I blogged in response to Milburn's proposals on social mobility that it was necessary for the working class to adopt the mores of the bourgeoisie in order to advance. This flies in the face of Labour's social engineering model, which holds that the working class should have access to all the rewards of the middle class without changing their attitudes or behaviour. I disagree. It's not about the accent you speak with, but the values you exhibit in living your life; it's not about losing your cultural identity but demonstrating you can act appropriately to your social status. These things matter.
Today Jenni Russell writes in the Guardian;
International companies are frank and practical about class and culture because profits depend on employees fitting in. Here, where our own internal migrants' lives and hopes can be shattered by such misunderstandings, we often keep expectations opaque.All well and good, and something of a Damascene conversion for the Guardian's editorial policy if not for the beliefs of its readers.
A headhunter I bumped into last year told me about the difficulty she'd had in finding suitable staff. That week she'd taken a candidate with excellent paper qualifications for a meal. Which was where it all went wrong. "His manners were just unspeakable. Shovelling food on to his fork with his fingers. Talking with his mouth full, but holding his hand over it. Licking his fingers." And that was that. "My business is done over lunch. That's where you persuade people and do deals. I can't employ someone if people won't want to eat with them."
Teenagers need to spend time with adults outside their social groups as mentors, friends and employers. And we need to find a way to talk about behaviour, manners, codes. Not because one set is better than another, but because it's the way humans recognise their groups. Pretending rules don't exist or matter only has one result – it freezes social mobility, and entrenches elites.
A couple of years ago my colleagues in the admin office downstairs took on a working class single mum for work experience under some government programme. There was the prospect of a permanent job at the end of it, but after a few weeks the negative comments that filtered back put paid to that. She was awful. Almost completely unsocialised, she would interrupt when she should have waited to be recognised, threw inappropriate comments at senior staff, was far too loud, was unskilled in recognising subtle signals and in conversation unable to grasp abstract concepts. What was more damning, she couldn't learn from the behaviour of her colleagues in admin. Bigger fleas have little fleas, and 'admin' regards itself as a cut above 'manuals', in which category they placed her. They didn't want her.
Monolithic welfare estates are as much to blame as crap comprehensives. The products of both have limited direct experience of the mores and standards that exist outside them. For years Labour have derided the standards of the middle class, and in so doing they have entrenched poverty and inequality.
Let's not pretend that these things don't matter. They do.