Circumstances Are Temporary, Class Is Permanent

On Class, Social Mobility and Absurd Ancestors

My mother was born in a palace, the daughter of a family of wealth and influence. On coming to London she first worked in a factory. When I was born she was sewing for piece rates to make ends meet.

So when my daughter asked me what class we are I didn’t have a ready answer of plebian or patrician. Not having a ready answer turned out to be the right one, the question merited some thought.

The current method of measuring social mobility is based on the work of Goldthorpe in the 1970s. Originally it asked for your occupation in midlife and compared it to that of your father. Fifty years on the question has been adapted to ask what profession the main breadwinner in the household had when the respondent was aged 14. The seven categories are allocated to three broad ranges, the Salariat at the top, then Intermediate Classes and finally Working Classes.

When I was 14 my mother had a clerical job in a bank; routine work that put her squarely in the Working Class. The methodology does not ask if you were born in a palace. For me, my mother’s aristocratic heritage was just a rich source of stories. The reality was that our financial situation was precarious and there was no option other than hard work. Working Class it is, maybe.

Even without her history we didn’t fall easily into working class tropes. Although we lived in a terraced house, it was in a leafy London suburb and not a grim industrial town. When I was 14 my brother was studying at the LSE and I attended an eye-wateringly expensive school with my fees paid by the government, scholarships and bursaries. Education is the traditional lever for social mobility and we had pulled firmly on it.

By the way, if you want to give a poor kid some complex hang ups about wealth, privilege and entitlement, then send them to a rich kids’ school. Some of that may bleed into the rest of what you read here.

Both my parents were university graduates. My father’s very early death leaves unanswered what career heights he might have scaled. In Pakistan he worked for the Pakistan Economist, and as a younger man he had worked in the telegraph office because his English was good. At the time of his death he was an internal accountant for a firm of solicitors. His short life doesn’t give many clues but he clearly turned his hand to anything requiring literacy and numeracy. Without a family leg up I’d still back him to have free climbed his way up the social strata. His own father was apprenticed to a tailor when an illness wiped out most of the breadwinners in the family. Before that the trail goes cold.

It all seems to me to point to a place on the Working Class starting line, but with senses trained on the gun to race for a more comfortable economic destination.

Climbing the ladder

But what of my children? Both have crossed the threshold of 14 and in answering the social mobility question would put me in the Salariat; a senior management job gives me the hallmarks of Middle Class.

I’ll take that as long as they remember the path it took to get there: their grandmother sewing night and day while their father gurgled at her feet.

It all sounds very romantic and rags to riches, a salutary tale of hard work and good education being the foundation for progress; fuel for the myth of meritocracy. Well, perhaps not so much of a myth. A study by the LSE and UCL, reported by the BBC, concluded that social mobility was “the norm and not the exception” as 48% of people rose up the ladder from their parents’ position, compared with 31% who slid down. The social mobility game seems to have fewer snakes than ladders.

As ever things are not that simple.

Gregory Clark’s work has found that class is persistent for families. Individuals may break the glass ceiling or crash through it, but over the course of generations, certain privileges persist. He estimates that it takes ten to fifteen generations for familial wealth or poverty to dissipate. The New Republic notes his observation:

“…if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge.”

Clark, G The Son Also Rises

Something about the study sits uncomfortably with me. I’d like to believe that every person is a well of untapped potential waiting to be realised if only given the right opportunities and guidance. With my less dewy-eyed, more analytical hat on I can reconcile Clark’s observation with the UCL/LSE stats.

The Dyer lemma

Let’s start with Danny Dyer, a British actor. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” a TV show that traces the roots of famous people, we learned that he is a descendent of King Edward III (1312-1377). His reaction and the juxtaposition with the hard man, rough edged, cockney persona he projects (it may all be real) made for great TV.

A little bit of back-of-an-envelope calcuation tells me that in principle half the population of the United Kingdom could share the same heritage. Perhaps there is more to the saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” than we first thought.

The Dyer Lemma* provides the reconciling point we’re looking for. Even without the disruption of wars, rebellions, treachery and infidelity, it would only take a few generations for the second sons of second sons to be mixing it up with the rest of us. Clark’s observation that a core retain their status over several hundred years does not invalidate their cousins joining the ebb and flow of social mobility. Indeed, for a time they will over-contribute to the downward cadre as for them it is the only possible direction of travel. For all the Sinclairs, Percys and Beauchamps attending Oxbridge, there is a plethora of them who didn’t.

Even on Jacob’s Ladder some of the angels were going down not up. And though Jacob’s seed may indeed have “spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south”, very few were prophets.**

Goldthorpe’s original work on social mobility was limited in two important ways, which I believe he acknowledged – it did not account for the role of women in the workforce or of migrants. While the new mode of posing the original question “what was the profession of the main breadwinner…” leans towards gender neutrality it can still fall awkwardly in the career breaks many women experience and it misses the driving purpose of migrants uprooting themselves to change their stars.

My mother, woman and migrant, makes the traditional method of measurement next to useless in my case. Her story, while it is not unique, is both tragic and inspiring. It is also a reasonable case study for a three-generation model of the migrant experience.

From riches to rags

My parents had been married for just over seven years when my father passed away. Having worked in a factory, at a dry cleaner’s, and for a greengrocer, my mother had by that time acquired a large metal-framed Singer sewing machine. It dominated the dining room of our house. That room included a sofa bed which would be unfurled at night for her to sleep on. The rest of the house was rented out to lodgers. Her income from rent, that sewing machine, and her younger brother’s part-time jobs between his studies, formed the basis of our early survival.

There are two paths to financial security for the migrant, both involve dedication and hard work. Some have the acumen and appetite for risk to trade their way out of poverty. That wasn’t us. The other route is to study your way into the ranks of the doctors, lawyers and savants, out of the labouring classes.

For my mother, her straitened circumstances were a blip, a cruel hand dealt by fate but she still held the aces of diligence and frugality. Traditional, white-collar professions for her sons would provide enough money not to have to worry about money, and the linked but distinct goals of respect and respectability. Quality schooling and reputable universities were all part of that equation.

Her own family were Prufrocks to the Hamlets of the Kingdom of Avadh. The founders of our Indian dynasty were scholars and clerics at the royal court. The mahal, where my mother was born, literally means palace. It is in fact more of a grand country home, let’s call it a modest chateau. It is fronted by an Imambargah, a chapel will do as a translation for our purposes. The significance of the Imambargah is that it has two minarets. In this it is rare, possibly unique. The royal buildings of Avadh had four minarets, and during the British Empire Avadh’s kings had little else to do with their wealth than stand up grand buildings. Private buildings were only allowed one minaret. Our two were a mark of special royal favour. The gates to the mahal have recently been replaced. They feature the double fish emblem of Avadh, as the original gates did, another mark of royal favour.

New mahal gates

One of my ancestors was personal tutor to the children of an Avadh princess. The story goes that the British stirred up the soldiers in the princess’s palace to mutiny. My ancestor was in the bath. Hearing the ruckus he came out dressed only in a towel and faced the mutineers. He issued such a stern reprimand that they went sheepishly back to their posts.

My own grandfather reprised this act of courage, facing down a mob to save the life of a Hindu man in the Lalukhayt district of Karachi.

These snippets of history I got from my mother. In an unwitting precursor to Gregory Clark, she would tell me that our family had enough wealth to last for “saat pusht” seven generations but frittered it away in two. She saw first-hand the last vestiges of her family’s grandeur, and the hardship of migration first to Pakistan and then to the UK. It forged her character – diligence and frugality, dedication and hard work; wealth was a curse that led to laziness and indolence.

The goals were simple enough – security, respect, respectability.

What is respectable?

My first proper job baffled her. I was on the graduate training scheme at Ford, while my college mates were either doing crazy hours for silly money at Investment Banks, or duly, dully enrolled on training contracts for the big professional services firms.

Love for my friends aside, I still firmly believe that the audit profession is a full employment racket for the mediocre Middle Classes. It would have been the end of me and, while I eventually became an accountant by mistake, I count myself fortunate never to have endured life as an auditor. On the flip side this essentially meaningless activity is a predictable path into the Middle Class for those who aspire to it. Swings, roundabouts.

Guessing how much you can sell a car for in five years time (my last job at Ford) was still a bit too close to the actual act of manual labour for mum. She embraced that willingly for herself, she wanted something else for my brother and me. It wasn’t until I moved into one of the big consulting firms that she was reconciled to my “career” path, albeit briefly as I veered off again soon after.

I could have achieved the security objective as a plumber, I think I was better suited to it to be honest, but that respectability thing is a kicker.

That’s a neat encapsulation of the first two steps in the three-generation model. The first generation sublimates its own desires and comfort in the quest to set a platform for its children, a base from which they can power forward. The second generation follows in its wake, witness to what has been expended for its sake. Fitter, happier, more productive than its predecessor but ultimately slave to the same imperatives.

Third time’s the charm

The third generation, well this is where it gets interesting. The struggle to survive of the first generation is now a story, the history of the grandparents. The third generation lacks direct experience of those times, and the deeply ingrained philosophy of “get yourself a job first”.

Of course, most will follow in their parent’s footsteps, a small nudge up or down the place on the ladder that has been secured for them. Some will break out. Leaning on their financial security and their freedom from the schema instilled in their parents they strike a different path. They can take risks that might be incomprehensible to their grandparents, and make choices that will either be resented or revelled in by their parents.

The third is the generation of artists and musicians, the early blooming authors and aspiring sports stars. Of those that try, most will join the long tail of those who almost or never make it. The point is that they get the chance to try.

Those generations of my maternal ancestors who let generational wealth slip through their fingers were all well educated polyglots, university gold medals abounded. Their favoured pastime was writing verse in Persian and the higher variants of Urdu, and they were good at it – publishing books and occupying the pages of highfalutin journals. It wasn’t just a male pursuit, the women of the house were at it too, for reasons of modesty publishing anonymously. The problem was that no one was professionally managing the estates, investing the returns or handling expenditure like an adult. They were notoriously naïve, easily cheated and swindled.

The periodicity of the phases was longer in their time, leaning into the centuries Clark estimates, but the model stands for them too as medieval migrants with the Mughals – achieve security, embed it, leverage it, or in this case: spend it.

I find myself admiring those profligate ancestors. My brother, for reasons too complex to go into here, is custodian of a set of family treasures – decoupe art one of our forebears made. The pieces are delicate and really beautiful. Apparently as the family sat around in the mahal swapping verses and literary jokes he would join in and at the same time be snipping away with his scissors and these bits of paper ephemera would appear.

No photo description available.
Part of the collection of decoupe art

Yes, they had a life of extraordinary privilege, and yes of course they should have husbanded that wealth better. Nonetheless if all you can do with inherited wealth is curate it, then it is a prison. Life is a game of chance and cycles. Some generations have no choice but to build, to make a sacrifice. What’s the point if the drudgery continues through the ages?

And someone has to be the fall guy, to serve as a lesson that wealth, whether it takes a generation or ten, ultimately disappears.

There was a glorious, absurd, illogical stand my ancestors once took, refusing the money they were offered by the British for the land on which Lucknow railway station was built. The British were usurpers, their money was tainted. It was economic suicide; a genuinely beautiful sticking to principle and utterly magnificent act of stupidity. I never met them, I love them for both. Living in London I can rise above the irony and say we were never collaborators.

The gravity of their gesture lived on. My grandfather could have spared his family great hardship, spared me as a direct consequence, had he taken up property he was entitled to in Pakistan. He turned it down as others were homeless and adrift in their new homeland. By that time he had none of the familial wealth to fall back on, but the morality instilled in him, to do the right thing irrespective of the cost, is immensely precious. I love that too.

I don’t begrudge any of them their principles and the consequent costs. What matters in the end is not where you stand on the ladder but what you stand for. That can be from the privilege of a palace, or sewing night and day in a single room to make ends meet. Ultimately, that is true class. 

Which still leaves my daughter’s question to be answered. “What class are we?” the subtext, with the self-centredness of childhood was “What label should I attach to myself?” What I eventually said to her was that it did not matter. If it was important to her she could claim to be descended from great wealth or great hardship. The key was to know the history, to learn from it, to absorb the stories of courage, diligence, frugality, and understand the pitfalls of entitlement, indolence and profligacy. From there she should strike her own path and make good decisions or bad decisions, unencumbered by her ancestors, immediate or distant. She is, after all, the third generation.


* The Dyer Lemma is not a thing, I made it up

** Genesis 28:12-14

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