Paul Mason suggests that the problem is that working class identity has been destroyed:
By contrast, the problem of poor white kids cannot be properly defined: not in the language of freemarket capitalism, at least. It has nothing to do with being “overtaken” – still less with any reverse discrimination against them.
It is simply that a specific part of their culture has been destroyed. A culture based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid. It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.
Thatcherite culture celebrated the chancers and the semi-crooks: people who had been shunned in the solidaristic working-class towns became the economic heroes of the new model – the security-firm operators, the contract-cleaning slave drivers; the outright hoodlums operating in plain sight as the cops concentrated on breaking strikes.
We thought we could ride the punches. But the great discovery of the modern right was that you only have to do this once. Suppress paternalism and solidarity for one generation and you create multigenerational ignorance and poverty. Convert Labour to the idea that wealth will trickle down, and to attacks on the undeserving poor, and you remove the means even to acknowledge the problem, let alone solve it.
Thatcherism didn’t just crush unions: alone that would not have been enough to produce this spectacular mismatch between aspiration and delivery in the education system. It crushed a story.
You see a similar story with working class black kids in America - education is seen as a betrayal of their culture and values. With that kind of pressure in place, it takes a lot to break out of the mould, even when that mould can kill you.
I saw that article and thought it was really interesting, particularly the link between culture and aspiration. It seems that Thatcher really knew what she was doing, and not in a good way.
So the important question is this: When culture is broken, how do we fix it? It’s not just working class culture that’s broken, there are many broken cultures that need fixing. But how?
I have no idea.
I think part of the solution might be redefining what we mean by culture. Communities where everyone works in the same place, drinks in the same place and thinks the same way have largely become a thing of the past. People seem to live much more isolated lives - it’s rare to know more than a few of your neighbours for example - so getting those close-knit relationships reborn seems rather wishful thinking. However, people are forming alternative communities, particularly online. I don’t know if there is any way to capitalise on this but it feels that looking to the future rather than trying to recreate the past is the way to go.
Agreed. We can’t turn the clock back, but we do need to think about how we create meaningful narratives for people’s lives.
In an IRL discussion about this a few interesting points came up - and to summarise, in the UK at least, the solution is to break, or at least mitigate the effects of, the class system. I don’t think it’s any accident that BME groups are more “mobile” than white working class Brits, because they are less “belonging” in any stratum to begin with.
What seems to have happened is that many of the traditional societal structures (many of which were very patriarchal, before we get too misty eyed about a lot of working class communities) have broken down at all levels, but that the middle classes were better placed to take advantage of it. Far and away the biggest beneficiaries of the expansion in HE in the early 1990s were middle class women, who were grievously under-represented when I was at college in the mid 1980s, for example. This has caused many sea changes in society - opportunities for women like me that simply would not have been available to me were I 10 years older, for example.
I guess what makes me uncomfortable about the piece is that he’s saying that “education was a way out” in his day, supported by that gentle paternalism of his father, and that “that narrative has gone”. Two problems spring to mind here:
- education may have been promoted then, but that was rarely an opportunity offered to women. The narrative of working class girl “made good” is a very very rare one, much rarer than the male equivalent. Educating Rita is an honourable exception. The position of women in the working class narrative is very problematic - the equal pay movement got little support from male dominated unions for a lot of the post war period, for example.
- its not enough to say “that narrative has gone” without also considering the nuance of that statement. He seems to be saying that we need to return to a narrative of education being a “way out” of poverty. Frankly, I think that is a trope based on very middle class assumptions of what is “good” and “valuable”. To really tackle equality, we need to address the value of given kinds of work, such as “women’s work” in the caring professions, and “working class work” like construction, and not simply tack lazy middle class tropes about value on the whole of society.
The problems for communities in poverty these days are wage deflation, precarious employment, and the way that society continually undervalues the kind of jobs that “other” people do - even where they are skilled and potentially well paid, like construction. The misty eyed narrative of “working class boy makes it to the dreaming spires” is just elitist bullshit, because it de facto excludes everyone else who is just trying to make a living…
[gently brushes large chip from shoulder…]
And to add to that (since I can’t find the edit, and on re reading, I failed to make the point)
I absolutely agree that we need to look forward not back, and that the forward narrative needs to be a whole lot less “judgy” about choices people make. And that also means that middle class parents need to stop forcing their kids to be something that suits only their narrative of success - which too often comes at the expense of their kids’ mental health.
Social mobility is a bit of a shit narrative, I am increasingly thinking because it is too uni-directional. We need to even things up a lot. Valuing (and remuneration) work traditionally seen as “women’s” would be a most excellent place to start, for example.
Those are all really good points, particularly about the narrative only being applicable to a subset of boys. It’s the same with the idea of grammar schools, they weren’t a panacea, they just helped a few people and in doing so wrote off the entire rest of the generation as being ‘not smart enough’.
Not specifically about boys, but certainly about the working class:
Here’s something I’ve been wondering recently: is there anybody left on these isles who persists in the belief that we inhabit a meritocracy? Anyone still sold on the “work hard, get ahead” land of opportunity narrative? If so, please show me your workings. In light of yet another dispiriting social mobility survey – this one from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, Cambridge, and Harvard, which found that graduates from poorer backgrounds earn less than richer peers on the same course – you’d have to throw some contortionist intellectual shapes to make the argument.
The gap between rich and poor remains a gulf. Even when you’ve been to the same university and had the same education, the disadvantages of coming from a poor family can mean earning around 20% less. As this latest study shows, there is a marked link between parental income and a child’s potential earnings.
Here’s another discussion of working class white boys in education It’s really interesting (once you get past the sociology language, which I find a little tricky). Basically they are saying again that perceived “underacheivement” is not lack of aspiration but an unwillingness to participate in what they see as a selfish and competitive world, and a loyalty to their “community”, where it’s a man’s place to support, provide, and not to be “better than they are”.
It occurred to me that this is very very similar to the narrative used by women to avoid putting themselves “out there” and the narrative that is used by other people to keep women in their place.
So, it seems like all of the social mobility narratives are basically pitched at making “them” more like “us”, but that being “one of us” requires you to be like something out of the West Wing, constantly competing and fighting to be “top dog”. And actually a hell of a lot of people don’t want that.
It seems to me that improving the position of women intersects a lot with the equality agenda in all sorts of spheres and that we shouldn’t ever lose sight of minimising inequality as a goal too.
Luehea: That’s really interesting. Gonna have to think on this quite a bit!!
Our schools are failing boys, which is bad news for Britain
This is a complicated article, with much to agree with and much to question. For one thing it seems to assume that if the genders were reversed and it was girls doing worse than boys much more attention would be paid, yet the example of getting more women in STEM is a pretty poor one as even after the stated 25 years of encouragement, the statistics are still dire.
Then there’s the issue of male teachers. The article gives figures of 15% in primary schools and 38% in secondary schools but doesn’t ask why there are so few men.
Then there’s the apprenticeships. Unfortunately the document the article references only gives a breakdown by sector or gender, not both at the same time, so it’s hard to see if there’s differences. But I’d have a guess that a lot of those female apprentices are in various forms of beauty - beautician, hairdresser, etc. Jobs that aren’t exactly known for being well-paid unless you’re really lucky.
I feel like I’m pulling the article apart and that’s not my intention, as I think it makes an important point but I don’t think it’s doing enough to identify the root causes of the problem.
The Coding Of ‘White Trash’ In Academia
A melancholic piece on how advancement in academia necessitates leaving your working class roots behind.
It is one thing to have your hometown judged by your peers, but it is quite another to realize that qualities you possess, habits born of a lifetime that you don’t even realize you have, make you read as unqualified or unfit for your chosen profession.
Buzzfeed have analysed data on ethnicity and university entry and it’s fascinating.