I had to fight my way through class boundaries to get to my job. Why has so little changed? – The guard | Team Cansler

A Interview in Liverpool. I’m Liverpool. “Do you write the way you speak?” I was asked. And that was my greeting, I suppose: welcome to the bourgeois world. In this case journalism. Welcome to the closed world of manners and customs and assumptions and turns of phrase that make it possible to monitor class lines, admitting those who are granted permission while others are denied entry.

Coming from a working-class milieu into a middle-class profession means all sorts of things for society. Consider the Social Mobility Foundation’s recent report on the social class gap, which found that working-class employees earned on average around £7,000 less than employees from better-off backgrounds. It’s a colossal price to pay for the sheer circumstances of birthplace and family background. The price is higher for women who face a £9,500 pay gap. Someone with a working-class Bangladeshi background or with a black Caribbean heritage can expect losses of £10,432 and £8,770 compared to their white counterparts. Losses can pile up as they are forced to enter the tragedy’s British intersectionality lottery.

But don’t get bogged down in the numbers. Instead, think about what it’s like to navigate the bourgeois world of our so-called professional professions. I’m a veteran journalist now, but most days I feel like I’m still running after almost 30 years of falls and scrapes as a hurdler. I grew up in a chaotic unemployed household in a Liverpool postcode that’s in the most disadvantaged 0.1% of England. My father belonged to the generation of ex-dock workers for whom the humiliations of The Blackstuff’s TV boys mimicked reality.

While I tick some of the most obvious boxes (City Hall, full, free school meals, first in my family to go to college), I’ve never felt inferior. I was far from alone in Liverpool as the Thatcher experiment unfolded. No one I knew seemed to know anyone in a secure job, let alone in something as socially distanced as journalism. Ignorance was bliss. Where I differ from many working-class kids is that I’ve been lucky. Before I could fantasize about being insulted about my accent, I got lucky when I received the crucial – and expensive – NCTJ industry qualification for free after enrolling in an NVQ journalism course at a college while on welfare, and took the Employment Training (ET) program or “Extra Ten” program.

I moved on and violated border controls with my first reporting job in 1994 at a Southport weekly newspaper. It was’nt easy. Indeed, it speaks to what is still happening to would-be working-class border-breakers. It was six months, all unpaid, doing the same work that middle-class boys in the office were paid to do. Her salary was around £7,000 – the same deduction that still applies to working-class employees today.

But what choice did I have? I applied to a Liverpool newspaper for the Graduate Trainee Program to no avail. When I got a job there two grueling years later, I found out what had been holding me back: they preferred Oxbridge grads or young people with decent parents. Another class, another lesson from an organization trumpeting its mission to represent proud working-class readers.

Crossing the class line in London was no easier then than it is now, with house price inflation leaving so many youngsters trapped in high rents with no prospects to buy. Who from outside London and the South East can afford to move there? I was lucky: a middle-class partner with a gift for long-term thinking, blessed with parental financial support (help with lump-sum bail) that I was hard to find in my working-class world where all that mattered was “get by”. But even then we couldn’t afford the capital. We have made a home in Reading.

When I first applied for a raise, I was told that the kind of people who did these jobs didn’t do them for the money. That screamed privilege to me – a handling of money reserved only for those who had it. And one that explains the elite private schools’ golden grip on Britain’s top jobs. There seems to be a difference here. I have a job that I get paid for. Others call it a career. There are elements of this world that will always be a struggle: the unwritten dress codes, the Manners, the cultural awareness, the debating style, that accent – even now – the career strategy, the maneuvering around the office. It’s that pesky social and cultural capital, or “Polish” as it’s called. It’s a set of hidden codes: you must know them. More importantly, you need to know that you need to know them.

Alan Milburn, the former Labor Secretary who went to a North Yorkshire General Assembly, crossed the class line when he entered politics. As chair of the Social Mobility Commission, he advocated legislation that could force companies to collect and report findings on in-class wage differentials. That would be an important start. The internal mentors are also crucial. There’s always someone to tell you where the restrooms and canteen are, but who guides you through the workplace maze of social and class rules, the unwritten codes and practices that silently determine your future? These mentors hardly exist. Your best hope, even now in unfamiliar social terrain, is to watch and learn.

I have never written as I speak: Very few people actually do this – but even then I understood the full thrust of the question. Maybe you wouldn’t ask like that today. The etiquette is different, but the assumptions remain intact. Unfortunately, so is the border.

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