Classes are major social groupings where the members of a group share similar levels of economic resources, property, status and prestige. Usually this extends over several generations. Most societies have hierarchies of such groupings, and New Zealand is no exception.
For over a century, from the mid-19th century until the later 20th century, many commentators suggested that New Zealand was a classless society. Immigrants from Great Britain frequently praised the lack of inherited classes and the relatively high standard of living. In 1959 New Zealand’s leading historian, Keith Sinclair, concluded that while New Zealand was not classless, ‘[i]t must be more nearly classless, however, than any other society in the world. Some people are richer than others, but wealth carries no great prestige and no prerogative of leadership.’1
In 1948 an American political scientist, Leslie Lipson, suggested that in place of a Statue of Liberty, ‘if any sculptured allegory were to be placed at the approaches of Auckland or Wellington harbour, it would assuredly be a Statue of Equality’.2
In popular culture many observers noted a cult of egalitarian mateship which rejected those who ‘gave themselves airs’. There was a widespread belief that equality was a key New Zealand value, implying both equality of opportunity and some relative equality of condition.
Yet in a 1977 book, Social class in New Zealand, all contributors, who spanned a range of ideologies, agreed that New Zealand did have ‘some kind of social differentiation that resembles some form of class.’3
The classic definition of class was by Karl Marx, who observed the development of industrial–capitalist society in 19th-century Britain. He based his classes on their relationship with the means of production, such as factories. Those who owned the means of production were the bourgeoisie; those who had only their labour to sell were the proletariat or working class. However, this analysis is not very useful in understanding New Zealand classes.
For a long time New Zealand had little industry or specialisation, and rural social hierarchies were different from the urban ones that Marx studied. There also developed several categories of worker who sat uncomfortably between Marx's bourgeoisie and working class:
Since Marx, others have offered definitions of class. Most take a pluralist view that class position includes, in addition to occupational role: income, prestige, ownership of property, education, culture and lifestyle, and political power.
Marx drew a distinction between:
Even if we reject Marx’s crude definitions of class, class consciousness is a valuable indication of classes.
In New Zealand class consciousness was confused. Many immigrants brought European understandings of class to the new world and there was sometimes a clash between colonial realities and old-world cultural values. Some rich settlers had expectations based on British aristocratic culture; some poor immigrants brought working-class beliefs from the industrial areas of Britain which sometimes did not fit in New Zealand.
In New Zealand, class distinctions are only one aspect of social hierarchies. Distinctions between Māori and Pākehā, and more recently between different immigrant groups, have been major markers of social difference and confuse class analysis. Māori have also had their own social systems.
Many studies of class assume that the social position of a family follows from that of the male worker. But on many occasions, especially since the 1960s, a high proportion of adult women have been in paid employment, and their occupational role and income may be quite different from their spouse’s. The role of both women and men needs to be considered. Class identity often belongs to families, not individuals.
From the beginning of organised European settlement in New Zealand, newcomers have brought class expectations. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose ideas influenced the southern settlements, envisaged a society of traditional rural classes, with a land-owning aristocracy, small farmers, and hard-working labourers. The ships that brought the first migrants were divided between the cabin class of upper-class passengers who paid their own way, and the steerage accommodation of working people, who often got assisted passage (all or part of their fares were paid to encourage them to emigrate).
It has often been claimed that colonial New Zealand possessed an aristocratic gentry, especially among the South Island land-owning families of Canterbury and Otago. Certainly there were wealthy families; in Canterbury a surprising number were headed by the younger sons of aristocratic British families. From 1840 to 1929 there were over 1,000 people who left estates in those two provinces worth more than £10,000 (around $1 million in today's money), and about half of these were rural landowners. There were 174 pastoralists (who owned large sheep farms) who left estates with an average value of almost £75,000 (about $7 million). Many of these families had very large houses with landscaped gardens. They had servants and gardeners, followed English fashions in furnishings, and imported antique furniture. Like the English aristocracy, they hosted balls and paid ‘calls’ on their neighbours. They sent their children, especially sons, to private secondary schools, either elite local schools like Christ’s College or even back ‘home’ to England.
Many South Island landowners aspired to an English woodland and garden. In 1859 Sir David Monro, a Nelson pastoralist and political leader, ordered 100 ash trees, 100 sycamores, some mulberries and arbutus, 200 oaks, 200 plane trees, and a dozen beech trees.
Sometimes the rural elite exercised leadership as local squires, officers in the local militia and representatives in Wellington. Sir John Hall, who owned about 12,150 hectares at Hororata, funded the local Anglican church, the village hall and the domain. He was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council for its whole life and eventually became a minister and then premier in the colonial government. Most of Otago’s provincial superintendents and three out of four in Canterbury owned large areas of land.
The rural elite were not the only men with aristocratic pretensions. In Dunedin there was a commercial elite – merchants like John Macfarlane Ritchie, who became President of the elite Dunedin club, or the importers and later clothing manufacturers John Ross and Robert Glendinning. In Auckland there were importers like Sir John Logan Campbell, who eventually gave his One Tree Hill estate to the city, or the lawyer and entrepreneur Frederick Whitaker. Such people lived in very large houses in select parts of the city. In Wellington too a visiting Scot, David Kennedy, claimed in the 1870s that ‘[b]eing the seat of Government, there is a high upper circle of aristocracy, which is more apparent than in any other New Zealand town.’1
Yet compared with the European aristocracy, the colonial elite were a small bourgeois group involved in actively managing farms or running businesses. They were not a hereditary class who enjoyed their privileges in leisure. The vast majority came from middle class, not gentry, backgrounds in Britain; many were sons of artisans, small farmers or traders. Their competitive advantage was less often their birth than that they had arrived and set up business early. They were nearly all working proprietors heavily involved in the running of farms or businesses. They were entrepreneurial in approach, with the classic middle-class values of sobriety and hard work. They usually divided their estates among all their children, including their daughters, rather than following male primogeniture which involved passing on property to the eldest son – the essential device for inherited status. The very rich, with estates of over £40,000, were few, numbering less than 2% of all who left estates.
Undoubtedly there was a bourgeois elite in colonial and early 20th-century New Zealand, but not an English-style aristocracy.
Outside the elite, was there a class hierarchy in colonial New Zealand? As New Zealand was not an industrial society, and the majority of people lived in the country or in small towns, there was no great job specialisation. There was movement between occupations, and many workers had a number of seasonal jobs. Artisans (skilled manual workers) usually served an apprenticeship and worked as employed journeymen before becoming masters who employed others. For them, craft was more important than class. It is difficult to establish a water-tight occupational hierarchy.
However in urban society there was a rough ranking of occupation on the basis of income and prestige. At the top was a wealthier elite of landowners, merchants, bankers and some professional people like doctors and lawyers. Then came more minor entrepreneurs, and professionals like teachers. Next were a group of respectable workers such as shopkeepers, clerks and skilled artisans. Finally there were the unskilled labourers. In smaller towns these distinctions became less important.
Even in New Zealand’s small cities it was hard to translate these occupational contrasts into tight class distinctions. For a start, working people were better rewarded than in Great Britain – wages were higher, hours of work less and food cheaper. Constantine Dillon wrote in the 1840s: ‘This is a glorious country for a labouring man!!! No starvation, no fear, no poor law union, high wages, short hours, infinite grazing for cows’.1 There was a growing expectation that social mobility was possible during one’s own lifetime, and more especially for one’s children. Old-world marks of inferior status began to wither. Domestic servants became ‘uppity’ and when in 1851 Charlotte Godley instructed her servant Elizabeth to wear caps again Godley commented that this was ‘very uncolonial’.2
In a letter to the Auckland Herald in 1879 ‘Head of Family’ complained about the stroppiness of colonial servants who ‘grilled prospective employers’, enjoyed exorbitant wages and would not tolerate criticism.3
Things tightened up in the depression of the 1880s. It was harder to find work, and men often had to leave their homes and drift from one short-term labouring job to another. By the late 1880s there was a scandal in Dunedin about alleged ‘sweating’ (exploitation of workers) in the clothing industry. The depression and increased urbanisation heightened disparities.
Land ownership was another class indicator. In the cities distinct residential areas emerged. In Dunedin, the wealthy were found on the City Rise or in Māori Hill, the skilled artisans on the flat in suburbs such as Caversham. In Wellington distinctions emerged between the grand residences of Thorndon and the workers’ cottages in Newtown. Community institutions such as churches or lodges which had built links between people in small towns now reinforced difference.
Yet, in comparison with Europe, property ownership was remarkably widespread. The 1882 freeholders’ return revealed 71,000 people owned land in the country – about half the adult male population. This land ownership gave many colonial New Zealanders a sense of middle-class respectability. By comparison with Britain and North America, the suburbs were more mixed. In Caversham, for example, a remarkable range of people lived close to each other.
The absence of an aristocracy, the small size of firms and towns, relative affluence, some social mobility, and broad property ownership weakened class consciousness in colonial New Zealand. Some argue it virtually disappeared and that aspirations for individual mobility eclipsed working-class consciousness. However, in the 1880s working people in the larger towns organised into unions, with the first major industrial action occurring with the maritime strike of 1890. In certain places, such as among Dunedin artisans, the language of class struggle was heard. Political candidates claimed that they represented ‘labour’ interests. Yet such consciousness was limited in time and place. It was found only in the large cities, on the wharves or at coal mines such as Brunner on the West Coast.
The working class was also divided by important cultural differences – between Pākehā and Māori, Catholic and Protestant, or between those aspiring to respectable middle-class sobriety and those enjoying the camaraderie of the pub. There was an important distinction between those who owned their piece of land, were married and raised a family, and those who were footloose, unattached and drifted from one unskilled job to another. This disrupted any sense of a coherent working class.
There were important distinctions of wealth, occupation, property ownership and culture in colonial New Zealand. But it is difficult to argue for the existence of tightly demarcated classes.
From the 1890s the large pastoral estates began to be broken up, and the huge holdings and conspicuous inequalities disappeared. Yet, distinctions in the size of estates remained important in rural areas. Particularly in the sheep-farming regions of the east coast of both islands, a landed elite remained who sent their children to private schools, hunted with hounds and followed the taste of the English upper classes. In these areas farmer owners and farm workers did not usually mix socially. But in other rural and small-town communities there was considerable camaraderie across groups.
In Ōhakune in the 1960s a researcher concluded that ‘the store manager and his assistant salesman, or the school teacher and the farm labourer will often share the same gossip, the same yard of bar space, or the same lottery ticket.’1
In the 20th century New Zealand became an urban society. By 1911 about half the population lived in cities or towns; by the 1950s the figure was over 70%. Here a hierarchy of social groupings emerged based on distinctions of occupation, income, place of residence and culture. Whether this amounted to strong class divisions is less clear.
Occupational distinctions were still confused by high levels of self-employment and geographical mobility. But as cities became larger there was greater specialisation of labour and finer distinctions of status among different occupations. For many the fundamental contrast was between professionals and non-manual white-collar workers in offices and shops and blue-collar manual workers in factories or who those who worked as craftspeople or in the skilled trades such as carpentry or plumbing.
Writer Phoebe Meikle, who grew up in Tauranga in the 1920s, remembered: ‘Top ranking was given to doctors, lawyers, architects, at least one dentist, bank managers, the Anglican clergyman, one head master, the proprietor of the Bay of Plenty Times, the shipping agent, and their wives, with lawyers and doctors top of the tops.’2
There was also a more complex hierarchy. Among white-collar workers the top slots belonged to employers and managers of large businesses, and the high-status professions like medicine and law. Each comprised about 2–3% of the city workforce in 1936. They were sometimes described as ‘upper middle class’. Professionals established their position through a legal requirement for educational qualifications and disciplinary control of the profession’s members.
The remaining white-collar workers consisted of:
By 1936 these white-collar workers represented over 40% of the city work-force, and almost half of women in paid work.
Blue-collar workers also had a range of statuses, from the skilled workers who owned their own businesses and had gone through a formal apprenticeship, down to unskilled manual workers such as labourers and factory workers. In 1936 almost a quarter of the workforce was unskilled.
Although there was a clear hierarchy of prestige attached to professional and white collar occupations, until the 1960s and 1970s income differences between men in different jobs were not great. In 1926 the median income of top professionals such as doctors or accountants was only about twice the annual income of unskilled manual workers like roadmen, and only about 50% higher than clerical workers’. Information from estates of people who died suggests considerable inequality, but it declined over the first half of the 20th century. In 1915 the top 5% of estates owned 57.1% of the wealth; while the bottom half owned only 5.5%. By 1971 the top 5% owned 32.2% of the wealth, while the bottom half owned 12.7%.
Property distribution also suggests a society becoming more middle class. For example, in Johnsonville, near Wellington, the value of property owned by professional and business people in 1905 was over four times the value of property owned by unskilled workers. By 1928 the difference had narrowed to about double. By the 1970s some 70% of the nation’s householders were owner-occupiers.
Location also marked social difference – in Christchurch, doctors, lawyers and businessmen owned houses in Fendalton, while factory workers rented homes in Sydenham. State-house areas were regarded as working class. Whether someone rented or owned their home remained an important marker of status, but it was as often a reflection of age or life-stage as of long-term class position.
In the first half of the 20th century, there were important differences of occupation, income, and property ownership. A professional person owning a home in Remuera was regarded as belonging to a different ‘class’ from a manual labourer living in rented accommodation in South Auckland. But whether there was a class boundary between a teacher who owned a house in a new suburb and the plumber next door is less clear. There was a large and varied middle class.
Between 1890 and 1970 there were perceived differences in style and values between people of higher and lesser socio-economic position. There was a tendency for people at the top, especially if they belonged to the rural elite, to speak with a refined ‘English’ accent, while working people tended to have a broader New Zealand accent. Richer people drank in private bars, working men in public ones. At the racecourse, those sitting in the members’ stand were distinguished from the ordinary punters. Trains had first-class carriages until 1978. Professional families tended to have many books, and listened to the non-commercial YA radio stations, while the commercial ZBs catered for working people. Yet these differences were not extreme – for example the difference in comfort between first- and second-class train carriages was never as great as on English trains.
On trains the second-class carriages were at the front of the train, close to the noise, dust and smoke of the engine. First-class carriages were at the back. Class distinction was tragically demonstrated in the Tangiwai railway disaster of 1953. All five second-class carriages plunged into the Whangaehu River, the leading first-class carriage teetered on the edge before falling in (but all but one passenger were saved), and the remaining three first-class carriages remained safe on the track.
How much did material and cultural differences lead to a subjective sense of class consciousness? Class identity over time was softened by some upward mobility. In the Wellington suburb of Karori from 1928 to 1970 more than two-fifths of the sons of semi-skilled or unskilled blue-collar workers had reached white-collar occupations by the time they were married. But in the less well-off suburb of Johnsonville the figure was more like one fifth; and about half of the sons of professional or managerial fathers inherited their father’s status. So, as well as mobility, there was also considerable class persistence. In the 1960s students’ aspirations for education and career were strongly correlated with their father’s occupation.
In the 1970s Johnsonville people had no agreement on the number of classes in New Zealand. A mechanic thought there were two: ‘working and middle’. A welder believed in three: ‘The upper class are the wealthiest and quite small, the middle class which is very large in New Zealand, and, of course, the workers’. An electrician claimed four: ‘the upper class, the middle and lower class … and you could mark them out by their jobs, their houses and habits. Then you would have your unemployed, Polynesians, those sorts of people.’1
The strongest evidence of class consciousness in the mid-20th century was in politics; and it was often generated by industrial disputes, especially the national strikes of 1913 and 1951. In general, rural landowners and urban managers or higher professionals voted for the National Party. Unionists and manual workers voted for the Labour Party. Suburbs which housed people at either extreme showed quite different political loyalties. Sydenham and Auckland Central had huge Labour majorities; Karori and Fendalton had National majorities. Yet even these distinctions began to soften. In the Labour Party cabinet of 1935–38 ten of the 13 ministers were ex-unionists; but in the 1972–75 cabinet there were only five of 20. Increasingly people with a professional, educated background were represented in that party.
When people in Johnsonville were questioned in the 1970s most did recognise the existence of classes, but few considered class action important to social change. There remained a strong cult of egalitarianism, and a belief in the possibility of personal upward mobility. A major concern was that the rich or those with status did not give themselves ‘airs’. It remained important that the manager or the successful professional did not act ‘posh’, but remained ‘a good joker’.
In the two decades of the 20th century, evidence of increasing economic differences appeared.
Between 1951 and 1981 there was a slight narrowing of income differences, with the top 20% of the population going from earning 58.6% of the total market income to 54.4%. But in the late 1980s and 1990s the reduction of top income tax rates, the introduction of GST which hurt those on lower incomes and the cutting of benefit levels in 1991 considerably increased inequality. Census figures suggest that in 1986 the top 20% of the population earned 46.3% of the total income (which includes benefits and pensions), while the bottom 30% earned 6.9%. So even at that stage inequality was significant. But by 2013 the share of the top 20% of total income was 51.5%, and the bottom 30% had fallen to 5.1%. The international Gini coefficient table suggested that in 2014 New Zealand had become the eighth most unequal society by income of the 34 OECD countries as compared with 20th in 1985.
The Household Surveys also pointed to great change. When housing costs were subtracted from income, those at the 20th percentile saw their real incomes increase by just over a fifth from 1982 to 2016; but those at the 80th percentile had 50% more to spend, and those at the 90th had over two thirds more money.
In terms of holdings of wealth by 2014 the top 10% of households held almost 53% of the total, making New Zealand the tenth least equal society by wealth in the OECD – more unequal than Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom. Such differences became more conspicuous. In 2015 there were four individual and three family group billionaires in the country, and 56 individuals or families with more than $200 million.
On the other hand, there was growing evidence of material poverty especially among children. By 2016 over 200,000 children (19% of the total) were below the poverty line defined as 50% of the median household income (after housing costs). Poverty levels were about the OECD average.
In 2010, when investors in Hanover Finance were suffering major losses, the public became outraged when the company’s co-owner Mark Hotchin continued to build a $30-million mansion on fashionable Paritai Drive in Auckland. He also owned a holiday home on Waiheke Island valued at $13.8 million.
Since 1980 there was a continuing decline in the numbers employed in the rural workforce and in manufacturing. Globalisation led to a loss of unskilled jobs. Instead, by 2013 70.2% of the labour force was in the tertiary and services sector. This placed more emphasis upon educational qualifications. Children of professional parents were far more likely to attend university than children of manual workers. As the proportion of national income going to wage and salary earners fell by comparison with operating surpluses, more women went out to work to sustain family incomes, but at significantly lower average pay than men.
There also emerged considerable disparities in property ownership. Property values increased faster than inflation and this rewarded those who owned houses. But the levels of home ownership fell - in 1991 73.8% of households were owner-occupiers; in 2013 the figure was 64.8%. Tenants of rental properties tended to be more mobile which hurt children’s schooling and they suffered from unhealthy cold and damp conditions. As rents rose, those in the bottom 20% of households were paying 51% of their income on rents. Even for home owners, there were striking contrasts. In March 2018 the average house price in the luxury resort of Queenstown was $1,121,000, while in Invercargill it was only $262,000. The average price of a house in Auckland city was over seven time the price of a house in Wairoa.
Increases in house prices had generational effects. Older people who were likely to be home owners benefitted from increases in house prices, while younger people found it increasingly difficult to buy their own home.
By the 2010s there were clear differences of lifestyle and prospects within New Zealand society. Families of top professional people and business executives had homes in wealthy parts of the city and a second place by the beach, while their children grew up healthy with better food, books in the house and were likely to attend university. Those from families headed by an unskilled manual worker rented over-crowded properties, while their children had higher levels of sickness and were more likely to fail at school.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
With the growing disjuncture between traditional classes and pockets of poverty and deprivation, other identity groups were used to analyse inequality. They included:
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.
Boston, Jonathan and Simon Chapple. Child Poverty in New Zealand. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014.
Caldwell, Jill and Christopher Brown. 8 tribes: the hidden classes of New Zealand. Auckland: Wicked Little Books, 2007.
Crothers, Charles (ed.) 'Special issue on Inequality and Class in New Zealand.' New Zealand Sociology Vol. 28, No. 3, (2013).
McAloon, Jim. No idle rich: the wealthy in Canterbury and Otago 1840–1914. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2002.
Olssen, Erik and Maureen Hickey. Class and occupation: the New Zealand reality. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005.
Pearson, David G. Johnsonville: continuity and change in a New Zealand township. Auckland: Allen & Unwin, 1980.
Pearson, D. G. and D. C. Thorns. Eclipse of equality: social stratification in New Zealand. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983.
Pitt, David, ed. Social class in New Zealand. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1977.
Rushmore, Max. Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2013.
Rushmore, Max (Ed.). The Inequality Debate: An Introduction. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2014.
This page on the Ministry of Health’s website provides maps which show New Zealand’s socio-economic landscape.
An overview of current research on inequality by economist Brian Easton.
Report by Bryan Perry for the Ministry of Social Development on poverty levels since 1982 using data from household surveys.