The question I am very fortunate to have gone to a posh university at the top of the league tables. I am immensely privileged in so many ways, but being from working-class roots, the culture shock hit me hard and I struggled with the social adjustment.
Since then, another strange phenomenon has occurred: every person I remained friends with has miraculously bought a house in London. No mention of saving, or money. Just turning up to the pub one day, with an announcement of their purchase. They are then, of course, lauded with praise for this achievement. Even those with no job or who are still studying… One minute we’re living in a dodgy house-share, next thing they have a flat and are asking our opinion on curtains.
With no chance of saving in this expensive city and with stagnant wages, it’s making me feel as if there’s no hope for me to have somewhere secure to live and that the system is rigged (though I do plan on leaving as soon as I find a job elsewhere). I’m afraid the jealousy is going to turn into bitterness. Should I dump them?
Philippa’s answer No, I don’t think so. Whatever class and economic background you come from, it impacts your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Your original culture forms your identity, how you think and feel and behave. Go from one culture to another and, even if everyone is speaking the same language, it can still feel as if you are in a weird play and everyone but you has a copy of the script. Social mobility has given you a glimpse of another life, more knowledge of how unfair the world is and how meritocracy has little to do with anything.
Having secret nest eggs to fall back on doesn’t only give people money to buy a house, it also gives them the confidence to take risks, study for the sake of it, or to take time off. It isn’t surprising you feel jealous, but is it your friends’ fault that you resent them? No. Do you want to make them feel bad by rejecting them for making you feel awful? Maybe, but would that help anything? No.
It might appear deliberate that your friends don’t mention the sources of their money, when their family has obviously given them capital – but I think, rather than hypocrisy or deceit, this is another example of yet more social difference. You have struggled with social adjustment and this might be the biggest struggle yet. Upper-middle-class people generally don’t talk about where their money comes from. Therefore, probably because they’ve not heard other people talk about their trust funds, they don’t talk about them either – and this is not only about trust funds; I include people who come from families who may have the kind of surplus cash for help with a deposit or paying off student loans, which is totally alien to you. It may feel to you that they are pretending that after six months as, say, a trainee solicitor, a PhD student, a baby banker or a gallery assistant, they can afford a three-bed overlooking Clapham Common due to their own hard work. They are probably not knowingly being deceitful.
This doesn’t make them horrible people – and they are probably unaware of the effect they are having on you. They may not have realised that some people’s parents did not have an inheritance from their own parents and don’t have spare cash. You don’t have to dump them.
There is research in the field of social psychology that suggests class difference makes it less likely that working-class people can benefit from education to improve their material standing compared to people of an equivalent education who come from a middle-class background. This is not only to do with inherited money, but because of differences in social and cultural capital as well, such as the size of networks and involvement with different cultural activities. Your position is not uncommon. You may often have felt like a fish out of water. You’ve had a higher mountain to climb than they have, but don’t fall off at this point. I know you feel like giving up and that this is too much difference to cope with, but hang on. I want you to have a large network and to take advantage of the social capital you now have. And I want you, in a non-shaming way, to educate your mates about your life – where you’ve come from and what it’s like not having a trust fund or the social and cultural capital that seems just part of the air to them.
My husband also comes from working-class roots and has class-travelled. When he left art school, he was at a dinner party in a posh house and one lady was saying she didn’t understand homelessness because “Why didn’t they just go home to their parents?” He looked at the paintings in the grand dining room and said, “Or they could just take a couple of Rembrandts like these and make a tent with them.” I’m not suggesting that was the best way to go about it, just a way.
Inequality leads to misery, the solution is more political than personal, but I don’t want you to dump your newly won social capital.
If you have a question, send a brief email to [email protected]