While I was in class at Columbia, struggling with the esoterica du jour, my father was on a bricklayer’s scaffold not far up the street, working on a campus building. Once we met up on the subway going home—he was with his tools, I with my books. My father was not interested in Thucydides, and I was not up on arches. My dad has built lots of places in New York City he cannot get into: Colleges, condos, office towers. He made his living on the outside. Once the walls were up, a place took on a different feel for him, as though he was not welcome anymore. Related by blood, we’re separated by class, my father and I. Being the white-collar child of a blue-collar parent means being the hinge on the door between two ways of life. With one foot in the working-class, the other in the middle class, people like me are Straddlers, at home in neither world, living a limbo life.
What drove me to leave what I knew? Born blue-collar, I still never felt completely at home among the tough guys and anti-intellectual crowd of my neighbourhood in deepest Brooklyn. I never did completely fit in among the preppies and suburban royalty of Columbia, either. It is like that for Straddlers. It was not so smooth jumping from Italian old-world style to US professional in a single generation. Others who were the first in their families to go to college, will tell you the same thing: the academy can render you unrecognizable to the very people who launched you into the world. The ideas and values absorbed in college the mom-and-pop orthodoxy that passed for truth for 18 years. Limbo folk may eschew polyester blends for sea-isle cotton, prefer Brie to Kraft slices. They marry outside the neighbourhood and raise their kids differently. They might not be in church on Sunday.
When they pick careers (not jobs), it is often a kind of work their parents never heard of or cannot understand. But for the white-collar kids of blue-collar parents, the office is not necessarily a sanctuary. In Corporate America, where the rules are based on notions foreign to working-class people, a Straddler can get lost. Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle-class values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read.
People born into the middle class to parents with college degrees have lived lives filled with what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘cultural capital’. Growing up in an educated environment, they learn about Picasso and Mozart, stock portfolios and crème brulee. In a home with cultural capital, there are network: someone always has an aunt or golfing buddy with the inside track for an internship or some entry-level job. Dinner-table talk could involve what happened that day to mom and dad at the law firm, the doctors’ office, or the executive suite. Middle-class kids can grow up with a sense of entitlement that will carry them through their lives. This ‘belongingness’ is not just related to having material means, it also has to do with learning and possessing confidence in your place in the world. Such early access and direct exposure to culture in the home is the more organic, ‘legitimate’ means of appropriating cultural capital, Bourdieu tells us. Those of us possessing ‘ill-gotten Culture’ can learn it, but never as well. Something is always a little off about us, like an engine with imprecise timing. There’s greater match between middle-class lives and the institutions in which the middle class works and operates-universities or corporations. Children of the middle and upper classes have been speaking the language of the bosses and supervisors forever.
Blue-collar kids are taught by their parents and communities to work hard to achieve, and that merit is rewarded. But no blue-collar parent knows whether such things are true in the middle-class world. Many professional born to the working-class report feeling out of the place and out manoeuvred in the office. Soon enough, Straddlers learn that straight talk would not always cut. Resolving conflicts head-on and speaking your mind does not always work, no matter how educated the Straddler is.
In the working-class, people perform jobs in which they are closely supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. That, in turn, affects how they socialize their children. Children of the working-class are brought up in a home in which conformity, obedience and intolerance for back talk are the norm—the same characteristics that make a good factory worker.
When Straddlers enter white collar jobs, they get lost because: