Kōrero: Class

Whārangi 4. A middle-class society? – material differences, 1890 to 1970

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Rural elite

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.

All mates together

In Ohakune 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

City occupations

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.

Top dogs

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:

  • semi-professionals such as teachers and nurses – women were especially well-represented among these groups
  • petty proprietors such as grocers or small shop-keepers
  • petty officials, who were usually uniformed agents of the state such as police or ticket-collectors
  • salespeople, clerks and public servants.

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.

Incomes and wealth

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.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. D. G. Pearson and D. C. Thorns, Eclipse of equality: social stratification in New Zealand. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1983, p. 236. Back
  2. Erik Olssen and Maureen Hickey, Class and occupation: the New Zealand reality. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005, p. 18. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - A middle-class society? – material differences, 1890 to 1970', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/class/page-4 (accessed 29 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018