Challenges for Working-Class Students Don’t End at Commencement

This time of year, commencement speakers around the country are expounding on the promise of the degrees their captive audiences are about to receive: rewarding careers, financial stability, and limitless potential. They’re not wrong to do so. College is a great social equalizer, and college graduates tend to do better on a host of metrics beyond income, including life-expectancy, marriage stability, and overall well-being.

Is this promise of upward mobility equally attainable to people regardless of their social class background though? Recent research that my colleagues Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend and I conducted suggests not. In our interviews with 30 MBA students at top business schools who were first-generation college students, we heard over and over again that life after college continues to present obstacles to upward mobility, perhaps most notably continuing to feel a lack of belonging in middle-class, professional workplaces.

One interviewee, the daughter of immigrants who was the first in her family to go to college, explained it this way: “There are so, so many things you have to learn about being in a white-collar organization. The politics of it, how you dress, how you act, how you talk, all of those things I had to learn. No one told me to expect them or to look out for them or warned me about them.”

Many of the upwardly-mobile students we talked to expressed this same feeling of not having the right social connections, material resources, and cultural knowledge required to fit in and succeed in white-collar workplaces. Most said the transition wasn’t easy. As another one of our interviewees explained, “I still consider myself middle income. Just because I go to [an elite business school], or have worked in a top consulting firm doesn’t mean I feel like I’m a part of a different socioeconomic status or class at all. Because the way I judge that is if I lost my job today, where would I be? And if I lost my job, there’s nobody in my family that can pick up the pieces.”

“If I lost my job today, where would I be? And if I lost my job, there’s nobody in my family that can pick up the pieces.”

This interviewee’s perspective on the influence of her social class background at work was not unique: 95 percent of interviewees felt that their social class background had impacted their workplace experiences in some way. Even though they had gained exposure to middle-class ways of being while at college, and had successfully navigated their way into professional occupations, the majority of our upwardly mobile interviewees had at some point felt out of place, and as though they didn’t belong.

Although from an outsider’s perspective, they appeared to be a typical member of the middle class—college-educated and employed in a white-collar occupation—they felt they lacked the “cultural capital” required to fit in in middle-class settings. They told us they felt they didn’t have the right hobbies, play the right sports, or have the right travel experiences to “pass” as middle-class, and in fact, often still identified as working class. This can make it nearly impossible to be oneself at work. As one interviewee explained, “I could never be totally open with [my coworkers], because we were just different.”

Research suggests that the challenges our interviewees described can have a number of important consequences: college graduates from working-class backgrounds continue to feel lower-status than their middle-class peers, have a harder time signaling cultural fit with professional employers, and, even once hired, have a harder time rising through the ranks in white-collar organizations. But, we also discovered in our interviews that these challenges are really only half the story.

Many of our interviewees also told us that they felt they had strengths as a result of their working-class roots that they could leverage to offset some of the challenges they faced. In other words, experiences they commonly faced as a result of growing up in working-class contexts, such as struggling to overcome adversity, needing grit to succeed, and having to adjust to others, fostered the development of skills that could also be a source of strength in middle-class workplaces. Specifically, interviewees cited their work ethic and resilience as sources of competitive advantage in the workplace.

As one interviewee told us, her working-class background had “infused in me a sense of perseverance and hard work and resilience that I think is unparalleled in some sense, because it’s made me very grateful for the opportunities that I do have, and very determined to make the most of it. Not just because I’m ambitious and I want to be a CEO. But, because it’s meaningful in a sense, like every single step I take in the future is advancing my family’s future, as well, and not just mine.”

Beyond pure work ethic and resilience, a number of students said they felt they were better able to take the perspective of different people, which in turn helped them to perform well at their job.

One interviewee, who worked in market research before business school, explained, “I’m very unique in terms of my socioeconomic background. I’m very educated, but at the same time I have a very unique background, and so I’m able to understand different types of consumers. When people were telling me, ‘oh, consumers shop this way,’ I was like, ‘well, hold on a minute, you’re talking from a very educated, very affluent perspective.’ I know that my mom or my dad growing up did this, or people in my community do this… I’m able to bring in diverse perspectives, and that is helpful.”

“Every single step I take in the future is advancing my family’s future, as well, and not just mine.”

Much like this interviewee felt that her familiarity with people from diverse social classes gave her insight into the type of consumer her firm wanted to target, a full two-thirds of our interviewees similarly felt that understanding people from diverse backgrounds helped them to succeed in middle-class workplaces.

Being able to realize and draw on these strengths was key for our interviewees to navigate the previously unfamiliar landscape of middle-class workplaces. With time, interviewees explained that they learned how to talk the talk and walk the walk. While at first interviewees were confronted with challenges adjusting to the norms of middle-class professional workplaces, over time they learned not only how to harness skills from their background to be effective, but also how to enact typically middle-class strategies and tactics that were helpful in the workplace. Eventually, they came to feel that they had the best of both worlds: familiarity with middle-class norms, as well as distinct strengths from growing up working class that set them apart.

One interviewee put it this way: “I knew that I needed those people and their advice to be able to get a little further in life, because I didn’t necessarily have that at home. But at the same time, there were a lot a great skills and values that my parents taught me. So it was just realizing that sometimes the disadvantage was an advantage.”

While not geared specifically toward working-class individuals, one program that several interviewees mentioned as a source of support was Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a program that helps students from underrepresented communities navigate the ins and outs of business careers and business school applications. More such programs could be developed. At an organizational level, we can help companies recognize these distinct strengths, as well, and the ways in which hiring a workforce comprised of people from diverse social class backgrounds can improve organizational performance.

If we begin to implement these programs, perhaps the optimistic messages of commencement speakers will feel equally attainable to college graduates from different social-class backgrounds. And if these diverse students are able to achieve upward mobility, our organizations will benefit as a result.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Barling, J. & Weatherhead, J.G. (2016). Persistent exposure to poverty during childhood limits later leader emergence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(9), 1305-1318. (Link)
  • Phillips, L.T., Stephens, N.M., & Townsend, S.S.M. (Under review). Access is not enough: Cultural mismatch persists to limit first-generation students' opportunities for achievement throughout college. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. (Link)
  • Rivera, L.A. (2012). Hiring as cultural matching: The case of elite professional services firms. American Sociological Review, 77(6), 999-1022. (Link)
  • Stephens, N. M. & Townsend, S. S. M. (2017, May 22). How you feel about individualism is influenced by your social class. Harvard Business Review. (Link)
  • Stephens, N. M., Dittmann, A. G., & Townsend, S. S. M. (2017). Social class and models of competence: How gateway institutions disadvantage working-class Americans and how to intervene. In C. Dweck, A. Elliot, & D. Yeager (Eds.), Handbook of competence and motivation (2nd Edition): Theory and application. New York, NY: Guilford Press. (Link)