According to an article in yesterday's Guardian magazine, the good times are over for the middle class. A combination of economic recession and a fundamental change in the way we work, described as an "ongoing hollowing-out of the middle ranks in the British job market", will see an increasing number of people struggling to maintain a lifestyle that felt like a birthright.
I read this article with a curious detachment. Perhaps this is because I have never felt truly middle class. I have all of the trappings: a BBC accent, hundreds of books, a permanent supply of balsalmic vinegar, tasteful contemporary watercolours on the walls, Laura Ashley sofas (thank you Joyce) and the obligatory wooden floor, but I still fear that knock on the door, when they come to arrest me for impersonating a middle class person.
I grew up in a house where there were no novels and slept under nylon sheets that glowed in the dark with static electricity. My mother read The Sun and kept our loo rolls in knitted covers with a plastic ballerina at the top. We were the respectable working class. My parents believed in hard work, owning your own property and saving rather than spending. To them, gambling, smoking and drinking were utterly immoral and threatened to plunge them back into the class that were striving to leave behind.
I was the cuckoo in the nest. I spoke with a different accent, listened to Sibelius and liked "funny food". In later years, my father asked why I wanted a wooden floor: "In my day, that meant that you couldn't afford a carpet."
I clearly wasn't working class, so I must be middle, but when I read the Guardian article I still found it very hard to relate to any of the people mentioned. I certainly had nothing in common with a couple in Richmond, who earned at least £150,000 between them, but I also felt pretty remote from the Ormsby family, who were cited as being at the poorer end of the middle classes.
At first we seemed to have some things in common. Like the Ormsby's, we were driven out of London by the property prices and led a pretty frugal existence, expecting a week's holiday in France if we were lucky. But then I read that Kate Ormsby earned £39,000 and her husband, who worked in the same department had a lower-paid salary. Realistically, that put them on at least £60,000 per annum.
I have worked out that we are living on around half of that - hovering around a figure that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculated was the absolute minimum that a family of four could live on.
This "Minimum Income Standard" was announced a few weeks ago and in some ways, reading it came as a relief. Rather than feeling guilty for not managing our finances properly, I realised that we had worked minor miracles, surviving on a relatively low income. There have been sacrifices but when I look back to the 1990s, when we enjoyed a double-income and several holidays a year, I still feel richer.
I can think of several couples who work absurd hours, paying exhorbitant childcare fees just so that they can live the dream. They have the house in leafy SW London, the obligatory three or four holidays a year (including a trip to Lapland at Christmas) and the perfectly-designed garden. The fact that they barely see their daughters doesn't seem to come into the equation. The children have everything they want (apart from parental contact), go to an expensive class on Saturday morning and have a whole wardrobe of party dresses. What more could anyone want?
This recession will be a challenge for many, but I hope that people will use the current demise of the consumer society as an opportunity to realise that the "lifestyle" myth of the last 20 years hasn't made anyone happier. Indeed, many of us have become oppressed by debts and clutter.
I'm not romanticising about being skint. I'm not sure if poverty is good for the soul (I'm sure that the Poet Laura-eate wouldn't think so), but when I see people who earn four or five times as much as me looking so miserable, I can't help feeling vindicated. The best things in life are free, whatever the adverts say.