Overcoming hidden adversity
By James Clark Ross
As I ascend to a middle-class status, with my university education and graduate scheme job, I reflect on a not-so-prosperous upbringing that, perhaps, will surprise some of you. There are a number of reasons why I would forgive you for thinking me middle class: my ‘posh’, southern accent is deceptive; I grew up in Winchester, which is both affluent and safe; the majority of my friends are middle class; and I have a propensity to consume hummus.
Three factors have encouraged me to write this post. One is that I am going through a rather reflectively phase: I now want to be proud of my working class roots and the number of obstacles I have had to overcome in order to attain – whatever that means.
Secondly, I want to quash misconceptions regarding my social status in early life. I think it is somewhat insulting when people underestimate my achievements, which is usually expressed through ignorance.
The third is enlightenment. I recently read Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones, which taught me how Thatcherism, individualism and growing inequality has facilitated the stigmatisation of the working class. That is, despite the destruction of jobs and communities that pertain to this social class – many of which were high-skilled and well paid – most notably mining – there are prevalent attitudes that feed the narrative that the poor lack aspiration and are there because they deserve to be. In reality, with the forced collapse of industry in the Eighties, the dismantling of trade unions (and, with it, their collective voice), and inept housing policies (to name only a few factors), there is a strong argument to suggest successive governments are responsible for massively unfair inequality and that we do not live in a fluid, mythical meritocracy, where people at the top are purely there on – well – merit. I feel as though this book vindicates my resentment toward peoples’ attitudes on the working class; now I want articulate my own story, fight the ‘chav’ caricature that disparages so many and obscures governmental blame, and be more proud of what I have achieved in relative terms.
At this point I deem it necessary to define working class. Fundamentally, it is often described as workers who have nothing to sell but their skills and labour power: jobs where the employee expends labour to produce economic value for the employer, and typically where the employee is paid on an hourly basis. These roles are usually associated with low income. (I have experienced these types of jobs myself, e.g. in a market research office, kitchens, and whilst cleaning.)
Clearly there are cultural differences between the classes too. For example, middle-class families may have a history of university in the family, where academic interests and aspirations are rife. Maybe more books are in the house and Mum and Dad display extensive vocabularies. Perhaps they can help with homework or provide a private tutor. There may be access to a car, enabling one to be more versatile with the demands of work. Moreover, as a member of a middle-class family one may have greater access to various opportunities – relatives with connections and influence in the workplace and a greater ability to provide financial assistance to those undertaking voluntary work. (I would never assume these facts about anyone, though.)
These aspects of middle-class life were always alien to me. Referring back to the definition of working class above, my mum has always undertaken low wage, working-class occupations, e.g. as a cleaner and now in a café, and has always worked incredibly hard. As the sole provider of our house, this rendered us working class. Furthermore, she was a recipient of working tax credits and child benefits, and I received education maintenance allowance (EMA) and grants at university. I look back at this time of my life and think how much my mum did for us. She was a single mother of five working in jobs with very few rewards (if any), and much of her time and money was spent on us.
My upbringing was not a fertile ground for attainment and prosperity. Financially, I received nothing to assist with my studies, except some money from the Government. More significantly in my opinion, though, was the lack of support. That is not to say my family did a bad job! That is not true. Rather, no one could really help me with my work. Moreover, I had no space to study: there were often seven people staying in our three-bedroom house in Kings Worthy, Hampshire, and I shared a small bedroom with my two brothers. And in a home environment with a lack of presence with respect to academia there were no educational role models for me, no connections, few books, a struggle to understand what is expected of you in academic environments such as universities. It felt as though I didn’t belong at university at times.
All I had was pure determination – I wanted to achieve, even though I had no objective aims. Determination alone will not lead to success, however: one requires intelligence, skill, luck and a stable and supportive home environment.
For my current job in the NHS – a dream for me – I had no leg-ups whatsoever. In my particular case, there was no doctor or nurse in my family, for instance, to inspire me, to help with my application, or to arrange voluntary work.
I hope this doesn’t come across as hard done by or bitter. After all, Winchester is hardly a deprived area and my friends provided me with an aspirational and academic environment for motivation. Besides, I am sure many more have had it so much worse. I would love, however, to apply for a freedom of information request to see how many working class children make it onto graduate schemes like mine. I feel lucky. But I think we all know the facts regarding inequality and opportunity: the middle class have it so much better.
Then there was school. There were no programmes in place at my secondary school to identify those living in poverty, nothing to deal with inequality. Our family could not really afford books or revision guides. There was no computer in our house. My mum could only afford to provide me with £2 for lunch money. Excursions to European cities to experience other cultures, student exchange programmes and ski trips were essentially a no-go for me. Regarding my studies, school did nothing for me because they realised I would achieve above a C-grade in all my GCSEs (something they were obsessed with). What genuinely makes me bitter, though, is that they failed to notice my mild specific learning disabilities, whereas in competent schools there are systems in place to spot these problems. As such, until now I have always felt as though I have been playing catch-up.
What has exacerbated my sentiments regarding this topic is peoples’ ignorance. When I was 17-years-old – at which point I had not fully realised my own social status and surroundings – someone from Winchester remarked: “Doddsy, you are not working class. You live in Winchester, for God’s sake.” (Another claimed that anyone can attain a PhD in Maths if one tries hard enough. If only life was that simple.) I always felt as though I received less support than everyone else, but I couldn’t articulate it. The naivety I experienced from others compounded my confusion, though I now recognise that I was less fortunate than others.
Thus I would argue that I have a working class background. Despite the fact that I am a product of egalitarian policies such as child benefits and EMA, I feel as though I have had to struggle against many hidden obstacles in a world where one has to compete against others for jobs. Ostensibly, there are many superficialities that would suggest I have middle class roots, but I hope I have debunked and dispelled them. I will always be proud of where I came from, as I become middle class, with my secure, well paid and skilled job. But despite these absolute achievements of mine, the biggest accomplishments have been overcoming the adversities that pertain to inequality, which has rendered every attainment a relative victory.