Working-class people don’t need to “break into the elite”—we need to change it

Our focus on social mobility stacks the cards against working-class graduates

August 08, 2019
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Last Monday, BBC 2 broadcast How to Break into the Elite, a documentary hosted by journalist Amol Rajan that follows five young people in the early stages of their career. Two working-class students, Amaan from Birmingham and Elvis from Dagenham, aspire to work in finance. Dominique and Jack, a couple studying media at Leeds University, both dream of working in media. The only privately-educated of the show’s participants is Ben, a student of ancient history from south London. By the show’s end, only he and Dominique had secured meaningful work experience, showcasing the stranglehold still faced by working-class graduates irrespective of their education or ambition.

Their stories are part of a broader phenomenon. Research by sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison shows that working-class graduates holding a first-class degree are still less likely to be hired than middle-class candidates with a 2:2; they also found that middle-class graduates will earn on average £7,000 more than their counterparts from low-income backgrounds.

In the documentary, Rajan explores the various inequalities and class-based prejudices that give rise to these statistics, looking not only at the hard economic issues of unpaid internships, but also the cultural bigotry that still exists towards any kind of accent, dress-sense and mannerism indicative of a working-class background. This compounds what millions of people from low-income backgrounds already know to be true: that the road to financial prosperity requires far more than a university degree and a can-do attitude.

How to Break into the Elite was urgently needed, creating a mainstream conversation around one of the most pervasive and unchecked forms of bigotry in our society. As one of the few landmark investigations on social mobility, it reminds us that the issue is still woefully underreported. But far from offering a wholesale endorsement for the need for greater social mobility, the documentary rather shows the limits of its logic.


The "con" in "confidence"

One issue that afflicted all four candidates from low-income backgrounds was a lack of confidence in handling job interviews. Jack found it hard to decipher the dress code, and Amaan struggled to manage his nerves and calmly articulate himself during interview training. Their nerves speak to how working-class candidates are constantly forced to decipher and decode unspoken rules.

Nervousness is, admittedly, an issue that the media has not shied away from discussing, albeit through the lens of what is popularly dubbed "imposter syndrome." Often described as a feeling of fraudulence or inadequacy in the workplace, identifying the tendency is said to go some way in helping people achieve more at work.

But classifying this sense of alienation as a "syndrome" has its limits. Imposter syndrome places responsibility at the door of the excluded or the undervalued. The medical nature of the term unfairly paints sufferers as psychologically deficient or unusual, thereby adding to the list of insecurities with which they are already forced to contend. It obscures and hides the far more important element behind inequality: biases built into our very unequal social structures.

Likewise, "confidence" is often seen through the lens of individual shortcomings. Working-class candidates are often told they lack confidence. This takes our focus away from examining where our value of confidence comes from: a free market system that champions individual ambition and ruthless determination.

In the documentary, privately-educated Ben has an easier ride with employers as he displays the de facto mannerisms of success, perfected since school. Yet far from being an objective measure of competence, confidence becomes part of the codified language of the middle-classes. Confidence in fact, comes in many forms—it takes a huge amount of confidence to manage a classroom full of children, for example, or to care for the elderly and infirm. Strong oratory skills by comparison have very few practical uses.


It creates losers

Rajan’s documentary identifies an issue for which we need to keep banging the drum. Namely, that such hiring practices normalise the brazen confidence developed by private schooling, and therefore stigmatise any alternative. The former becomes the de facto means to success.

It also demonstrates the quiet ways in which incumbent gatekeepers continue to justify their prejudices. If it is known that working-class candidates lack the style of delivery ordained by the establishment, then any authentic attempt to support diversify would have to address this by finding alternative ways to measure competence designed to look past nerves, or a lack of experience in public speaking. After all, it’s really not that hard to determine the intellect or drive of an eighteen year old who might be seen as lacking assertiveness.

Really what we’re seeing in the debate about “confidence” is the preservation of elite power structures and their values—herein lies the problem with social mobility more broadly. Any solution to inequality that requires individuals to “pull themselves up” by decoding the rules of the establishment—an effort that amounts to a huge amount of unremunerated labour and takes a psychological toll—is not only unfair, but illogical. It necessarily creates losers. But more than that, it creates a dynamic by which even ascendants to the middle-class are always on the back-foot and suspicious of their own place there.

In June, Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner announced that Labour will drop "social mobility" as a core goal for the next Labour government and replace it with "social justice." It is the only logical solution for working-class people. As opposed to only allowing a select few to "pull themselves up," social justice looks to improve conditions for the whole of the working class, returning a sense of dignity to low-income families. This also stands to embolden working-class culture as opposed to having it erased at the whims of middle- and upper-class recruiters.

This is why, despite agreeing with most of its core findings, the title of Rajan’s documentary still leaves a bad taste in the mouth (though if personal experience is anything to go by, then he might not have chose it). There’s a problem in the perpetual framing of certain elite positions (in this case, top jobs in the city) as unquestioned aspirational ideals. For too long, inequality has been understood as an inescapable reality whose only redemptive feature was the occasional concessions it made to a small minority of working-class people.

The aspirational story that underpins social mobility has failed us, and it is time to write our own: a story that acknowledges the deep and stubborn class divisions that exist in our society, and calls for radical political and systemic solutions, as opposed to personal ones.