off the cuff

Why working class children have little chance of success

Their parents are concerned with providing food and shelter, and ‘class migration’ means those children who do well feel alienated from their birth culture

Tim Lott
17:51 September 10, 2017

For those having a quiet day patronising working-class Salford children after the latest episode of Channel 4’s TV series Educating Manchester, I recommend you look at Joan C Williams’s new book, White Working Class.

Williams is writing about the United States, but her observations rang so many bells, some of them probably in Bow as well as Salford, that I felt duty bound to report back. In a chapter titled ‘Why Don’t They Push Their Kids Harder to Succeed?’, she explains some of the obvious reasons Kylie and Wayne don’t always get a leg-up from their parents in the way Rupert and Saffron might.

Key is this observation, from the sociologist Annette Lareau, quoted by Williams: “Working-class families follow ... the accomplishment of natural growth ... they view children’s development as unfolding spontaneously as long as they are provided comfort, food and shelter. Providing these represents a challenge and is held to be a considerable achievement.” Which is exactly how my father, a greengrocer, and my mother, a dinner lady, might have put it if they had been educated beyond the age of 14.

This, Williams notes, contrasts with the “concerted cultivation” of the professional elite, whose children statistically do far more organised activities, which helps them to develop skills for white-collar jobs. Concerted cultivation is training for a career (as opposed to just “having a job”). The pressure-cooker environment in elite homes often strikes the working class as “off”. “I just keep thinking these kids don’t know how to play,” the book quotes one class migrant from a hillbilly family as saying. Another notes that under-pressure middle-class children seem sad.

Williams notes that some admissions officers at elite universities, to level the playing field, allow no more than four extracurricular activities on applications. This is how out-of-hand the inter-elite arms race has become. No wonder the working classes, who face such disadvantages in the first place, are opting out.

Williams goes on to talk approvingly of the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books she read as a child: “Mothers focus their attention on adult matters while kids engage in unstructured play. No mother is ever depicted as playing with their children. Nor do children expect to be entertained.”

That is how Williams and I were raised. Lareau noted that in elite families, children expected adults to schedule their time and spend “a significant amount of time simply waiting for the next event”. She concludes that “concerted cultivation and work devotion” (the two key aspects of an elite childhood) “deserve a close look ... what’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting — that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure?”

Williams covers all the disincentives for working-class children to “do well” — chief among them the pathology of “class migration”, that is, the sense of alienation felt by those who succeed in transcending a modest background and making it into the educated professional classes. Because to “succeed” as a working-class child is also a form of betrayal and dislocation.

To sum up — the white working class has little chance in the first place, and they know it. Second, they know if they do succeed, they will pay a price in terms of alienation from their birth culture. Third, their parents believe, justly, that to provide food and shelter is in itself an achievement. And fourth, working-class culture has it that children should be left to themselves, not out of neglect, but out of positive choice. It’s called having a childhood.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Tim Lott is a journalist and author. His latest book is Under the Same Stars.