A hot topic in the personal finance blogosphere right now is social mobility. Another topic that keeps popping up is privilege. Both topics are something of a flash point in my history, so I wanted to write something about my privilege and social mobility in general. This one will be perhaps a bit more raw than my normal writing.
Social Mobility is Alive and Well
First off let me say anyone who doesn’t believe social mobility is alive and well is not paying close enough attention. According to the Millionaire Next Door, 80% of millionaires are first generation. If that’s not evidence of Social Mobility I don’t know what is. But today I’m going to give you a more personal example, my own.
Privilege Plays a Major Role in Ones Success
Now, before I excite the haters let me say, this post as noted will also bring into focus my biggest privilege. There is no denying that no one builds themselves ahead without help and some things going in their favor that are beyond their control. I’m going to talk about the one that most clearly stands out for me in this post, but it is by no means my only or anyone’s only. It will however provide insight into a lot of my prior writings on this blog and also show you a path to social mobility that does not depend on your heritage.
My Success is an Outlier
I have written in the past about my family’s entrepreneurialism. But if you read closely you’ll note most of that disappeared in the Great Depression with the last dwindling significantly successful family business disappearing in the 1960s. I conveniently forgot to mention what happened in the 4, now 5 with my kids, generations hence. It provides a stark dichotomy to both my current life and chosen path.
Some Outliers are Due to Differing Priorities
Now before I go any further, I am not denigrating any path chosen. I’ve been told since I was 5 that any path you choose is your choice. Not everyone places as much emphasis on financial goals. Some people want to be nurses, farmers, or teachers. They just have different priorities. I respect that, but it also is completely different from what I wanted from life.
A Family of Tradesman/Tradeswomen
That all being said, basically my entire family are in trade professions. The men in my father’s family have been truck drivers for the last two generations. My father, his brother, and even my grandfather drive trucks. The women have had mixed success with many of them being administrators. None of them have a college degree. More than a few never graduated from high school. Even in my generation where a few of my younger cousins have college degrees the closest to the corporate world is a social worker at a prison. Nothing wrong with those careers, but also my family connections on my father’s side are not helping my career any.
Education was to Some Extent Discouraged
Before I move away from my father’s side I want to indicate to you the extent of how much this could have been a drag on my chosen path. About 12 years ago I got my MBA from a local university. Not long after I had dinner at my grandfather’s house. His response was not to congratulate me for my degree, nor to comment on how it might help me on my path. No, he told me in his own words, “Be careful how many degrees you get, or you won’t be able to talk to normal people”. Not exactly confidence inspiring.
But Hard Work was Encouraged
Now, lest you think Grandpa was a yokel who didn’t favor success, let me tell you the man worked harder than anyone I’ve ever met including myself. He had a 4 acre farm he built himself. Every morning he’d be up before dawn to feed the animals, then out to drive a truck for 8 hours. He would end the day tending to his garden. He fed a family of 5 on that 4 acre plot. Hard working to the day he passed, and an inspiration from that aspect, but he had a rather negative view on using education to get ahead.
My mother’s family is much the same as my father’s. Almost all the women are nurses. The males are plumbers or others that work with their hands. There is nothing wrong with these careers, but none of them are even remotely related to the world I work in. Until I was 14, not a one had a degree, then things changed.
My Privilege, My Mom
This brings me to my privilege, my privilege is my mom. The one exception in the family who truly pushed the value of education. How much? Well, when I turned 14, and she turned 44, she got her first Bachelor’s degree in nursing. Since then she has gone on to get 2 masters degrees and multiple certifications. Most of the rest of my family see her as over-educated. But I see it differently, and am very proud of her accomplishments.
My Mother’s Drive, the Key to My Privilege and Success
You see, her desire and push for learning rubbed off. I came to see education as the key to that different corporate professional life I sought. The key to change my socially defined path. I first got my Bachelors, and then my Masters. I’m convinced if she hadn’t pushed education so hard I would not have gone to college. Furthermore, without those degrees I am quite sure I also would be more of a trades worker than a corporate professional. My mother’s fascination with education, and her resulting encouragement are what led me to be a corporate manager.
Being First Generation is Tough
To this day I struggle with a lack of family history in the corporate world. There is no family member who can advise me on navigating the worlds of corporate politics. No family contacts I can reach out to for a leg up. That doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from contacts (privilege again), it just means I had to build them without much help from my family. I took advantage of each opportunity as it arose. I am a product of making the tough decisions to take advantage of my luck.
Privilege Comes in Many Forms, Regardless Drive Can Often Overcome
So I guess what I’m saying here is privilege does determine your success to some degree, but there are many types of privilege. Each and every one of us has different ones. Your family financial and working privilege, or lack there of, does not need to define your future. Social mobility is alive and well since we do not live in a caste society. Some will have an easier path than others. Some will have it harder, many far harder than my own. But the only thing you can do, since privilege is something by definition that is out of your control, is make the best with what you are given. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade and sell it to the neighbors.
Do you believe social mobility is alive and well?
Happy Early Mothers day to my mom, thanks for everything you did for me.