Social mobility is in decline.
Despite all of our technological advances and more people than ever applying for university places, over the 45 years that I’ve been on this planet, research from the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission shows the ability for someone to achieve greater financial and cultural capital than their parents is increasingly unattainable for those born with the greatest level of disadvantage.
And I should know. Having been born ‘working class’, the death of my dad when I was 14 meant that we became reliant on benefits almost overnight and any interest I had in my GCSEs went out of the window. By 18 I was the eldest of six children in a single parent household that required support from Social Services. Of the six of us, I am the only one to choose to leave the town we grew up in. The only one with a mortgage, pension, own car. In comparison to my siblings and most of my class peers, I am (with my wine club subscription and kids that like venison) roaringly middle-class.
But how did I get here? Ambition, determination and hard work for sure. A total focus not to endure the struggle that my mother did. But there was something else – a little bit of corporate magic. Fortunately for me, my route into work was via a Business Admin & Secretarial Skills NVQ which led me to office environments where I discovered sales and then the wonderful world of technology. And there is nothing like working for a technology giant to smooth off those rough edges. So, having been through that machine and coming out the other side, here’s my observations on how corporates could better support their staff who are from low socio-economic backgrounds (low-SEB).
1. Lead the conversation
In an office environment we are desperate to fit in. Don’t believe me? Check out how many of your staff end up wearing the same brands (we had an outbreak of Hobbs dresses and Tag Heuer watches in our office). How the sports cars get switched out for 4x4s at the hint of a pregnancy and how the clarity of diamonds are discussed when someone gets engaged. Revealing to colleagues that you visited a relative in prison or that you “don’t ski” because you grew up with ‘Ski’ being a brand of yoghurt doesn’t quite chime when you’re surrounded by talk of buying investment properties.
When I deliver my social mobility stand up talks for corporate audiences, I always open with a poll. The results of the most recent one is interesting:
- To what extent do people disguise / actively avoid disclosing their low-SEB origins in the workplace?
- Very much so (45%)
- Depends on the industry (55%)
- How easy is it to have a conversation about social mobility in the workplace?
- Very (9%)
- Somewhat (64%)
- Not at all (27%)
- Do you think social mobility offers a way to bring up issues of intersectionality?
- Yes (100%)
The above suggests to me that not only do we have a large proportion of employees feeling they cannot ‘bring their whole self to work’ but at the same time we have an acknowledgement that talking about social mobility helps us have a conversation about intersectionality. Poverty is indiscriminate in the case of race, gender and sexual orientation so can we just please talk?
For me this would include panel conversations that highlight staff who have low-SEB beginnings, bringing in pupils from local state schools and planning meaningful outreach that helps gently nudge employees out of the corporate bubble.
2. Deliver life skills
If there’s something corporates don’t have a shortage of it’s personal development courses. The one that sticks in my mind during my time at Microsoft was called ‘Personal Excellence 101’ created and delivered by Nicholas Bate. Involving three days off-site and expensive to run (so I was told with absolutely no sense of irony that we were a billion-dollar subsidiary) it was, for many of us, a transformative experience. Where some people will wax lyrical about IBM’s legendary Executive School, I was bowled over by an emphasis on meditation, interaction, communication, financial literacy, pragmatism and striving for excellence in every area of your life. For people who grow up in settled households or go through the private school system these are all things that you take for granted. When your start in life means that you talk too loudly, fail to look people in the eye or respond to every issue like it is an emergency, this kind of input is invaluable.
3. Signpost support
Here’s something that I once did. Not long after the birth of my daughter I sat down in front of my doctor and asked for help. For my mum. She was calling me dozens of times daily with news of the latest upsets and issues, wanting constant communication and support. From my position of having ‘made it’ I felt guilty, that I should step in. But no matter how much time and money I offered it didn’t seem to work. And now I couldn’t cope. My doctor, being an extremely wise woman gently told me that perhaps I was the one who needed some support. To be able to switch off the phone. Say no. Enjoy my time with my new daughter whose existence really did depend on me.
My belief is that for corporate organisations that have the resources, they should actively encourage employees to access support such as talking therapies and counselling. Had this been put plainly in front of me I would have taken it. Instead I presented at our wellbeing clinic with endless symptomatic issues of digestive problems and pains. In my years since leaving corporate life I have (thanks to signposting from networking colleagues) benefitted from a business coach and wellbeing coach. Both have helped me make great decisions and the latter in particular helped me navigate and unpick some delicate and difficult issues associated with where I find myself in relation to my family.
No time like the present
The effects of the pandemic on future social mobility are predicted to be incredibly damaging for the least privileged children. What happens to students today will be felt within workforces in the future. To avoid a situation where corporates are only hiring in their own image, bringing social mobility higher up the agenda – and acknowledging and supporting those employees whose origins are low-SEB – needs to happen now.
About the author
Toni Kent is an experienced writer and performer who is trusted by large corporate IT organisations to represent their business leaders and brands through a mixture of ghost writing, coaching and motivational speaking.
With twenty years of experience in technology and as an advocate for women supporting women, Toni is frequently booked by Women in Business networks and organisations that want to promote gender parity. With lived experience of how work transforms the life prospects of women from disadvantaged backgrounds, she is proud to be the official event compere for Smart Works Reading – an organisation that helps women return to the workplace via free interview coaching and work-appropriate clothing.
Toni is also a columnist for Berkshire Life and has written three books of humorous reflections on what it means to be a woman: Reasons to be Cheerful Parts One and Two and I Need a Wife. Her books are all available via Amazon.
You can follow Toni on Twitter and LinkedIn at @tonijkent
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