analysts such as the market researchers, Jill Caldwell and Christopher Brown, focussed on cultural divisions, which they described as ‘tribes’, rather than class divisions of income, property ownership and occupation.
  • For a time the traditional New Zealand belief in social equality weakened. A Massey University survey suggested that in 1992 72% of New Zealanders thought that income differences were too large; by 2009 the figure had dropped to 62%.

Concern about Inequality

In the 2010s new expressions of concern about inequality appeared. There was increasing documentation of levels of inequality, which one commentator described in 2014 as ‘something of a crisis’.1 The extent of child poverty in New Zealand became a major issue in the 2017 election and the focus of public debate. A poll in 2013 revealed that 52% of New Zealanders were ‘very concerned’ about inequality.

Interestingly, while inequality became a major focus, class analysis remained weak. Some sociologists suggested a division of society largely on an occupational basis into five, six or even eight classes: But the lack of agreement suggested the uncertain status of class analysis. To highlight the situation of individuals and households who were most deprived, other frameworks were used.

Government indices of deprivation

From the 1990s, governments developed a number of ways to analyse social and economic deprivation. This was directed improving outcomes and the better use of resources.

The Ministry of Education divided schools into ten groups to identify low socio-economic communities. Using census information, meshblocks of households were examined from five perspectives:

  • household income
  • occupation in terms of the skill levels of parents' jobs
  • household crowding
  • education level of parents
  • income support reflecting the percentage of parents receiving a benefit.

In 2016 this system came under review and was likely to be replaced by 2020.

Government concern about inequalities of health led in 1995 to another index of deprivation. An atlas of deprivation based on census meshblocks was produced and updated after each census. In 2013 the following indices of deprivation were used in decreasing importance:

  • no internet at home
  • householder on a means-tested benefit
  • household income below an acceptable threshold
  • unemployed
  • lack of qualifications
  • not owning own home
  • single-parent family
  • reduced living space
  • no access to a car

Such indices provided useful measures of deprivation.  But they highlighted geographical areas of deprivation, not individuals or families; and they focussed on poor communities rather than analysing the whole society into classes.

Identity groups

With the growing disjuncture between traditional classes and pockets of poverty and deprivation, other identity groups were used to analyse inequality. They included:

  • Māori and Pasifika people: the high levels of deprivation among Māori and Pasifika people (such as lower incomes, ill-health, poorer educational outcomes, and lower rates of home ownership) encouraged policy-makers to treat these ethnic communities as groups requiring particular measures and also inspired these people to organise among themselves. Half of poor children were Māori/Pasifika in 2016.
  • Solo Parents: there was increasing evidence that solo parenthood made a huge difference to the quality of life for both parent and children. Half of poor children were from solo parent families.
  • Age: the universality of national superannuation, and the increase in house prices created a major social disjuncture between young and old. There were few old people suffering in indices of material hardship, while young families renting houses had high levels of deprivation.
  • Gender: where once a family’s class position was determined by the occupation of the male, high levels of female employment and the numbers of solo mothers meant that the gender became a major determinant of social and economic status.

The importance of these new groups in determining incomes, material comforts and status made traditional class analysis less relevant in 21st century New Zealand than it had once been.

  1. Charles Crothers, 'Social Class in New Zealand: a review based on survey evidence.' New Zealand Sociology Vol. 29, No. 3 (2014): 66. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - New groupings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018