Climbing the social mobility ladder - and falling off. A modern fairy story.

Janet Downs's picture
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Once upon a time, in the Sixties before they started to swing, a middle-class daughter of a shopkeeper, Susan, married her sweetheart, Dave.  He was a labourer on a building site.

He was working class.  So she became working class.  In those far-off days, the social class of women and girls depended on the class of their husbands or fathers.

Dave’s work paid well.  He got a mortgage and joined the property-owning middle class.

But the neighbours looked down on Dave.  They worked in offices while he mixed cement.  To them, Dave was still working class.

Dave worked hard – he started his own building business.  It boomed.  The family, for they now had two children, moved to a 5-bedroomed detached with a double garage.  Susan, who’d left school with 5 O levels, became a mature student at a teacher-training college.  She graduated and got a job teaching.

The family was now definitely middle-class.

The business expanded; Susan was promoted.  Both children went off to university – the first members of their family to do so.

But in the 90s came a recession.  Building work collapsed.  So did Dave’s company.  He became insolvent.  But Susan was still earning – they could manage.  Nevertheless, they had to downsize.

He was a bankrupt on benefits.  But she was a professional.  They were still middle-class.

Then Dave became terminally ill.  Susan gave up her job to nurse him.  It took him a long while to die – the last few months were in a nursing home.  But he wasn’t ill enough to qualify for full support.  So £600 a week leached from his portion of their small joint savings pot.

Susan couldn’t get full-time employment after he died.  For the first time in her life she had to claim benefits – she was now a shirker not a striver. 

But she became a retired professional – she’s still middle class. 

She read yesterday the Mayor of London says London schools make youngsters more socially mobile.  They get more pupils into to “top universities”.

But, she thought, we “bettered ourselves”, as her parents would have put it, because there were sufficient jobs.  And these jobs paid enough to allow people to buy houses.  There were mortgages and enough affordable houses for people to buy.  There were training opportunities so people could change careers. 

“You’re getting nostalgic”, she thought.  It wasn’t that Golden.  Things still went wrong.

But perhaps politicians, especially when they’re rich, need reminding that education alone is not enough.

It’s the whole package – education, yes, but also employment, health and welfare systems, support for life-long learning, a fair tax system which doesn’t impact negatively on the poor.  And a realisation that disadvantage does hold people back – you can’t “get on” if you’re hungry, or unwell, or nursing a sick relative, or worrying about bills or whether you’ll have a roof over your head next week.

“You’re getting angry,” Susan thought. “Maybe it’s time to drop middle-class reticence and start shouting, like common people do.”

She reached for the keyboard.
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