Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Economic Stress and the Great Recession in Ireland: Polarization, Individualization or ‘Middle Class Squeeze’?


Following an unprecedented boom, since 2008 Ireland has experienced a severe economic and labour market crisis. Considerable debate persists as to where the heaviest burden of the recession has fallen. Conventional measures of relative income poverty and inequality have a limited capacity to capture the impact of the recession in terms of social exclusion. This is exacerbated by a dramatic increase in the scale of debt problems including significant negative equity issues. Our analysis provides no evidence for individualization or class polarization of risk. Instead, while economic stress level is highly stratified in class terms in both boom and bust periods, the changing impact of class is highly contingent on life course stage. An income based classification showed that the affluent income class saw its advantage relative to the income poor class decline at the earliest stage of the life-course and remain stable across the rest of the life course. At the other end of the hierarchy, the income poor class experienced a relative improvement in their situation in the earlier life-course phase and no significant change at the later stages. For the remaining income classes, life-course stage was even more important. At the earliest stage the precarious class experienced some improvement in its situation while the outcomes for the middle classes remain unchanged. In the mid-life course the precarious and lower middle classes experienced disproportionate increases in their stress levels while at the later stage it is the combined middle classes that lost out. Additional effects over time relating to social class are restricted to the deteriorating situation of the petit bourgeoisie at the middle stage of the life-course. The pattern is clearly a good deal more complex than that suggested by conventional notions of ‘middle class squeeze’ and points to the distinctive challenges relating to welfare and taxation policy faced by governments in the Great Recession.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Fixed poverty lines are a good deal more responsive to cyclical changes but have featured much less in European policy debates (Madden 2014).

  2. 2.

    Comparative analysis involving EU-SILC has tended to operate with measures of material deprivation that, in fact, encompass items that in terms of their manifest content appear to be more plausibly construed as indicators of subjective economic stress. For further discussion of these issues see (Whelan and Maître 2013).

  3. 3.

    Central Bank August 2013, Residential and mortgage Arrears Figures q2 2013.

  4. 4.

    Extracted 11/11/13.

  5. 5.

    For a detailed discussion of this notion see Kuz (2013).

  6. 6.

    The rotating nature of the SILC sample where individuals can be included in the sample for a maximum of four consecutive years together with substantial attrition problems in the Irish case mean that it is not possible to employ panel analysis to arrive at reliable conclusions relating to the impact of individual movement between classes.

  7. 7.

    In calculating standard errors we adjust for the clustering of individuals within households.

  8. 8.

    The household reference person is the person responsible for the accommodation. When the responsibility is shared the oldest person is chosen and in case of identical age, the HRP title is attributed to the male respondent.

  9. 9.

    In contrast to a simple additive measure which is uniform across years which would produce only 6 values for the stress variable the heterogeneous prevalence weighted procedures produces a continuous variable with 237 values.

  10. 10.

    The scale assigns the first adult in a household the value 1, each additional adult a value of 0.66 and each child a value of 0.33.

  11. 11.

    Factor analysis confirms that material deprivation and economic stress measures constitute two distinct dimensions.

  12. 12.

    Our analysis focuses on absolute rather than relative change. Further analysis allowing the impact of increases in material deprivation over time to vary across income class and social class provided no evidence of significant interactions that would suggest the need to employ a relative deprivation perspective rather than focusing on absolute change.

  13. 13.

    Peak to trough estimates involving comparisons of 2011 with 2008, which fail to capture significant increases between 2004 and 2008 show more substantial declines for all classes. However, the pattern of class differences in material deprivation and economic stress which are our primary focus remain broadly similar.

  14. 14.

    Our major focus is not the prediction of economic stress as such but further analysis shows that only 1.6 % of the predicted values are outside the range 0–1.

  15. 15.

    Income and social class jointly account for 16.1 % of the variance. 10 % is unique to income class and 1.5 % to social class with 4.6 % being shared between them. Thus 75.1 % of the social class effect is mediated by income class with 4.9 % being independent of the latter. Entering income class and social class separately produces patterns of coefficients comparable to those set out in Tables 2 and 3. For social class the largest positive coefficient is for the petit-bourgeoisie, followed by the intermediate & lower supervisory & technical & the lower services/sales/technical. The largest negative coefficient is for farmers with a more modest negative effect for the routine manual group and no significant effect for the never worked category. For income class the coefficients for the gross interactions of time period with the precarious and lower middle classes are almost identical to those observed when controlling for social class.

  16. 16.

    Non-significant interactions with age group are excluded.


  1. Atkinson, A., & Brandolini, A. (2013). On the identification of the middle class. In J. C. Gornik & M. Jäntti (Eds.), Economic disparities in the middle class in affluent countries. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  2. Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.

  3. Blanchard, O. (2002). Comments and discussion. Brooking Economics Papers, 1, 58–66.

  4. Callan, T., Nolan, B., Keane, C., Savage, M., & Walsh, J. R. (2013). Crisis, responses and distributional impact the case of Ireland. Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin. Working paper 456.

  5. Central Statistics Office. (2013). Quarterly national household survey: Effect on households of the economic downturn quarter 3 2012. Cork: Central Statistics Office.

  6. Central Statistics Office. (2014a). Quarterly national household survey quarter 4 2013. Cork: Central Statistics Office.

  7. Central Statistics Office. (2014b). Household finance and consumption survey 2013. Cork: Central Statistics Office.

  8. Dellepiane, S., & Hardiman, N. (2012). Governing the Irish economy: A triple crisis. In N. Hardiman (Ed.), Irish governance in crisis. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

  9. Desai, M., & Shah, A. (1988). An econometric approach to the measurement of poverty. Oxford Economic Papers, 40(3), 505–522.

  10. Gerlach-Kristen, P. (2013). Research notesYounger and older households in the crisis, quarterly economic commentary, Spring 2013. Dublin: Economic and Social Research Institute. http://www.esri.ie/UserFiles/publications/RN20130104.pdf.

  11. Goldthorpe, J. H. (2006). Social class and differentiation of employment contracts. In J. H. Goldthorpe (Ed.), On sociology volume II second edition: Illustration and retrospect. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  12. Goldthorpe, J. H., & Jackson, M. (2007). Intergenerational class mobility in contemporary Britain: Political concerns and empirical findings. British Journal of Sociology, 58(4), 526–546.

  13. Gornik, J., & Jännti, M. (2013). Introduction. In J. C. Gornik & M. Jäntti (Eds.), Economic disparities in the middle class in affluent countries. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  14. Horrigan, Michael W., & Haugen, Steven E. (1988). The declining middle class thesis: A sensitivity analysis. Monthly Labor Review, 111(5), 3–13.

  15. Jenkins, S. P. (2011). Changing fortunes: Income mobility and poverty dynamics in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  16. Jenkins, S. P., Brandolini, A., Micklewright, J., & Nolan, B. (2013). The great recession and the distribution of household income. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  17. Keane, C., Callan, T., Savage, M., Walsh, J. R., & Colgan, B. (2014). Distributional impact of tax, welfare and public service wage policies: Budget 2015 and budgets 2009–2015. Dublin: Economic and Social Research.

  18. Kelly, M. (2009) The Irish credit bubble. Working paper series WP09/32. Dublin: UCD Centre for Economic Research.

  19. Kuz, B. (2013). Credit, consumption, and debt: Comparative perspectives. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 54(3), 183–186.

  20. Madden, D. (2014). Health and wealth on the roller coaster: Ireland, 2003–2011. Social Indicators Research,. doi:10.1007/s11205-014-0644-4.

  21. McCarthy, Y. (2014). Dis-entangling the mortgage arrears crisis: The role of the labour market, income volatility and negative equity. Dublin: Barrington Lecture, Statistical and Social Inquiry Society,

  22. Nolan, B., Callan, T., & Maître, B. (2013). Ireland. In S. Jenkins, A. Brandolini, J. Micklewright, & B. Nolan (Eds.), The great recession and the distribution of household income. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  23. Nolan, B., & Whelan, C. T. (2011). Poverty and deprivation in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  24. Nolan, B., Whelan, C. T., Calvert, E., Fahey, T., Healy, T., Mulcahy, A., et al. (2014). Ireland: inequality and its impacts in boom and bust. In B. Nolan, W. Salverda, D. Checchi, I. Marx, A. McKnight, I. G. Tóth, & H. van de Werfhorst (Eds.), Changing Inequalities and Societal Impacts in Rich Countries: Thirty Countries’ Experiences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  25. Pew Research Center (PRC). (2012). Fewer, poorer, gloomier: The lost decade of the middle class. Washington, D.C: Pew Social & Demographic Trends.

  26. Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Boston: Harvard University Press.

  27. Pintelon, O., Cantillon, B., van den Bosch, K., & Whelan, C. T. (2013). The social stratification of social risks: Class and responsibility in the new welfare state. Journal of European Social Policy, 23(1), 52–67.

  28. Ravallion, M. (2010). The developing world’s bulging (but vulnerable) middle class. World Development, 38(4), 445–454.

  29. Rose, D., & Harrison, E. (2006). The European socio-economic classification: A new social class schema for comparative European research. European Societies, 9(3), 459–490.

  30. Russell, H., Whelan, C. T., & Maître, B. (2012). Economic vulnerability and the severity of debt problems: An analysis of the Irish EU-SILC 2008. European Sociological Review, 29(4), 695–706.

  31. Social Justice Ireland. (2013). Who really took the hits during Ireland’s bailout? Dublin.

  32. TASC. (2012). TASC’s proposal for a more equitable budget, Dublin.

  33. TASC. (2014). Income Inequality in Ireland. Think-tank for Action on Social Cahnge: Dublin.

  34. Taylor-Gooby, P. (2004). New Risks and Social Change. In P. Taylor-Gooby (Ed.), New risks, new welfare: The transformation of the European welfare state. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  35. Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  36. Vandecasteele, L. (2007). Dynamic inequalities: The impact of social stratification determinants on poverty dynamics in Europe. Ph.D. Dissertation, Catholic University Leuven, Belgium.

  37. Vandecasteele, L. (2010). Poverty trajectories after risky life course events in different European welfare regimes. European Societies, 12(2), 257–278.

  38. Watson, D. & Maitre, B. (2012) Technical paper on poverty indicators. Appendix C Report of the Review of the National Poverty Target.

  39. Watson, D., Maitre, B., & Cantillon, S. (2013). Implications of income pooling and household decision-making for the measurement of poverty and deprivation: An analysis of the SILC 2010 special module for Ireland. Social inclusion technical paper no. 4. Dublin: Department of Social Protection.

  40. Whelan, C. T., & Maître, B. (2008). “New” and “Old” social risks: Life cycle and social class perspectives on social exclusion in Ireland. Economic and Social Review, 39(2), 131–156.

  41. Whelan, C. T., & Maître, B. (2013). Material deprivation, economic stress & reference groups: An analysis of EU-SILC 2009. European Sociological Review, 29(6), 1162–1174.

  42. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. London: Allen Lane.

Download references


The authors would like to acknowledge the comments of two anonymous referees as well as from the participants at seminars at the Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, at the Social Protection Policy Workshop at the Geary Institute for Public Policy, University College Dublin, at Nuffield College Oxford and the 2014 annual conference of the European Consortium for Sociological Research. This journal article was derived from work done within the research programme for the Analysis and Measurement of Poverty and Social Exclusion funded by the Department of Social Protection under the Irish National Action Plan for Social Inclusion 2007–2016.

Author information

Correspondence to Bertrand Maître.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Whelan, C.T., Russell, H. & Maître, B. Economic Stress and the Great Recession in Ireland: Polarization, Individualization or ‘Middle Class Squeeze’?. Soc Indic Res 126, 503–526 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-015-0905-x

Download citation


  • Great recession
  • Economic stress
  • Individualization
  • Polarization
  • Middle class squeeze