Sarah: Are you a part of the Canadian middle class? If you pay any attention to politics, you’ve probably heard the term over and over and over again, understanding that whomever is saying it, whether that’s our prime minister, or the guys trying to become the next one, they’re trying to talk to you. But what does the middle class really mean, anyway? Is it truly that there’s just 1% of the top and then all the rest of us? No, of course there’s a Canadian working class, the experience of those who crossed those class barriers can feel invisible, though, because they’re so rarely talked about. I’m Sarah Boseveld in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the Big Story. While society at large doesn’t really like to talk about class, one Canadian researcher has been paying very close attention. Sociologist Wolfgang Lehman has closely followed what he calls quote first generation students, those who are first in the families to go to university. The research stuck with Macleans writer Shannon Proudfoot after she first encountered it as a young journalist. She recently wrote a piece for Maclean’s about what Lehman’s research taught her about her own working class roots and how we might want to interrogate this whole idea of middle class that politicians keep crowing about. Thanks for coming on, Shannon.
Shannon: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: So as a journalist you interview a ton of academics all the time but, uh, the work of Wolfgang Lehman really got to you. Can you tell us about him and his research?
Shannon: Yes. So I first interviewed Lehman 10 years ago, actually, when I was at Postmedia and it’s funny because I literally never forgot him, and I never forgot the study I interviewed him about. And as I say in the piece, I do interview a lot of academics, it happens to be the stuff I write about a lot. But his work I can distinctly remember, and I was much more junior in my career then, so I think I would have responded to it differently if it had happened now. But I can remember my eyes sort of like picking with tears while I was talking to him because, um, his work resonates so deeply with me in a way that I sort of wasn’t used to. It was kind of like, profoundly meaningful and weird at the same time. So he works at Western in sociology, and he researches, among other things, but a big, big part of his work is he looks at working class students who are the first in their families to go to university, and he’s done kind of this really neat kind of continuous work with a cohort of them where he started interviewing them when they were in their first year in 2005, and then he talked to them in their first year, second year, fourth year and five years after they graduated, and so he sort of has this stockpile of interviews from these, I call them kids, he did, too in our interviews, he said, It’s okay, even though it’s probably patronizing. He has this massive trove of, you know, two hour long conversations with all of these people, where he’s managed to tease out some sort of pretty amazing insights into how this group operates and the kind of unique pressures they face. And I just never forgot it, and uh, and always kind of wanted to circle back, I never forgot what an impression his work made, and I was working on another story that sort of tangentially related on, and I thought I would maybe roll his research into a bigger piece. And then when I called him again and asked for a whole sheaf of his papers, I decided to just make it a standalone story and kind of wrap my own experience and reaction into it because I thought it would sort of make it stronger to sort of explain why it never left me.
Sarah: Yeah, and it never left you because you yourself are a first generation graduate, right? You know, the first in your family to go to university. Tell me a bit about that.
Shannon: Ya. So I grew up in Sioux Saint Marie, and I certainly; it’s interesting too because when Lehman was looking for his interview subjects, he said he didn’t use the term working class because a big part of his work, and my piece that I wrote is that I think we’re really bad at acknowledging class in Canada. We tend to think we’re a post class society, but I think that’s actually a really messed up way to approach things, and so he didn’t think; And I think if you had asked me even when I was 25, you know, what social class is your family, everyone tends to think they’re middle class, but; So I grew up in Northern Ontario, and I certainly would have fit the parameters of what he was looking for. My parents didn’t have post secondary degrees, my dad was a mechanic, my mom was an hourly wage teacher’s assistant, and I was the first in my entire extended family to go to university, and I sort of, like, didn’t realize and to be honest am still realizing the extent to which that is not the case for everyone, and how it is a particular thing when you start applying to universities and registering, and going to university when you don’t have parents who’ve ever done that before. But the way you are when you’re young, I just thought that was sort of everyone’s life. You know, everyone in northern Ontario kind of seemed like me with some variation, you know, I knew there were kids whose parents were doctors and lawyers, but it sort of never occurred to me even into my thirties until I started talking to Lehman about his work and really thinking about it, that there are differences depending on kind of the background you come from and when you get to university, how you know how to work, how to do things, how the system works.
Sarah: Yeah, well, first things first, you know, you and your mom are kind of scattershot going to university admissions offices and fairs and things like that. You don’t have the guidance from your mom to know from her own experience how to navigate that whole world, right? Your dad?
Shannon: Yeah like there’s just not a basic familiarity, and I have spent some time thinking about well, what would that look like for our kids? You know, my husband and I both went to university, have a couple of degrees each, so I thought, well, what would that look like? And it would just be things like knowing there’s certain schools that are stronger for arts programs than for science programs, I didn’t have that. It would be just knowing it depends on what kind of experience you want, do you want, you know, a big urban campus like U of T? Or do you want a smaller kind of more boutique campus that’s self contained? And then to know things like going to orientation sessions, or, you know, even picking your program, even the idea that in first year you can probably just take a smorgasbord of things and figure out what you’re going to do after. There just wasn’t that knowledge base. Now I have to say that at the time, that didn’t seem like a huge disadvantage to me because it was just something I did like the moment, basically, the moment I started applying for university, I exceeded my parent’s life experience. So from then on, and that’s the case for all of these kids, right? So from then on, you’re kind of just figuring it out on your own, which and this is a key part of Lehman’s research becomes an enormous source of pride for those people because you just think, well, I’m independent, I’m doing it myself, no one’s hand feeding me here.
Sarah: Yeah, and you’re also like; Your goal was I want to go to university, it wasn’t necessarily I want to go study x y z to become this kind of professional even, you know, that was sort of as I understand it, sort of a goal in itself, and it’s a pretty common one. I remember growing up having a lot of peers feel that way too about university; It was an expectation as much as, here’s the next, you know, place we go after high school, right?
Shannon: Yeah for me, university was very much just and I want to be careful how I say this, it wasn’t a default move in that I didn’t really want to go there, it was just the obvious thing I was going to do after high school. I was smart, I was ambitious, I was good at school. So clearly I was gonna leave my hometown and move nine hours away and go to university. But Leman’s research is interesting because when he looks at the working class students who tend to do well versus those who tend to do poorly, it tends to be the ones who’ve done a lot of preparation, they really have done their homework, they know what to expect, and they have specific and realistic goals where, interestingly, for me, that sort of wasn’t the case in that I didn’t go to university knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. But I think why it worked for me is I wanted to go to university, I just wanted to get a degree, I loved kind of academic stuff, I loved learning, and so for me, just getting there and starting that process was a victory and really suited me, and then kind of the rest sorted itself out with time.
Sarah: I want to talk a little bit about an interesting idea you raise in the piece, it’s pretty central to it. The idea of it being part of an identity, you had a sentence there, it says quote, given the way we allied a race, nor socio economic class in Canada, my background feels like an invisible fact that shapes everything but has acknowledged nowhere. So you’re like straddling worlds, but no one sees you doing that, you know, tell me about that experience of just being, you know, having this so central to who you are but have it not be part of the public discourse.
Shannon: Well I think it actually goes way beyond that. I think we, at least I, and I know from Lehman’s research other working cost students do that. You internalize that lack of acknowledgment to the point that you don’t even understand that that is a distinct way you grew up, that there were positives and negatives to it, and that it’s part of what shaped you. Like I honestly think if you had asked me well into my twenties, like I said, what social class my family was, I would have said middle class, because I wouldn’t have understood the distinctions there. But I think if I had kind of described a difference for you, I would have attributed to being from northern Ontario.
Sarah: Like more regional.
Shannon: Yeah, I could have; And I think there’s something to that, but I would have specifically made it about that, like I could have told you like, yeah, I got to Western and there were kids who’d gone to private schools on my floor and kids whose parents clearly had way more money, you know, kids whose parents had bought them a car before they went to school or, you know, all of their siblings were going to university and their parents had advanced degrees, and that was different for me, I guess because I’m from Northern Ontario. So I think that the degree to which we kind of are publicly oblivious to this stuff in Canada gets internalized, too if it’s an important part of your identity in the way you grow up, if you just don’t realize that; Like basically I didn’t realize it was a thing but I find that as I get older and now that I am very middle class, and I live a very middle class life, and I’m raising middle class kids. Um, and maybe just some of this is just becoming more comfortable with who you are and thinking more about your identity as you get older, I find my working class roots and identity becoming more and more central to how I think about myself, how I think about my place in the world, how I think about the way the world works in a way that even five or 10 years ago, I don’t think it was as important to me.
Sarah: Yeah, so if you thought you were middle class when you were young and you didn’t quite understand the distinctions, how do you define middle class now versus say a working class or a class that might be altogether different.
Shannon: Oh hell, my answer would be if you’re a politician, poorly. Because in Canada we have this rhetoric, right, the middle class, if you’re a Trudeau liberal that was working hard to join it, we can all sing along, you know, with that tune. It’s a constant, thing that we talk about in politics, everyone wants to appeal to middle class voters and talk about their fears, their hopes. But when they talk about those things, they’re really talking for the most part about working class people, like they’re talking about people who have some sense of precariousness, that they used to have a job that would be plenty good enough to own a house, raise a family, you’d be secure and comfortable, and it’s not like that and doesn’t feel like that anymore. That’s not really a middle class thing, that’s a working class thing. These are not hard and fast things of course, there are middle class people who worry, we all have, you know, relative worries at different levels. But how you actually define class in sort of sociological academic terms is actually a really complicated question. I sort of asked Lehman this after we had finished our interviews as kind of a… by like a sort of a fact checking email and expected just I said, like, can you point me to where would be the most distinct, authoritative kind of definition of class just so I can throw it into the story and then he said oh no, that’s the $1,000,000 question. So there’s a few different ways, you could think of it just in terms of hierarchy of occupations. So you would sort of have kind of a ranking of occupations from, like managerial or ownership, down to like, professional, which would be a journalist, academic, stuff like that, to skilled labor to unskilled labor, so you could think of it that way. You could think of it in terms of what we call socioeconomic status, I think that’s probably the way a lot of people conceptualize it, and that’s sort of a combination of your educational attainment, your income, and your occupation. So sort of, you know, status and also means. And then there’s also a more cultural definition and this one I find really interesting and I think we may be intuitively think this a lot but we might have a hard time unpacking it, and that is things like your tastes. Who you associate with, how you present yourself, what you own, what you’re into, the media, what you consume.
Sarah: Like, she’s high class, he’s not; Like hillbilly is a term even, the fun of that is the contradiction there in right? Something like that.
Shannon: Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of just the package of the way you present yourself in the world and the things in the world that you like and consume, and that can be sort of a function of your status in the world. So I think that those are sort of the different metrics that you could use to define class, but the point is I think we’re just not particularly good in Canada at even thinking about it, even realizing that this is a thing that people are growing up in different strata and that that means different life experience.
Sarah: Why are we not good at thinking about this? And why as well do politicians try to use those terms all the time? Like are they capitalizing or benefiting from this confusion or this lack of discourse and understanding about it?
Shannon: Well there’s a lot of research that shows that much like the students in Lehman’s study, almost everyone thinks of themselves as middle class. So you could question whether politicians air just reflecting back what the populace thinks, even if it’s a little off base, you know, all these people think they’re middle class, so I’m going to speak to middle class voters and all the voters will think I’m talking to them. But at a certain point it kind of becomes a circular thing, because do we all think that because the politicians keep talking about that like, is that just our societal discourse? I think you could probably locate some of it in a certain kind of egalitarian insistence in Canada. The idea that you know there’s rich people, there’s like a little slice, and then there’s the rest of us, like sometimes we talk about tall poppy syndrome and Canadians, you know, our tendency to be resentful and kind of hack down the people who rise above the rest of us. I don’t think it’s too hard to draw a line from that to sort of thinking that everyone is sort of of the same social class like, and you could connect that to a kind of socialistic economy where everyone has, you know, health coverage, and you can kind of go to university like it’s not nearly as out of reach as it is if you live in the States, like I think there are reasons that Canada has kind of had the luxury of being oblivious to it, I just don’t think it’s particularly helpful to us.
Sarah: And so not helpful, but also the researcher you spoke with kind of went a little further and suggested it might be dangerous to erase the idea of class distinctions in some ways. What did he mean by that?
Shannon: Well, I mean for exactly; Like I can personalize it for exactly the reason that I didn’t understand there was something specific about the way I grew up that was different from other people. The effects of those differences are still there but if you’re not acknowledging that differences exist, there’s just an erasure of the fact that they matter. And so he’s sort of; The analogy he used is it would be like insisting Canada’s completely multicultural and racism doesn’t exist here, I mean, I think we all understand that that’s not true, and that would be a pretty dangerous and insulting and, um…. kind of blanket statement to make and so I think there’s maybe a bit of an analogy there.
Sarah: And, you know, and back to the use of the term middle class in the elections, you know we’re heating up to one in October a few months out now. You’re already chiming back to me, the Trudeau liberal tag line with middle class but how are you seeing it used in the run up now and do you think that there are some up opportunities to either not use it? Or, you know would they be wise to drop it? Or where do you think they could go with this versus what will probably happen as people head to the ballot box?
Shannon: I think there’s substantive ways to address it like you can truly try to speak to people’s real anxieties, like whatever class they are, you can try to find real solutions to the real problems and worries people are having and offer those up and see if voters like them. I think what more often happens, and I would argue that’s sort of an honourable and productive way to address it. You know, whatever political stripe you come in, if you can say to voters, these are the things you’re worried about, I’m hearing it, here is my plan for how we’re gonna deal with that and if it’s, you know, sort of an intellectually honest plan, then people get to choose. But the way I think it ends up getting activated much more often is in a sort of culture wars kind of way, where, you know, we see this in spades, certainly in the U.S. but it’s happening in Canada a lot top where people take politicians or or messengers or whatever, take people’s anxieties and worries and feelings of being besieged in some way, and they focus on the dark inflections of it and they find ways to tell people it’s these other people’s faults, it’s, you know, whether it’s these elites who don’t get it, or these people who are coming in taking your jobs, like there’s a way that you can also activate those anxieties and those differences that, I would argue, is not terribly productive from an electoral or policy standpoint, but also pretty ugly from a cultural standpoint and then you get into a kind of culture wars thing where everything’s a zero sum game. I guess it remains to be seen how it’ll play out in the fall but certainly it will be a mix of the two.
Sarah: Yeah, I think we’re all sort of concerned about the divisiveness and polarization and you wonder if you know, if you were sort of speaking to those direct issues rather than trying to stoke a class war, you know whether there might be some amazingly productive work that could be done on a political level, I don’t know.
Shannon: We can dream, you know.
Sarah: And I’m really interested in your interactions with your dad that you talk about in this piece. Earlier this year you were going off to the White House on a reporting trip and your dad said something that he said to you multiple times before, you know, you always want your kids to do better than you. Like how does; Tell me about sort of the feeling of interacting with your dad through this lens when you started to think about it more for this piece? What is that interaction like with him?
Shannon: Well that kind of dynamic is really central to Lehman’s work too, and to everyone else’s experience, which is this kind of push pull between the aspirations you have for yourself and the aspiration your parents have for you, and the fact that inherently almost always means being different than your parents, being better than them in some ways, as they often frame it, and that’s a really tricky thing, you know, I think we have a storyline in our culture for people who grow up to follow in their parents footsteps, I mean, there’s a cliche, there’s a turn of phrase there for a reason. But I, because it’s been my experience am much more interested in finding much more kind of profundity and complication in people whose whole life project is to not be like their parents, like that’s a very complex thing, you know, we all grow up to some degree, you know, idolizing our parents or thinking that they have things figured out, that they are our models in life, and if you’re a working class kid, generally speaking, your path to like what success looks like and even the way we treat it in academia upward mobility. You get an education so that you have better income and a better job than the generation before you and we just unquestionably treat that as a sign of progress. But what I wanted to talk about is how; And Lehman talks about this a lot, and has had pains in his research over and over, as he puts it, to show that there’s a cost to social mobility that it’s not just an easy kind of thing where; I think it can look easy from the outside but if you’re the kid who grew up with working class parents and then you go off to university and they’re immensely proud of you, that’s just kind of a weird feeling. It’s just a lot to process. It’s great to have parents who are proud of you, it’s kind of a strange thing that in order for your life to be a success and to look like what you want it to be, you inherently end up very different from the people who raised you, and that gets into its own complications, you know, later in life, as you become more and more different, and you’re sort of inhabit a different space that can cause a lot of different points of tension on both sides of the relationship.
Sarah: So how do you find this work relevant now that you are a parent yourself?
Shannon: Yeah, I find myself thinking about it a lot. I think that’s maybe why my own working class roots seems more central to my identity now because I’m raising two very middle class kids with a very middle class husband. So I find myself and the work of Lehman’s that I kind of never forgot in the first place was how working class kids take things that are obviously disadvantages, you know, worrying about money, having to work part time, and in the summer’s, during school, instead of just concentrating on your studies. You know, not having family connections to get cool, relevant internships, that kind of stuff. And they mentally turn it into an advantage where right away they’ll say, but I have a better work ethic, or I’m you know, I’m grittier or I’m more mature than my, you know, classmates who are getting full rides from their parents kind of thing. And I find myself sort of applying that almost backwards to my own kids, where I think about the kind of parenting tactics; This will be more relevant when they’re older, they’re still really little; That I would like to basically try to activate some of those working class values in middle class kids, you know, I don’t want them to be spoiled and used to overseas vacations when their kids and that’s just an unordinary thing. I would love them to have jobs because I just think it’s a good thing to have to balance that kind of thing. I want them to, you know, save up half the money for any big ticket item. If they want a new bike, you know, my husband and I could certainly afford to buy that for them but it’s important to me that they have that sense of gratitude and grounding. So I guess I’m basically trying to fake my middle class kids back into half of a working class existence just because those values are important to me and that’s where I think the complexity of growing up working class and then leaping into the middle class comes in, is that you know there’s a lot of progress, there’s a lot to love about being middle class, but there’s a lot you leave behind, and that you mourn that has a lot of value. And so you end up very conflicted about how you can still keep that part of your life and your family, even though you’ve kind of moved onward and upward, if you will.
Sarah: Do you know what Professor Lehman is doing next in his work? He said that he’s really dug deeply into this. He’s continuing it in any way now that we’re in 2019?
Shannon: He sort of completed the cycle with that cohort, but we are now five years after his last five year update with them. So the last time he talked to them was in 2014 5 years after they’d graduated, and he said he’d love to circle back to them now like it would be a perfect point to kind of see where they’re at now that they’re well established in their careers and their families. I don’t know if he has anything else specifically along this vein, because that was quite a long research project, he spent 10 years or so interviewing them and then kind of minutely unpacking what they had to say. But he himself, I should have said this at the very beginning, the reason that he does this research, the reason he cares about is the same reason I do, which is that it was his story, too. He grew up in Germany in a working class family, so I think whatever…. what he continues to work on will always wrap around issues of class because it’s something where if it’s part of your story and you understand it’s a relevant part of the world. Especially, you know, you’re working in sociology, you’re not going to leave that behind.
Sarah: Yeah, maybe he’ll follow their kids at one point. The never ending study. Thank you so much for coming on Shannon.
Shannon: Thanks for having me.
Sarah: Shannon Proudfoot is a writer Maclean’s. That was The Big Story. For more visit us at thebigstorypodcast.ca or on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. Find us an Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts and while you’re there please leave us a rating and a review. Thanks so much for listening. I’m Sarah Boesveld, we’ll catch up again tomorrow.
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