Fear of falling. Why it is so hard to career pivot when you are working class

Social mobility and the mythology of meritocracy have been in the news again. I particularly enjoyed reading Vicky Spratt’s take on this. As she put’s it “Social mobility cannot work because it implies that we can overcome class by glossing over the fact that what we’re really talking about is wealth inequality. We can’t. Things need to be fairer, for everyone.”

This resonates deeply. I’m a first generation academic and earning a ‘decent’ salary and having a professional career was not even in my childhood landscape of fantasy – it was so far from experience – literally the stuff of an episode of Inspector Morse.

In this post I want to revisit my January post when I announced my resignation. I framed it in terms of why I had stayed in academia. I mentioned in passing the ways in which a salary keeps us in.

The way in which the myth of social mobility keeps us in. Makes us feel grateful. Makes us feel like we have to put up with it. Convinces us we are beyond lucky.

For working class women – this is even more of a sticking point. The fear of falling is visceral. The fear of not bringing others with us on our ‘social mobility’ journey is in touching distance. We know what life without savings or pensions looks like. We can ask out parents, siblings, relatives, friends first hand.

Working class with money for the first time

I am a working class academic. I was the first in my family to stay on at school, let alone go to university. While my siblings have gone on to go to university and older relatives have returned to study later in life, I am the only person with a PhD.

And I’m one of the increasingly few women with a PhD that enjoyed holding a permanent lectureship.

In my academic post, I was earning – to me – a fantastical salary. It was beyond the realms of money I had ever known.

Having money, a contract, permanence – a position – a title. Is an odd feeling. First, you can’t believe you have this money. It makes you feel guilty. It makes you uncomfortable to talk about money. It makes you feel like you don’t deserve it (you can listen to the podcast on Imposter syndrome here that touches on some of this too).

Then that money becomes an opportunity- it enables you to craft a life that you had only ever observed on television, or glimpsed in other peoples homes.

Then you get used to that income. To having a home. To having a disposable income. To contributing to a pension. To being able to pay for child care. To being able to buy a take-away coffee and lunch. To not think about your bus fare. To feel crappy, and then just buy something nice because it will make you feel a bit better. For a short while.

It lulls you with the temporary sensation of feeling secure.

Fear of falling

Yet, overlaid all of this is fear. If you have ever lived in poverty, or financial insecurity, or economic dependency – you will know this. You fear being back there. Struggling financially is a full time job. Budgeting with little. Borrowing.

Head in the sand

I was in debt until last year. Over 20 years living with loans, credit cards, and overdrafts to pay off. Often just servicing the minimum interest.

I was deeply ashamed of that debt. And made to feel ashamed. As if it was all down to ‘poor choices’. To ‘frivolity’.

I had not allowed myself to really appreciate how much a lot of that debt was actually inevitable. I could not have completed university and then went on to a PhD without it – even with a grant and funding. I could not have helped out my family while studying without credit. If you can access credit and that is the only choice to make a bit of a difference to people you care about, you take it.

It becomes easy to borrow because it is made so.

Women are made to want to be their ‘best’ and so much is in aesthetic labour and clothes. Working class women in middle class spaces often do more of this work than others.

I’ve always loved clothes. Always. Even the hand-me-downs, the borrowed from friends, the second hand. But this can be stigmatising and shaming – choosing second hand is positive if it is a choice. Not if that is what you have because there is nothing else.

So I also lived with debt because I was dressing myself for my career, travelling for my career. My first dress as an academic – I bought from Jigsaw. Why? because I’d read about it somewhere. It seemed to be the right kind of uniform for my new job and life. Everyone kept telling me I was middle class now, I was affluent, I was privileged.

I tried to perform it.

I was caught in a cycle of continually trying to reinvent myself into the person that would ‘fit in’. I began to value myself on how well I was doing on this. People would complement me. Although it was often anything but. I always got it a bit wrong for the circumstance. Always too much.

Never read this as ‘poor me’

I am not writing this because I feel sorry for myself – I don’t. I’m glad I had the career I had. It was privileged.

I just don’t believe that it really made me secure or middle class. I leave that profession with education. With a little pension. With scant savings. I’m still without a safety net if this fails.

I also want us to better understand why some of us cling to careers that are killing us because it is framed as us having reached a pinnacle that we didn’t deserve; so we best just put up and shut up. We know we are the exceptions. We know so few others like us will be joining.

We understand social mobility is a con.

The privilege of a pivot

So, I have chosen to leave my privileged, well paid academic career. Why? because it made me ill. I finally put myself first. Selfish? Perhaps. Sensible. Yes. A huge risk – also yes.

I was able to make this choice because I could save a little buffer to set up as self-employed. I had been able to pay off my debts. I am married. I have a partner who earns. My children are coming out of paid childcare. However, I need to earn too.

I cannot and will not be financially dependent on anyone. A huge part of my fear stems from seeing what that can do too.

Money talks

We are seeing the beginnings of honest conversations by women about finances. Of a lack of financial literacy. Of the gendered nature of lack of money ‘know how’. Inscribed over already unequal levels of pay, career progression, pensions.

Let’s continue the conversation about earning and finances as women.

We cannot continue to stay in a shamed silence – either about our poverty, or our perceived privilege.

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