The real challenges of social mobility

To go up? Credit: Shutterstock/Arthimède

The benefits of social mobility seem to be widely recognised. The idea that a person’s opportunities and income should not be defined by their background is supported across the political spectrum.

Despite this, attempts to make society more mobile and level the playing field have proven frustrating and complex. And it is also not easy for people who achieve this goal.

Our research suggests that people who move away from their roots may find the experience difficult. This is especially true if colleagues and employers are not supportive.

Employees of various professions told us about their experiences of social class during childhood, at work and at home. Those who have “benefited” from social mobility have often found it difficult to adapt.

Some felt compelled to change their mannerisms, adjust their accents, and conceal their patterns of behavior to fit into a workplace where class differences were prevalent. As one person in our study told us: “The [work] the culture is very bourgeois, where you might be able to quote Latin, drink wine rather than beer, socialize in some way.

Others who had been socially mobile described instances at work where they had been ridiculed for their background, had their professionalism questioned, and had regularly experienced discriminatory microaggressions. One participant recalled:[A colleague] made a formal complaint about me, saying I was unprofessional, and he actually used the words, “How can she meet someone who talks like that?”

Another explained: “I don’t care about myself. it’s not a usual thing, but I don’t hide the fact that I’m [working] classroom. There’s a kind of joke that I grew a lot from [where] my class suggests I should be.

As a result, some said they tried to conceal their backgrounds by avoiding social situations, remaining silent in meetings and even quitting their roles. One explained: “I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. I felt completely uncomfortable there, because they were a totally different kind of people.

She added: “I felt very lonely and couldn’t work there anymore so I quit.”

We also found that socially mobile people experience similar issues in their social and personal lives. Some felt the need to hide their social mobility at home by adjusting their accent and vocabulary or avoiding discussions about work.

One explained: “If I’m at home, I speak differently, and I do so because I have a lot of friends who probably didn’t understand [same opportunities] and I want to blend in with them.

One participant recounted how he had even become detached from family relationships due to his social mobility. “I don’t think I fit in with my dad’s family anymore,” he said.

“They just don’t understand my job so I can’t communicate with them because they don’t understand what it’s like. […] so I don’t go to see them that often.

Many socially mobile employees felt they had to act all the time, constantly changing their behaviors to accommodate home and work. One admitted: “You feel unsafe and a bit lost. I just thought, “I’m inadequate.” It’s tarry because you’re aware of it and pay attention to it and you’re never completely safe in any situation, including the one you left.

Authenticity

By comparison, we found that people who remained in their childhood social class found the process of commuting between work and home reasonably easy. They felt safer and more authentic in both environments. One commented: “I don’t hide my origins or my social class because I think I can just say how I am. Another agreed: “I’ve never felt uncomfortable with my past.”

While our research suggests many challenges for socially mobile employees, we also found that their range of life experiences provided them with important skills. One participant remarked, “I think I’m more of a social chameleon in that I come from a very working-class background, but I went to high school and college. I find it helpful, that I’ve had these different times in my life, which means I know how to talk to people.

Employers who recognized the interpersonal skills that socially mobile employees bring to work and encouraged them to be themselves were seen as more supportive. Some have even offered staff the chance to network with people from similar backgrounds.

So while leveling up can be quite a stressful experience, employers and co-workers who celebrate class differences can go a long way to improving the situation. As one participant, who said his employer valued skill more than class, put it: “I’m good at my job and I don’t have to hide my class because I have other attributes, rather than speaking well, which can make me progress.


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“I didn’t feel like I fitted in at all”: the real challenges of social mobility (2022, May 5)
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