Classes are major social groupings composed of people with similar levels of economic resources, property and status. They are traditionally defined as working class, middle class and upper class.
The Europeans who settled New Zealand brought their ideas about class with them. But though there were wealthy land-owning families, they often came from middle-class backgrounds. They were not like the English aristocracy, and worked running their farms or businesses.
Outside of the rich, it was difficult to identify distinct classes. Many people worked for themselves. Life was better for working people than in Europe – they were paid more and worked fewer hours. Many owned the homes they lived in and it was possible to move between social classes.
Differences grew after the 1880s economic depression. It was harder to find work, and men often had to leave home and work as short-term labourers. Workers started unions to argue for their rights and people became more conscious of the differences between employers and workers.
Class in the cities
People could be split into ‘white-collar’ workers who worked in offices and shops and ‘blue-collar’ workers who did manual work. Within these groups, a lawyer had more prestige than a shopkeeper, and a tradesperson with a business had more status than a factory worker.
People of different occupations began to live in different areas of towns and cities, although separation by class was not as extreme as in larger industrial cities overseas. People who owned their own houses had a higher status than those who rented, but increasingly this reflected their age more than their class.
A middle-class society
In the first 70 years of the 20th century there was less disparity between high-status occupations and those with lower status. For example, in 1926 professionals such as doctors and accountants earned only around twice the salary of unskilled workers such as roadmen. The middle-class of employed, home-owning people grew, and middle-class values associated with paid work, thrift, saving and home ownership were praised. New Zealand became known as a country of equality.
From the 1980s the differences between the top income earners and the lowest became ever greater. By 2001 the top 10% of households held 48% of the wealth. House prices rose everywhere, but particularly in more desirable areas.
Though New Zealand was less equal, people were more accepting of this. They were less interested in examining class. Class had also been complicated by differences between ethnic groups.
In the 1990s the government began to measure the wealth of school communities, and also monitored areas to see where household incomes were lowest.