What is it about?

Have you ever wondered why some people seem to have it all while others struggle with their lives? It is not just a matter of money. Social class is a complex mix of economic disparities with who you know, where you belong to, and even how healthy and attractive you are. Our study, which delves deep into the social landscape of the Netherlands, uncovers the structural nature of class distinctions. We conducted a dedicated survey and linked the responses of almost 3,000 adults to national register data on income and wealth. What did we find? Quantitative analysis revealed six distinct social classes, from the established upper echelon to the struggling precariat. Each class has its own blend of economic, social, cultural, and person capital. The study also shows that: - The resource-based class structure intersects with differences in ethnicity, gender and other forms of social hierarchy; - Social classes have characteristic age profiles. This reflects how the four types of capital have developed over the life course in different generations; - Those with limited capital often feel disconnected from society and politics, and report lower levels of well-being.

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Why is it important?

In today’s public debate, the large gaps in income and wealth, the changing nature of work, and the new fault lines that are emerging in modern societies are key issues. We need to pay more attention to social class because many leaders, citizens, and even some experts do not fully recognise the deep-rooted nature of inequality. Putting the spotlight on social class is crucial for three reasons: - Contradiction with core values: Class distinctions can signal a worrying shift towards a fragmented society, which is at odds with social values relating to fairness, equality, and solidarity; - Unjust roots: The class hierarchy may reflect factors that are difficult to justify, such as unequal power dynamics, biased legislation, discriminatory practices, and the perpetuation of wealth across generations; - Social fallout: When society is divided along class lines, it can undermine social cohesion and breed distrust in politics and politicians, weakening the democratic fabric of society. Our solution? A three-pronged approach: - Invest collectively in the forms of capital that are essential at critical junctures in life (e.g. selection moments in education, when people enter or leave the labour market, when they start a family, or when they grow old and their physical health deteriorates); - Ensure proper coordination and integration of regulations and organisations within the public sector; - Guarantee that basic services meet adequate standards for all, while providing additional support where needed for those facing particular challenges (e.g. exceptional medical costs). By acknowledging and addressing class issues, we can work towards a better society for everyone.


This article is the fruit of a research programme initiated at The Netherlands Institute for Social Research|SCP in 2014. The issues we have identified are probably not confined to the Netherlands, so we believe it is important to share our findings with a wider international audience. We hope to publish further English-language academic papers on the ‘Disparities in the Netherlands’ project in the near future.

J. Cok Vrooman
The Netherlands Institute for Social Research|SCP; Utrecht University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: A contemporary class structure: Capital disparities in The Netherlands, PLoS ONE, January 2024, PLOS,
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0296443.
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