Rust Belt reflections: why class mobility is so tough

When you grow up in a blue-collar family in an impoverished neighborhood, class mobility can be tough.

When you go to a magnet school for gifted kids, you’re told that you’ll automatically be successful because you’re smart. I’ve written before about why I think gifted education is ultimately damaging, but this is about why class mobility has more to do with factors other than just intelligence.

One of the most important is the body of knowledge that you don’t have and can’t get because it isn’t in books. I remember reading a book from the library repeatedly when I was in elementary school and it was about etiquette. It taught the basics about manners, but it was ultimately aimed at children.

It said nothing about what you’re supposed to bring to a housewarming party, for example. Now I know that a bottle of wine is standard, but what if all you can afford is cheap wine? Is that worse than not bringing anything?

I didn’t grow up knowing when it was expected to send flowers, such as in terms of funerals. I didn’t know the meaning of flowers either, and sent my parents a peace lily for an anniversary. Imagine my embarrassment to discover the fact afterwards that a peace lily is often sent after someone dies. But I just had no way of knowing.

Another thing you don’t learn when you grow up blue-collar is about the importance of social capital. My sister’s kids will have this in spades because they’re on a ton of sports and their dad (my brother-in-law) is by now in middle management for a large corporation. My brother-in-law is also very outgoing and he’s good at schmoozing, which helps. Neither my husband nor I have that trait.

But my husband and I both grew up in blue-collar families with parents who lacked college degrees. They didn’t explain to us how to network, how to form the connections that lead to jobs, or how to manage finances. I knew almost nothing about money because my parents felt it wasn’t my business.

My husband’s parents taught him to save money and to avoid debt, but had unrealistic suggestions on how to do that. (Example: they thought that when we got married, we should put all of my earnings into savings. My husband only made $6 dollars an hour at the time, so we needed my income to live on.)

Not knowing how to make connections, I’ve often struggled with even knowing who to list as personal or professional references for jobs. I still feel like it’s a great imposition to ask someone to be a reference for me and I often shy away from doing so.

None of this is intended to blame my parents, though. Networking and social etiquette weren’t as required in their world. They came of age in a time where you could go to work in a factory right after high school and make good money. Some of it is also my own fault, for not having long tenure at jobs or making a positive impression on bosses (often because of my health.)

My husband and I have been hampered, however, by our lack of networking skills and relative introversion. My husband has a much more solid resume than I do and he works very hard. His employers always think highly of him and he has no shortage of people willing to be references for him. But not having the social capital or the outgoing personality, he doesn’t get the promotions that his work would otherwise merit.

My youngest is college-bound and is pretty high-achieving. Although he was never in sports and is also a bit introverted, I’m trying to teach him the things I didn’t know.

I’m telling him that this year, his junior year of high school, is absolutely critical in determining his college direction. He’s really devoting himself to his PSAT prep classes and he’s signed up for a heavy load of tough classes this year.

I’m telling him that getting jobs after graduating college depends a lot on the relationships he makes during college and that he needs to seek out mentors. I’m already brainstorming ways that he can address his relative lack of extracurricular activities in college admissions essays.

He has access to information that I did not. I got accepted to a fairly affordable state university right after high school. Not knowing how to pay for it, my parents suggested I go to the bank and apply for a loan (on my own with no credit history.) Unsurprisingly, the bank turned me down, and that was the end of that.

I’m talking to my son about ways of paying for college, letting him know to apply to more than one school (even ones that seem like relative long shots), talking to him about scholarships.

In his turn, he’s asking me questions that were the same ones I had, some of which my parents didn’t know the answers to. Like how credit hours work and how many you take in a semester. What exactly is covered by “tuition.” How to manage your time when you’ve got a lot of classes and a lot of stuff due at once.

Understanding the importance of social capital is something I’ve only recently begun to realize myself. So now that I know, I’m trying to teach my kids. Hopefully they will have the tools to become more successful than I was.

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