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Styling Robbie Spencer, Photography Robi Rodriguez

Wearing masks: how to navigate your career as a working-class person

From middle class ‘passing’ to playing up to stereotypes, writer Gina Tonic explores how our backgrounds and upbringings affect our experience of work

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

“It really looks like the chalets you stay in when you go skiing, you know?”

I am being asked for my opinion on interior design by my editor, during one of the first days of my women’s lifestyle magazine internship. I nod in reply, not knowing what a ski chalet would look like outside of when they’ve appeared on TV. I have never been skiing, I’ve never known anyone who has been skiing, and – most importantly – I would never naturally assume that anybody else has ever been skiing.

It wasn’t exactly a life-altering realisation that people in the media tended to come from very different backgrounds to me – and in some ways, I’m lucky that my first encounter with classism in the workplace was such a laughable offence. For others, it can be even more brazen. “I was at a dinner once with two of the executives from the PR agency I worked at, and they started saying they wouldn’t go to parts of east London because it’s all council estates and they’re scared,” Alex, a 28-year-old scouser, tells me. “I hadn’t spoken yet but knew as soon as I did, they’d realise I was from a council estate too.”

This anecdote is familiar to anyone who has entered the professional realm with a thick local accent. Just like Alex, my Welsh accent and brash colloquialisms are an immediate giveaway that I’m nowhere near as posh as those I often encounter at work. The media is dominated by middle and upper-class people – and they’re definitely not used to a high-pitched Valleys dialect blasting through their pitch meetings and work drinks.

It wasn’t before I entered the working world, though, that I realised I sounded – and acted – working class. I’d been mostly sheltered from this criticism growing up in my home town (the majority of which is made up of council houses) and in my Northern metropolitan university. But for others, this discrimination is something they’ve been experiencing their whole lives. One friend, who lived in one of the four council houses in her village, tells me that she would often get defensive about sharing her address with peers in case they judged her. 

Navigating the working world can be especially hard. Many working-class people find themselves suffering from imposter syndrome, a particular brand of anxiety where those fully qualified or justified to be in a space or job role feel as though they do not belong. (Quite literally, like an imposter.) And in a recent article for Refinery29 published last month, writer Beth Ashley explored the concept of “passing as middle class” in order to survive. She notes that “it is uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing to discover that signifiers of your social class aren’t welcome in the environment you inhabit”. Suppressing parts of your identity – like your home life, your childhood, your point of view – can make it easier to get by.

While Ashley notes that hiding in plain sight isn’t beneficial to yourself in the long run, it’s understandable to not want to disclose your working-class status in a room of people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. However, being able to hide this part of yourself at all can feel like a privilege in itself – one afforded to those with accents or dialects that are easier to assimilate. It’s a privilege to be able to afford clothes, living conditions and packed lunches that don’t immediately give away your class status. “My very northern, working-class accent has always made me stand out,” Tiffany*, a 27-year-old ICU nurse explains. “There’s no hiding it, and it’s got negative associations. It’s what is often used on TV shows as the ‘thick’ person’s accent usually accompanied by a colliery band playing in the background.”

She adds that the middle-class people in her hospital workspace also don’t shy away from using classist language around her when discussing the patients they are treating. Tiffany recalls both doctors and fellow nurses discussing working-class patients as a “vacuum for NHS resources” and commenting disparagingly on their lifestyle choices. “We had an 18-year-old who had had a c-section but had become immensely unwell. Poor girl had been critically ill for months. We were on a ward round and someone brought up her baby and her 18-year-old partner coming in that day... [Then] one of the junior doctors – your usual dough-faced, white, middle-class male who thinks being poor is a choice – pipes up  ‘Oh she only has one kid? Thought she’d have more.’”

This kind of subtle bigotry is especially harmful, as it doesn’t just impact the mental well-being of the person’s colleagues, but potentially those under their care too. In an industry that needs to be non-partisan in nature, the medical field falls short. Tiffany tells me when she stands up for working-class people, it helps her feel more confident in being working class herself, as the “underestimation of my retorts means they often don’t see it coming, which maximises their embarrassment.” 

Playing up to the tropes of the working class – being loud, vulgar, bolshy and argumentative – is another defence mechanism. It’s one I use myself: by drawing attention to and laughing at parts of my upbringing, it makes it less likely for people to use it against me. I’m not hiding my class status, but embellishing it. But playing up to the role of the ‘working class’ person can just become another mask to hide behind. After all, being able to play with people’s misconceptions isn’t a positive when the misconceptions should not exist in the first place. 

Lolo, a 24-year-old who used to work in the community care sector, found that her working-class status did not only make her feel bad about herself, but also lost her opportunities and repeatedly put her at a disadvantage in the workplace. One time, Lolo was left unable to take on a “hard to attain civil service apprenticeship in London” that she secured after she “had to explain in depth why I couldn’t afford to move due to being a universal credit user, and not being able to afford to live for a month in London before securing my first wage slip”. After explaining her experiences with landlords refusing those with a history of using universal credit and being unable to afford a deposit, Lolo was let go of rather than accommodated for.

With class discrimination not being included under The Equalities Act 2010, the actual act of excluding someone for being poor isn’t actually illegal. These instances weren’t Lolo’s only times that she was unfairly singled out for being working class, both due to being a Romany Gypsy and due to her issues with needing expenses paid upfront. In her last job earlier this year, working for a charity, Lolo was fired after revealing she was homeless.

Due to numerous factors, Lolo can’t “pass” as middle class, or hide behind a persona, to survive. In reality, being working class is physically and emotionally detrimental. Regardless of the industry, the layers of class discrimination range from being a joke to being literally dangerous. Whether or not you are able to hide your class, nobody wins when the upper echelons get to laugh at, intimidate and ultimately exclude us from the careers they dominate. By doing so, they get to keep these professions under the control of the middle classes – it’s almost like they’re doing it on purpose.

Names changed to protect identities*