Employment & Networking Patterns | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the third in a series of posts on child development and social class, inspired by the intersecting events of my class reading and some recent interactions in my personal life — I happened to be studying the reading just when all that neighborhood stuff went down, and it really highlighted to me some interesting points about differences in parenting styles and values comes from. Also, this is what my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out!

Part three is on networking, and the differences caused by parental social class and child development when entering the workforce.

III. Networking

Basically, some families know the editors at the New York Times, and some families know the janitors. When you’re moving out into the world to look for jobs, references, start-up funding, or advertising of a new business, who you know makes a difference — and middle class and affluent (MC&A) people tend to know the movers and shakers of society, while poor and working class (P&WC) people tend to know the servers and worker bees.

A great way to examine class differences in depth is by deconstructing the book Start Something that Matters, by the TOMs founder Blake Mycoskie. It’s interesting, because he seems to assume that everyone who’s interested in starting a business has access to the same level of start-up resources and networking connections that he does. His advice includes things like:

  • Use your apartment or garage as a start up space!
  • Utilize interns for their free labor — thank them by arranging fun activities (he did weekly bocce ball tournaments) and occasional catered lunches!
  • Get free supplies by holding an office supply party!
  • Use your contacts to get freebies — free lunches, free test products, free laptops!
  • Talk to your contacts and friends in relevant industries (like news or fashion) to promote your product!

It was a really fascinating look into the mind of a well-intentioned person with apparently no awareness of the growing divide in resource allocation and opportunity that exists in our culture. Even more interestingly, Mycoskie clearly believes he started his business with few resources, and his advice is directed toward other potential entrepreneurs who also lack resources. The version of the book I had actually ended with a section of questions on each chapter that was meant to inspire the reader, and one of them was,

How can having limited resources actually work to your advantage? What products or services are must-haves when starting a business? (Chapter 4: Resourceful Without Resources)

Obviously, I find Mycoskie’s assertion that he had limited resources hilarious. I mean, for his social stature and class privilege, I guess he did — but from the perspective of 80% of Americans, he had an abundance of resources both tangible and non-tangible.

"How Inequality is Killing Us," -- Susan Rosenthal

“How Inequality is Killing Us,” — Susan Rosenthal

Mycoskie had an apartment that was large enough to start a business in, and his roommates were both legally and gainfully employed during the day, which left him ample hours of privacy. In the book, Mycoskie tells the reader that a garage, spare room, or basement can serve the same purpose — but what about the hopeful entrepreneur who is living in a homeless shelter, or who is sharing a small and overcrowded living space with friends and family who are unemployed, or only working part time, or whose minimum wage is barely enough to help make rent? Out of luck, I guess.

I guess they could always work out of an old RV in the desert.

His attitude toward interns really bothered me, too. Internship is an interesting way of reinforcing class divisions. First off, since most internships are unpaid, that means that only people who can work for free can afford to do them. Interns need to be in a situation where they don’t have to worry about paying for rent, food, or utilities. This reinforces class divisions, because if someone can’t afford to work for free, then they can’t take an internship, which makes it significantly more difficult to build the necessary experience and networking contacts that lead to success in their chosen industry.

Second, he literally justifies not paying his interns because he made work “fun” by offering bocce ball tournaments and occasional catered lunches. He actually says that interns with full stomachs are happy and creative interns. I couldn’t help thinking that the interns might also have full stomachs if you paid them a living wage instead of catering lunches. I mean, catered lunches are great, don’t get me wrong. They’re a fantastic good will gesture for employers to provide for paid employees. 

Be nice if your boss paid you enough to eat, wouldn’t it Jack?

Third, Myscoskie was incredibly dismissive of the applicants who chose not to join the company. Specifically, he says,

“Many people applied, excited at the prospect of learning so much … but when they showed up at the company headquarters — aka my apartment — for many, the excitement quickly evaporated. … I had to usher [prospective interns] past a somber-looking, barbed wire fence. Then I sat them down at the kitchen table where they might see the remains of that morning’s breakfast tacos next to a few pairs of shoes and a bunch of papers. Those who had pictured a more traditional internship — a big company filled with young professionals — didn’t pan out. But a few applicants recognized that this was the chance to get in on the ground floor …” pg. 71-72, Start Something

You hear how his language has an implicit negative value judgment toward interns who chose what they perceived as a more secure path over working for a guy who didn’t have the basic professional courtesy to clean up his apartment before holding interviews? His personal views are his, and that’s fine. The problem is that by sharing those views in a best-selling book about his “groundbreaking” message of corporate responsibility, he is now sending the message to other potential entrepreneurs and interns invested in corporate justice that a “good” intern is the one who takes a chance on the unknown. The flip side of that message is that boring, unimaginative, and greedy interns are the ones who think of their own future and security first, instead of leaping headfirst into a unprofessional and sketchy situation.

So far, Mycoskie has advised readers to work for free from home and to exploit interns for free labor. Next, he advises the reader to have an “office supply party,” which at first blush sounds frugal and reasonable … but this, too, presumes a certain class status. Depending on who your friends and family are, your party to collect office supply donations could end with a collection of computers, printers, tablets, file cabinets, and computer desks — or it could end with a handful of pens and pencils and some old three ring binders and peechee folders. In a similar vein, he also advises the reader to use their contacts to get freebies in order to “stay frugal.”

“TOMs … [coined] new terms for free stuff: a free lunch became a “frunch,” as in “I got a great frunch today.” “Frinsurance” is free insurance, “frinstallations” are free installations, “fregal” is free legal advice, and “frent” is free rent. Still more — “fromotion”: free promotion. “Frar”: a free car rental. “Framples”: free samples. And whether we got what we wanted or not, this mentality helped keep us frugal.” pg 85, Start Something.

Now, I’m all for frugality and freebies, that’s not my issue. My frustration here is with the blatant ignorance about the fact that the privileges and resources he is accessing to get free stuff are not available to everyone.

That’s why Mycoskie’s assumption that anyone can access things like free insurance (?!?) or free rent or free legal advice is really surprising to me, and very much highlights the assumptions he carries as he moves through the world. Mycoskie comes from a strata of society where he can ask for and reasonably expect free car rentals. To him, a lack of resources is having to choose between catering lunch for his interns or renting a car. To many Americans, a lack of resources is not having the requisite license and credit card to qualify for a car rental.

Eh, if they’re hungry, let the poors eat cake.

Mycoskie also tells the reader to access their friends and family in order to “grow” their business, but I can’t help thinking that the contacts he’s had access to and the contacts I have access to are two very different demographics of people.  That’s not to say the average lower middle class or P&WC American can’t be successful; I’m just saying that it’s a world of difference when someone has friends know the fashion editor at Vogue instead of a handful of obscure bloggers.

Annette Lareau’s research showed how the resources available to parents as they raise their kids reproduce class privileges and resource allocation by how well they prepared kids to move into educational and employment systems geared to the biases of middle class values. This affects adult networking and employment/ entrepreneurial success, too, obviously. When a job seeker begins looking for a job in their chosen field, it helps to know people in that field, and when an entrepreneur is starting a business, it helps to know people who can promote it effectively.

Consider this: Right now, teaching sociology and history at the college level are extremely high competition fields with lots of very qualified candidates and few positions. These are difficult fields to break into. In one of my college classes, we recently had a substitute — someone who is pursuing her graduate degree. When our regular professor returned, she encouraged us to write feedback letters that our substitute could include in her portfolio, as she will soon be completing her education and entering the job market. This soon-to be professor has a powerful and highly-respected ally in her corner who is helping her build her portfolio, notifying her of employment opportunities, and whose name is an impressive reference.

In contrast, consider a man I met last year who runs a business focused around self-defense. This man builds individualized weapons based on his unique designs, has written and self-published an e-book, and has a small local self-defense business. His business is self-sustaining, but his message and products aren’t reaching the wider market he wants them to reach. He tried to get positive reviews and attention toward his self-published book, but didn’t have the contacts in the right places to create the level of buzz he wanted. The main problem here is in networking access — this is a person who has built his limited success by networking with people in the same social class as himself, with similar self-defense and outdoorsmanship interests. When he wanted to expand his reach by publishing a book, he found himself limited by his lack of contacts in the publishing industry.

Networking does affect employment. This casually-accepted fact of life was the topic of a 2010 discussion paper, Friends’ Networks and Job Finding Rates, where the authors were nonetheless able to show a strong correlation between having employed friends and success in job searches. The generally accepted reason I have heard cited by HR experts is that employers prefer to hire someone who has been vouched for by an existing employee, rather than taking a chance on a random stranger.

Mycoskie’s advice for potential entrepreneurs doesn’t take these sorts of class differences in networking into account. Another thing he doesn’t take into account is differing environments and travel capabilities according to socioeconomic status. For example, he tells the reader to “take inspiration from their everyday environment.”

It’s an idea that sounds awesome on the surface … but then you stop and think about the fact that Steve Jobs was inspired by his travels in India, and Blake Mycoskie was inspired while traveling through Argentina, and Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a student at Harvard — and you realize these guys are moving through a world that most people just live vicariously through in the movies.

“8 Great Places to Visit In Argentina” — a travel blog.

Consider the findings by a recent University of Michigan Study that pollution rates differ according to racial and socioeconomic class differences, reported on at Liberty Voice News:

“The study revealed that, on average, a majority of low-income nonwhites had more pollution exposure than did higher-income whites. Low-income people inhale 10 percent more NO2 than everybody else. Poor white Americans breathe 27 percent more NO2 than wealthy Americans.”

Mycoskie can try and tell me he’s just an ordinary Joe with a good idea and a go-get-’em attitude all he likes, but the reality is that his bucket of “start-up” tools and the bucket of “start-up” tools 80% of Americans hold are about as similar as an electric screwdriver with multiple magnetic attachments of different sizes and a basic Phillips. Sure, they’ll both get the job done — but we all know that the electric screwdriver will get it done faster and more efficiently than that old rusty Phillips.

What is the best tool for the job?

What is the best tool for the job?

In personal practice

Most of the middle class networking my husband and I had access to was through the LDS church, and when we officially cut ties with the church, we pretty much burned our networking bridges. It’s interesting, because my middle class upbringing emphasized the value of relying on networking and personal contacts. It never occurred to me that accessing your network for professional advancement could be considered unfair or cheating.

When I married John, I was introduced to an entirely new perspective. For the longest time, I thought it was unique to John — then I started pursuing my Associate of Arts at a small college in a poverty-ridden county of low socioeconomic status. Many of my classmates came from poor and working class backgrounds, and I learned firsthand that John’s early attitude toward networking was very common among people from poor and working class backgrounds.

Middle class values view networking as just the way the world works, a necessary resource to succeed. Networking is how you self-promote, learn about better job opportunities, and get your name in for promotions. It’s just one more tool in the toolbox, but it’s not seen as unfair or “cheating”.

Poor and working class values tend to see networking as a popularity contest. Instead of being a necessary and sometimes annoying aspect of succeeding in the workplace, it’s seen as exclusionary behavior where who you know trumps your work ethic. The dislike is to the point where I’ve seen people intentionally eschew networking opportunities at company-sponsored events where attendance is optional, because they view it as “kissing ass.”

The thing is, both attitudes are right — networking is the way the business world works, and it’s not necessarily cheating or unfair to have access to interview for positions or promotions just because someone put in a good word for you. That’s sort of the point of references, after all. But it’s also not fair when someone is advanced beyond their skill level, or retained as an employee despite flagrant violations of company policy, because of who they know. It’s fine to get your foot in the door by having good references, but employees should be hired or promoted based on their actual capabilities, not who they know.

The self-reinforcing nature of socioeconomic class through child development, education, and networking capabilities means that something like this will happen all too often: Pat and Sam apply for the same position at Company. After graduating high school, Pat couldn’t afford to go to college, so s/he developed hir skils as an independent freelancer. S/he built hir expertise, portfolio and skillset over the years, and is more than qualified in real-world skills for the position. Sam graduated high school at the same time, but spent the past 10 years acquiring hir Masters or graduate degree and working unpaid internships. Sam has little real-world experiencing in performing the position, but was recommended by a friend in management at Company to apply for the position. What Sam does have is a highly-valued degree from a respectable college, references from contacts made while interning in the field, and a friend on the inside of the Company, speaking highly of Sam’s character and skills. Which one do you think will get the position? Pat, who has more practical experience, or Sam, who has the right type of paperwork?

This is why I’m a fan of working interviews. Instead of having the candidate come in and sell themselves to HR based on their degrees and references, I think companies could get a much better feel for how well a prospective employee fits by having them come in and work on a temporary basis for 1-3 days, for starting wage reimbursement. This would show the employer who has the actual skills necessary to succeed at the job, and who just has a really slick resume. This would also benefit the prospective employee by reimbursing them for the working interview.

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