Rising multicultural middle class

Plaque commemorating the work of migrants in the construction of the Mundaring Weir

In response to my blog post about the disparity between educational qualifications and employment outcomes faced by select country of origin groups in Australia, Val Colic-Peisker reminded me that there is also a more optimistic way of looking at the intersection between ethnicity and class in Australia: one that foregrounds social transformations over the past half-century that have led to the decoupling of ‘non-Anglo identity’ with ‘working class.’ Australia today has something that few other countries have been equally successful in achieving: a linguistically and culturally diverse middle class.

The plaque in the picture commemorates the construction of the Mundaring Weir, one of Australia’s iconic post-war construction projects. When I visited the Mundaring Weir in 2008, I took the picture because of the poignant reference to the professors labouring on the construction site. It felt like a reminder of my good fortune to have arrived in Australia at a different time where migration did not necessarily mean having to swap academia for a construction site.

In the post-war period, almost all migrants from continental Europe ended up in Australia’s working class, irrespective of their pre-migration qualifications and experience. As a result, what emerged in post-war Australia was an almost complete overlap between being of non-English-speaking background (NESB) and being working class.

This overlap has started to fracture since the 1980s. Sydney’s affluent North Shore suburb Wahroonga provides an example: according to the 2011 census, Wahroonga residents have a weekly median personal income of AUD789 (in comparison to the Australia average of AUD577). 36.7% of Wahroonga residents are overseas born (more than the national average of 30.2%). The top countries of origin for the overseas-born residents of Wahroonga are England, South Africa, China, New Zealand and India. 22.1% of Wahroonga residents speak a language other than English at home (slightly less than the national average of 23.2%) and the top languages are Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Hindi and Persian (all of which are more frequent in Wahroonga than the national average). In sum, Wahroonga residents, as a sample of affluent Australia, are a diverse group and around 20% of them are NESB migrants.

As such Wahroonga is reflective of the growing multicultural middle class in Australia. According to Colic-Peisker (2011), the contemporary multicultural middle class feeds from two sources: the second generation and skilled migrants.

The second generation, i.e. the Australia-born and/or Australia-educated children of NESB migrants are educational high achievers and achieve significantly higher educational levels than both their migrant parents and their third (or more) generation peers. The sons and daughters not only of the post-war migrants from continental Europe but also of the early Asian migrants from the 1970s onwards have by now entered the workforce and have become one group that makes up the multicultural middle class.

Furthermore, the make-up of migrants themselves has changed. Since the introduction of the points test in 1979, the largest group of permanent entrants are in the skilled migration category. That means that they have high levels of educational qualifications and work experience and – even if they end up being employed below their level – still mostly join the Australian middle classes.

The table shows the percentage of the tertiary-educated, the percentage of those in professional employment and the median personal income for selected country of origin groups. Recent migrant groups are quite obviously more likely to be tertiary-educated and to be employed in professional roles than the old and intermediary birthplace groups and the Australia-born. As a consequence, the median personal income of some NESB groups is higher than the national average. The group with the highest median income are the Malaysia-born, followed by the Sri Lanka-, India-, Philippines- and Singapore-born.

(Source: Colic-Peisker 2011, p. 575)


Of course, another way of looking at it is that most NESB groups have lower incomes than the national average despite the fact that they include up to three times more tertiary-educated people than the national average.

That disparity notwithstanding, it is obvious that the Australian middle-class is indeed culturally and linguistically diverse and that the nexus between NESB and working class has been broken in this country.

ResearchBlogging.org Colic-Peisker, Val (2011). A New Era in Australian Multiculturalism? From Working-Class
“Ethnics” To a “Multicultural Middle-Class” International Migration Review, 45 (3), 562-587 DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7379.2011.00858.x

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Nick

    Of course “for me life no good, I have done it for my children” 😉

  • Sheila Pham

    Hi Ingrid, this is an excellent exposition of contemporary urban middle-class life in Australia. As someone from a migrant family – my parents arrived in Australia in 1980 as refugees – my experience is reflected strongly by this analysis. My partner, an Anglo-Australian for at least three generations, is the first person in his family to pursue a university education, and in terms of education my family has already caught up in one generation. I think in terms of wealth and education, migrants are very well represented in the middle class in Australia, as you explain – but it is possible to argue that migrants are still under-represented in public life and in spheres of influence. Migrants (from the 70s onwards, in particular) do not possess much political power in Australian society. But perhaps this situation is the same in many countries in the world, and Australia is no exception.

  • This is very positive, but what about an Aboriginal middle class and Aboriginal linguistic diversity?

    • Interesting question. The short answer is that an Aboriginal middle class doesn’t exist. According to ABS data, about 50% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live in financial stress (e.g., could not raise AUD2,000 within a week in an emergency) and less than a third have completed school to Year 12.

      Of course, there are people of Aboriginal descent who are members of the middle class. Just disproportionately few. Except for a few high profile cases, in my – admittedly very limited – experience, all the Aboriginal people who I’ve met and who could be considered middle class because of their engagement with higher education (admittedly a criterion with limitations) actually seemed white to me (i.e. I wouldn’t have known they were Aboriginal if that’s not how they’d been introduced or introduced themselves); which brings us back to the intersection of race and class. Indeed, Colic-Peisker suggests in her article (as others have done, too) that groups that can ‘pass as white’ or be accepted as ‘honorary whites’ may find it easier to advance in Anglo-dominated societies such as Australia.

      Another reason she suggests for the recent advances of Asians in particular may be in the fact that language and identity have become commodified and that their linguistic and social ties to the home country constitute a valuable asset. Donna Butorac’s thesis, in fact, contains exactly such a case study of a Chinese migrant lawyer who experienced everyday racism in Australia (including racial insults in the street) but found a good job and advanced her career on the basis of her Chinese and her experience with Chinese law. Again, the lack of commodifiable linguistic and cultural skills would close this avenue to upward social mobility to Aboriginal people.

  • “The group with the highest median income are the Malaysia-born, followed by the Sri Lanka-, India-, Philippines- and Singapore-born.”

    Looking at the list of countries from which recent groups come, it seems that people from countries that belong to Kahcru’s outer circle enjoy a higher median income than people who come from the expanding circle. That is to say; people who come from countries where English enjoys a stronger presence have a higher income than those who come from countries where English is basically a foreign, rather than a second language.

    Hence, it might be the case that some groups are better off because they are less ‘NESB’ than others.

    • Interesting idea! However, I think there are a number of problems with it:

      • If an ‘expanding circle’ origin were a significant factor than the Bangladesh- and Pakistan-born should find themselves in similar positions to the India- and Sri Lanka-born; they don’t.
      • Except for the Malaysians, the other high-income NESB groups aren’t actually very successful on other indicators of class status, i.e. in transforming their qualifications and experience into work at appropriate levels. This suggests that their high income-levels are more likely to derive from successful entrepreneurship, setting up their own businesses etc. rather than having their accents found ‘less NESB’ in gate-keeping encounters such as job interviews.
      • What we know about contexts where language is an explicit admission criterion (e.g., university admission), students from the ‘expanding circle’ are treated in the same way as other NESBs, i.e. they have to demonstrate appropriate English proficiency levels through IELTS or TOEFL scores (a perpetual irritation to my students from these countries who have been educated through the medium of English …)
      • Thanks a lot for the reply.

        First, in outer circle countries English is a second language for some (often among middle- and upper-class urbanites), while it is a foreign language for others (rural folks, for example). There are of course other factors that determine English language proficiency in those countries, but the point is that it could be the case that immigrants from those countries happen to belong to groups whose members have some mastery of English, which gives them a linguistic advantage over those come from expanding circle countries.

        Of course, some countries, such as the Nordic countries, are classified as expanding circle, even though the percentage of people with good command of English there is higher compared to that in outer circle countries like Pakistan or Tanzania. Hence, we have to check the (socio)linguistic profile of immigrants prior to their arrival in Australia.

        • Second, accent is of course a barrier to social mobility, but low proficiency is even a bigger barrier. So, someone with a foreign accent but good command of English may face less problems than someone whose English (pronunciation, grammar, sentence structure, word choice) leaves much to be desired.

          Successful entrepreneurship might still require mastery of English, but of course it depends on the environment in which the business operates, just as you demonstrated in “The Sociolinguistics of Nail Care.” Hence, we need to investigate which types of businesses require less English and whether successful immigrant entrepreneurs are involved in them.

          • Third, I teach at a Malaysian English-medium university. In addition to General English courses, I also teach English for Academic Writing, a course taken by final year students. Looking at their writing, I would say that about 80% of them make errors we English teachers call horrible, even though they study entirely in English as the university itself is an international one. Still, they are often sought-after in the local job market partly because of their English. Of course, that advantage would disappear if they decide to study in or immigrate to a country like Australia, but they would still be better off, at least in the beginning, compared to those whose English proficiency is extremely limited.

            Hence, people belonging to certain groups in outer circle countries might enjoy a relative advantage compared to others. I am not sure though whether those with a relatively high income in Australia belong to those groups. That remains to be investigated.

            Thanks again.

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