I find social class as a subject, difficult.
I can only talk about my own experience and situation, and so here’s my story.
I’m exceptionally proud of my working class roots and when the subject is raised I define myself categorically as working class although the truth is, by most definitions, I suppose these days, i’m middle class.
I grew up on a council estate in Neath called Meadow Road, a collection of a couple of hundred council houses and flats, identical looking, scattered in a circular fashion that had its own mini social structure depending on where in the street you lived.
I have fond memories of a strong feeling of community spirit, a happy childhood of using the full expanse of the council estate for the best games; football and British bulldog on the grass banks, fox and hounds around the lanes and gardens, and making dens in the neighbouring field and woods. And sure, the estate had its problems, but we would somehow turn those problems into interesting events.
I still vividly remember watching Chris Higgs, a lightning quick winger for Neath RFC who made his living as a police officer, easily outrunning a drug-addicted, recently released criminal, who within less than a week of being released from prison, was being recalled. I remember watching the chase and thinking it was incredibly exciting but on reflection, it was clearly very serious.
What I didn’t ever feel growing up, was restricted. I never felt that because of where I was living and where I was growing up, that this would affect my life choices or career options. I remember learning about social mobility in school and thinking that it was easily achievable. Certainly moving upwards in social class. Maybe I was naive, maybe I was being ignorant, maybe I was neither and maybe I was both. Now I see that its not been quite as easy for some as it is for others.
We moved out of the council estate when I was about 14 as my parents bought a house in a nearby street. Social mobility in action. At 16, just after leaving school and not knowing what to do with my life I took up a job as a claims handler in an insurance company. It had a referral scheme where I would get £250 if I recommended a friend to come and work there too and so I recommended one of my best friends. After the interview, where he was offered the job, he was clearly not himself. I asked him what was wrong and the interviewing manager had told him that in order to be successful within the company he would need to ‘drop his council estate accent’. Great GCSE’s, brilliant work ethic and yet he was defined in this interview by the way he talked. Disgraceful.
I left the insurance company not long after to take up an apprenticeship in Corus, formerly British Steel and now Tata, at the huge steelworks in Port Talbot. I was immediately thrown into a situation with people of all ages, all academic backgrounds and from all over the world and I distinctly remember feeling welcomed. I had landed this apprenticeship programme because I had good GCSE results and I passed the interview and aptitude test – nothing else mattered. Corus developed me and judged me only on performance, giving me opportunities because they saw potential in me. I owe that company a huge debt.
Other than being cathartic, writing about my background serves a purpose for this blog post.
Today, on Twitter, one of my #PLN, general CIPD Legend and fellow member of the Bearded Welshmen Club (not an actual club), David D’Souza wrote;-
The last line struck a chord.
An exchange ensued and David pointed me in the direction of an article on Huffington Post with the headline ‘Working Class People Earn £7,000 Less Than Privileged Colleagues, Research Shows’. You should read this article, the link is below. I responded to David by saying that whilst I agree with the article, I find it difficult to accept that it has led to such an impact on me personally. David helpfully encouraged me to be humble, but to follow the data. So i’m trying to do both.
The article itself explains amongst other things that ‘those from poorer backgrounds are less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networks and work opportunities or, in some cases, exclude themselves from promotion for fear of not fitting in’. It also explains that other reasons for the ‘class pay gap’ could include , conscious or unconscious discrimination or more subtle employment processes which lead to ‘cultural matching’ in the workplaces’. Even the terminology starts to make me feel uncomfortable.
Why do I find this a difficult subject? Because it has me torn.
This form of discrimination is obviously disgusting and elitism is clearly alive and kicking much to my dismay, and would I have wanted my social background to have been considered at any point in my career thus far, when assessing in particular, my remuneration and worth? Absolutely not. Has it affected me asking for remuneration in line with my value, or affected my ability to build a network? No. Although, its entirely plausible that some of these issues have occurred, without me realising it.
I’ve never, ever wanted people to treat me adversely or negatively in any way because of my working class upbringing and roots, but in the same line of thought, I too don’t ever want it to result in me being treated more favourably either. Like everyone else, I just want to be treated equally.
I don’t want my social background to be a factor at all when considering my level of success. I don’t want to be treated favourably because I have mobilised socially, and I certainly don’t want the ‘haven’t you done well’ type attitude towards me as a result of this either.
But maybe, i’m just one of the survey outliers and my story isn’t common – yet lots of people I grew up with in the same estate or nearby, grew up to be successful, who would also probably be considered ‘established middle class’ in the UK social class system, so maybe we aren’t outliers after all.
But here’s where i’m really torn.
I get that while my situation appears out of sync with how many others are being treated (possibly), hence the research in the article as well as the headline, I get that to address the issue, social background needs in some way to be considered. If only to safeguard against discrimination and close the gap. But how can this be achieved, sensitively, without upsetting people like me.
I have no idea.
So do we underestimate social background in terms of success? I’m sure Dave’s right and we do. But should we consider it at all – not necessarily. If I don’t want to be judged on my social background to be either negatively or positively treated, then why does it even need to be considered. Because working class people earn £7,000 less than priveleged colleagues, that’s why.
As I said, no answers – just my personal experience and opinion.
The song for this post – Merle Haggard – Working Man’s Blues
Huffington Post Article – http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/working-class-pay-social-mobility_uk_588928dae4b02af0a3d57008
Here’s a bit about Chris Higgs and other fantastic Welsh rugby players who were unlucky to never get a Senior squad welsh cap, in case you are interested – http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/definitive-list-unluckiest-welsh-rugby-9203471