I was listening to Radio Four in the car a while ago, (it is a sign of encroaching old age that I increasingly listen to Radio Four rather than Radio One when driving), and heard an interesting listener contribution to discussion about class and social mobility in the UK. While the programme had looked into the various factors which led to perceptions of social class and affected upward social mobility, which included such things as occupation, education, and the acquisition of ‘cultural capital’, the correspondent noted that ‘downward social mobility’ was also possible, based upon these same factors. They related how, despite possessing educational qualifications and ‘cultural capital’, (they were a regular consumer of what might be termed ‘high culture’), because of their occupation, they frequently found themselves looked down upon, and sometimes entirely excluded from, various social circles. As soon as they mentioned their occupation, conversation would stop dead and people would drift away from them. Their experience struck a chord with me as it echoes my own – many years ago, in order to pay my mortgage and other bills, circumstances forced me to take a job which carries little or no prestige and is considered by many to be socially unacceptable. Indeed, it requires none of the many academic qualifications I hold, (or much intellectual input, to be honest), and, consequently, I have found it hugely frustrating.
Worst of all, people who only know me through the job make assumptions about me: that I’m an idiot, a thug, dishonest or just a complete bastard. I’ve been insulted to my face by those who consider themselves as ‘socially superior’ – they also generally treat me as if I’m something they’ve scraped off of their shoe. I once became so exasperated with a solicitor who was trying to exert his social, educational and moral superiority over me that I felt moved to point out that if he wanted to engage in an intellectual pissing contest then he was bound to lose as I was pretty sure that the best he could muster would an LLB or maybe a BA in law, whereas I could trump him with a BA Hons and an MSc. It’s got to the stage where I feel it is pointless applying for other jobs more concomitant with my qualifications as all that prospective employers will see is my current job and write me off as a candidate without reading further, based upon their own prejudices concerning the job. I do my best in social situations to not say what I do for a living, or try to gloss over it. As I said before, it is all hugely frustrating – I have the education, I even have some ‘cultural capital’, (although I’m sure that my predilection for exploitation films and 1970s TV series would condemn me in many social circles). Yet I’m still regarded as being beyond the pale by many sections of so called ‘polite society’. It’s not that I even want to move in such social circles. I’d just like to be shown a bit of respect. and not judged on the basis of something I’ve been forced to do in order to survive.
But this isn’t an experience unique to myself – ‘downward mobility’ is surely the story of modern Britain, as living standards fall in the face of a decade of ‘austerity’. Only recently was I reading in the papers of how studies have shown that social mobility in the UK has, to all intents and purposes, stopped. So, if you started life at the bottom, without money, status or privilege, that’s where you are going to stay, no matter how hard you work and strive, that’s you place in society. But it is actually even worse than that, as many people are actually going backwards. Just look at the proliferation of food banks, as people lose their job security and are forced into the ‘gig economy’ (or casual employment as we used to call it), not knowing how much money, if any at all, they will earn in a given week or month. When a country as wealthy as the UK (and, despite what the pro-austerity fanatics will tell you, we are still a wealthy nation), has an increasing proportion of its population reliant upon charity in order to simply eat, then you know that there is something seriously wrong.
It isn’t just food banks – just look at the proliferation of low grade housing at the ‘affordable’ end of the market. Increasingly, people at the bottom are being forced to live in cramped flats converted from offices or other industrial buildings. Even when ‘affordable’ flats are included as part of ‘proper’ housing developments, it turns out that those living in the ‘affordable’ properties are actually segregated from the rest of the development, forced to use different entrances, denied the use of the lifts, their children not even allowed to use the outside play areas – they get a tiny patch of fenced off, weed covered dirt, instead. Because we can’t risk the monied classes having any contact with those horrible plebs, now can we? Which is the real narrative behind economic austerity: a complete shaping of the fabric of British society, wiping out decades of progress in terms of reducing inequality and decisively shifting the balance of power, whether that be economic, social or political, in favour of the wealthy elites.
Make no mistake, with plummeting living standards and the neo-feudalism of zero hours contracts replacing actual, secure, jobs covered fully by employment laws, we’re living in a society where the wealthy and privileged are firmly back in the ascendancy. Just look at how the likes of the preposterous Jacob Rees-Mogg and the abominable Boris Johnson brazenly flaunt their unearned wealth and privilege, their every utterance a statement of their perceived ‘superiority’. These are the people who see power as their birthright, not something to be earned through endeavour, achievement and skill. They want to take what they see as their ‘rightful’ place at the top table and then use their position to further enhance their wealth and privilege. It is no coincidence that they and their ilk are so keen on Brexit – it is an opportunity to further undermine workers’ rights and regulations, thereby pushing wages down further and increasing profit margins by selling lower quality, less safe, products. It’s all about lining their pockets. So, enjoy your slide down the social scale – it is the only ‘social mobility’ you are likely to experience for the foreseeable future.