The class ceiling

class ceiling

Thanks to Steve Rooney for putting me onto the very excellent Class Ceiling website. The site is run by Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison and Ian McDonald and funded by the ESRC and London School of Economics. It basically documents the enduring importance of class as a way of understanding British society.

The site is full of stories and statistics that make this point. Here are just a few to get you riled up.

  • In higher managerial and professional occupations people from working-class backgrounds earn on average 16% less than those from privileged backgrounds. This amounts to an average of £6,800. This grows if you look at more elite professions such as finance and medicine.
  • Although only a third of the population come from professional backgrounds they make up 73% of doctors, 62% of lawyers and 58% of academics.

This body of research is really valuable for discussions about social mobility and social equity.

Enjoy looking into it and channel your sense of outrage!


About my holiday reading


Following my bad tempered post after my last holiday I thought that I better try and say something a bit more positive this time.

I’ve just returned from a brilliant week in rural and coastal Lincolnshire. You really should try it sometime. It is a fantastic place and hardly anyone goes there for holidays (except for Skeggy of course where we spent a day and ate some top fish and chips).

Anyway, enough tour guiding from me.

One of the great things about a week away is that you get to do some of that reading that you never get round to at home. I tend to find I spend most of my time reading things about career development when I’m at work so I rarely read novels these days.

As I’m fond of telling everyone I’ve got two degrees in English literature and that this pretty much cured me of literature. These days I tend to avoid anything highbrow if at all possible. However, a few people have mentioned Middlemarch to me recently and I started to feel like I might be missing out. I found an unread copy on the shelf (presumably purchased for an undergraduate seminar that I missed) and took it away with me.

So 800 pages later I was pretty impressed. While it isn’t a pacey novel (did I mention the 800 pages?) it does have a lot in it that interested me. Key features that I liked were the way that both slow moving social and cultural change and faster moving political change (around the Great Reform Act) are woven into the novel. This is a book that takes context seriously. Individual characters are subordinate in importance to the overarching portrayal of society life around an industrialising provincial town. I also like the fact that at least two of the characters are bitter would be intellectuals who are aware of their own inability to live up to what they perceive to be their own potential. Schadenfreude or simply looking into a mirror – sometimes it is difficult to tell.

Of course what I liked most, and I suspect why others recommended it to me, was the strong career development element in the book. The novel charts the careers of a number of its characters showing the limitations of their personal agency in realising their career aspirations. Characters deploy intelligence, wealth, power and attractiveness with varying degrees of skill but are constrained by concerns about reputation, lack of financial resources and gender, race and class. Even the apparently wealthy world of Middlemarch has highly limited opportunity structures for many if not all of its characters.

At the heart of the novel is a depiction of class conflict between landed aristocracy and rising bourgeoisie. The former have cultural hegemony while the latter have financial resources. The careful dances that they do around each other provides enormous insights into the way in which a new ruling class came into being in the early nineteenth century.

There is so much in the novel that I could keep going. But, I won’t. Suffice to say I got more out of this than I anticipated. Pack it in your suitcase next time you have a (very) long journey.



I have just finished reading Chavs by Owen Jones. The book is subtitled “the demonization of the working class” and this is really its core theme. It starts with discussion of the term “chavs” which is a derogatory term used to describe the white working class poor. Like Owen I remember when the term first surfaced and the way that it slipped into ‘polite society’. Owen recounts attending a dinner party where the term was used without concern by his middle class friends. He makes the point that similar derogatory terms about race or gender would not have been tolerated, but within certain social echelons it is broadly acceptable to hate the working class.

For those of us who are uncomfortable with the term ‘chavs’ and the widespread acceptability of the hatred of the poor the emergence of the term threw up a few challenges. At first I was simply amazed that people were willing to air their prejudices so boldly, but gradually I started to challenge the use of the term. So did lots of other people, focused around Owen’s book, and my guess is that the use of the term ‘chavs’ is probably in decline. However, regrettably this doesn’t mean that the broader social attitude that it gave voice to is also in decline.

The book explores how the working class are demonized at a number of levels, perhaps most importantly it traces how a miss-representation of working class culture informs policy. Hatred of the working class is based on assumptions about their otherness and this includes an ironic belief that working class people don’t work. Alongside this are a whole host of stereotypes that include racism, sexism, poor parenting, poor financial management and most Victorian of all a fear that the blighters are breeding at an alarming rate.

The book points out that very few of these myths are based in any kind of reality. For example multi-generational worklessness is rare to the point of non-existence, the working class is one of the most racially diverse and integrated sections of the population and those with very little money tend to be better at managing it than those with a lot of money. However, the book also shows that politicians never like to let facts get in the way of a good story and so endless amounts of welfare, housing, education and employment policies have been built on this kind of anti-working class prejudice.

The one place where I would have liked a bit more clarity was in the definition of the working class. Owen Jones plays around with a number of definitions. One way in which the group is defined is essentially a cultural one. Working class people are those who self-define in this way. This sort of idea then tends to lead to the identification of a stereotype (whippets, flat caps, regional accents etc.). The problem with this kind of definition is that it doesn’t really engage with issues of money and power. So an alternative position (one which Marx would probably buy into) is to see class as essentially a description of an economic relationship. So working class people are those people who have nothing to sell other than their labour. This kind of definition is very inclusive as in reality very few of us have very many capital assets. Imagine you lost your job and couldn’t work, how long could you keep your standard of living going on the basis of your capital assets? Personally I’d be lucky if I made more than a couple of months.

Jones, like me, is tempted by the economic definition of class. However, he ultimately settles on a compromise. His compromise is essentially about professional autonomy. So working class people are people who have nothing to sell other than their labour and also have limited professional autonomy. This would allow him to conclude that I’m not working class, because although I have an economic reliance on my labour power I also have considerably professional autonomy. I don’t have to do the same thing every day and I get to choose how I spend my time. However, this definition doesn’t really work for me either. The concept of professional or occupation autonomy is a very slippery one. In my murky past I worked on a conveyer belt at Walkers Crisps. I was responsible for removing the black and green crisps from the belt as they shuffled along (for eight hours). This was clearly a very low level of professional autonomy. Now I choose how I spend my time as long as I can generate sufficient research income for the University. This is far greater autonomy, but it is a long way from total autonomy. In fact the work that I do is highly constrained by policy, funding, organisational aims and so on. In between these two jobs I have had a lot of other jobs all of which have had varying degrees of autonomy. Working as a car park attendant, for example gave me considerable autonomy as I could read and think and wander about, working as a trainer gave me less because I was always in front of a group of students. Autonomy is useful as a relative concept, but less useful as an absolute one that divides us clearly into classes.

Nonetheless, despite these concerns about the definition of class, it is clear that ideas about class are very important in British politics and the operation of social systems. I think that there are a number of lessons in Chavs that are worth thinking about in terms of career development. Most obviously there is the way in which the misrepresentation of the working class has constructed the nature of problems like unemployments, NEET and school disengagement. Frequently these have then resulted in transformation of support into policing with careers workers in the role of the police. If working class people are inherently lazy there is no point in supporting them to find work, we have to force them through a mix of cajoling, benefit conditionality, cattle prods or whatever else comes to hand. This also has the added benefit of obscuring the fact that there is a political and economic basis for unemployment and pushing the blame onto the (working class) individual.

Even more interestingly Jones engages with the idea that there are problems in the very way in which the idea of aspiration is constructed. A lack of aspiration is often seen as a key component of the failings of working class people, but what does this actually mean? The following passage sums this up well.

At the centre of a political agenda must be a total redefinition of aspiration. ‘I think you start from the basic notion of aspiration,’ says Jon Cruddus, ‘because this was the real cynical element within the worst elements of New Labour post-2001 – the way they stripped out from the notion of aspiration any communitarian element. Any sense of duty, obligation, any sense of something that unites people, rather than this dominant atomized, consuming, acquisitive self.’ The new aspiration must be about improving people’s communities and bettering the conditions of the working class as a whole, rather than simply lifting able individuals up the ladder. (258)

This passage gave me considerable pause for thought about the aspirations of career development. Career development is typically focused on the individual and very commonly serve to ‘life able individuals up the ladder’. In itself this is a noble aim, but it is one which may have some negative social consequences. What if helping people to transcend the circumstances of their birth actually asset strips their communities and leaves the social structures intact. Should we not be trying to improve the lives and careers of whole communities rather than just helping people to leave.

I’m left pondering some of these issues. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this.


Learning to labour



I’ve just struggled my way through Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour. I say struggled because this is a pretty heavy theoretical read, but also because I oscillated between finding it fascinating and being deeply annoyed by it. I’ll try and explain why the book provoked this dual reaction in me, but first I’ll try and fill in the basics of Willis’ argument.


Learning to Labour is subtitled ‘How working class kids get working class jobs’ and it sets out to explain how people take their path from school to work. Willis argues that kids from working class backgrounds move willingly, even enthusiastically, into jobs at the bottom of the economy that offer little possibility for either job satisfaction or advancement. Willis would argue that this process of people moving into poorly paid and unsatisfying jobs is an essential condition of capitalism. However, he explores why the wage slaves march into this situation as happily as they do. Willis bases his ethnographic study on the transition from school to work of twelve lads at a Midlands school.


At the centre of Willis’ book are a small group of lads. The lads don’t like the formal curriculum at school, they misbehave, sit at the back of the class, cheek their teacher and indulge in petty crime when the opportunity arises. The lads represent what Willis calls a counter-school culture. This counter-school culture is a kind of resistance that enables them to make it through school without absorbing its ideological values. Instead it creates its own ideology based on machismo, fetishisation of manual work and a complete disregard for learning in the sense understood by the school. Willis goes on to argue that the counter-school culture fulfils the function of smoothing the transition of the lads into shop floor culture. Their ability to survive and resist the school culture then becomes their ability to resist and survive in capitalism. On one hand their attitudes limit them and reduce the (very limited) possibility of social mobility afforded by education, but on the other hand, buying into the counter-school culture is the beginning of a strategy that will enable them to survive in the drudgery of the shop floor.


One thing that we should remember when reading Willis is that the book was written in 1977. Just as Frank Parsons or Donald Super are products of their time, Willis’ structuralism and discussion of a homogonous blue collar labour market are also deeply linked to the historical circumstances in which he was writing. Nonetheless Willis’ work has more than historical interest. The counter-school culture he describes is very much still with us and many young people are still opting to move into bottom of the economy with minimal violence required from the state. Willis’ book grapples with these issues in a creative and highly articulate way. His ability to draw connections between the sub-culture of young people and the wider political economy is extremely thought provoking.


Regular readers of this blog may remember that I waxed lyrical about a book called The Milltown Boys Revisted. The Milltown Boys Revisited covers very similar ground to Learning to Labour, but for my money is a more convincing read. Willis’ Learning to Labour builds a much more elaborate theoretical construct on top of the data that is unearthed by the ethnography. Willis makes a lot of bold claims about the way in which the counter-school culture operates and also what its significance is that I couldn’t help but feel were not really supported by the data he had. It raises a lot of interesting questions but doesn’t really chase these questions down sufficiently. Willis also looks briefly at other groups of young people e.g. disaffected youths in middle class schools, engaged youths in working class schools, different ethnicities and girls. All of these throw open huge questions that I recognise can’t be dealt with in this book, but by avoiding them Willis makes it difficult to feel that his conclusions would hold up. For example, how do engaged boys in working class schools make the transition into work in comparison to the disaffected? Does it actually make any difference in terms of destination, job satisfaction, integration into the shop floor culture and advancement. Willis does discuss these things but I didn’t feel that he really had the data to back it up.


Perhaps the thing that I found most difficult was Willis’ discussion of resistance. His argument that the counter-school culture is a form of resistance against an alien ideology seems right to me. However, as Willis discusses it is also an enormously self-defeating one. The lads who subscribe to the counter-school culture are, for the most part, condemning themselves to a life at the bottom of the economy. They realise the unfairness of this and struggle with this idea themselves. However Willis doesn’t really give any space to consideration of alternative forms of resistance. He does discuss the attempt by the teachers to use “progressive” teaching techniques to come up with an educational paradigm that is less confrontational, but he doesn’t look at other modes or discourses of resistance that might exist amongst any of the students. This may be because they are not there in the classroom (which I doubt) but it is certain that there are alternatives within the shop floor culture. Willis explores how counter-school culture interacts with the hierarchical formation of the factory, but does not look at how it interacts with the alternative structures that undoubtedly (in 1977) existed through the trade union organisation.


Willis’ work is a welcome alternative to an extreme structuralism that sees people as merely being shepherded by the economic conditions around them. His subjects demonstrate creativity and agency in the pursuit of their own aims. Nonetheless their aims ultimately strengthen and reinforce existing structures.  However this study remains within the confines of education and work and fails to explore the wider identity that these young people are likely to build for themselves in a host of different spheres (work, leisure, political activity, sub-culture, music etc). I would also have liked it to look wider and to draw in other types of young people in order to give it a broad enough perspective to really answer the question as to why working class kids get working class jobs.