Take Other Kids to Work Day Highlights the Absurdity of Social Mobility

Richard Reeves of Brookings has a piece in Quartz where he argues that, for social mobility sake, people should not take their own kid to work. Instead, Reeves explains, they should take a kid from a different social class.

This week, parents are being urged to take their kids to work for the day. But here’s a better idea: Don’t. Strike a blow for equality by taking a kid from a different social background instead.

Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day is intended to get children thinking about their future careers, but by having parents take their own kids to work, we perpetuate class divides. If your mother is a lawyer, you spend the day in a law firm. If your dad stocks shelves in a grocery store, then—if he is even allowed to bring you along—that’s what you will see. If your parents are unemployed, you don’t have a chance to go anywhere at all. And so the wheel turns.

In addition to suffering from the cloying pseudo-profundity of a Brooks Brothers (Arthur and David) proposal, Reeves’ suggestion also incidentally underlines how absurd the whole social mobility policy world really is.

When Reeves talks about bringing lower class kids into upper class workplaces, this is how he describes it:

Too many children end up in similar positions to their parents on the social and economic ladder. Given this, the case for exposing disadvantaged kids to white-collar jobs is pretty clear.

The idea here is that this kind of exposure will help the kids get one of these white-collar jobs as an adult, rather than ending up in the same position as their parents.

But, when Reeves talks about bringing upper class kids into lower class workplaces, he describes it this way:

Teenagers from affluent backgrounds often live in a bubble, surrounded by friends, neighbors and fellow students who share similar backgrounds. “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us,” writes the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam in his book Our Kids. He warns this represents “an incipient class apartheid.” It couldn’t hurt for upper-middle-class kids to step outside their bubble and spend a day in a working-class job.

So, for rich kids, the goal of this switcheroo is not to get them to take working-class jobs when they are adults. Rather, it is to give them a taste of how the other half lives in order to push back against social distance, or “class apartheid” in Putnam’s parlance.

But if rich kids are not going to be pushed downward into lower class jobs, then how will the poor kids progress upward into higher class jobs? Relative mobility requires upper class kids to descend the labor market hierarchy so that lower class kids can ascend it. Yet, Reeves’ own cutesy social mobility proposal betrays the brute reality that everyone secretly knows here: there is no way upper class parents are going to let that happen to their kids, certainly not in this society.

Social mobility policy and rhetoric is little more than a cruel show where we talk a big game about encouraging the disadvantaged to rise the ranks while fully knowing that rich parents will do absolutely everything in their power to keep that from happening. Brookings can invite 100 local DC public school students to their offices to meet Ron Haskins and hear him tell the war stories of how he gutted benefits for children like them, but unless Haskins is willing to raise his own kids to run a cashier at Walmart, no new spots at the top of the economic hierarchy will open up for those 100 kids to snag as adults.

None of this is to say that rich parents who do everything they can to give their kids every advantage in life are somehow doing something evil. Caring for and helping family and friends is a virtuous thing to do and a world where we demanded that people let those close to them flounder would be dystopian in many ways. But this is precisely the point: true social mobility would require an enormous level of restraint by rich parents when it comes to their children. And that is never going to happen.

What this means is that the primary focus of those interested in a fair economy should not be chasing some social mobility pipe dream. Rather, it should be on cramming down the income and wealth differences between the classes.

  • TheBrett

    Or flattening up the bottom to compress the income range, and including some basic provision as universal services to reduce experienced inequality.

  • Michael Hiscox

    Through what mechanisms do rich parents prevent their children from falling down the economic hierarchy?

  • Haven Monahan

    Mostly by cunningly transferring copies of their genes to their progeny via Mendelian mechanisms.

  • Danygalw

    Ensuring they go to good schools, by moving or paying private schools
    Encouraging extracurricular activities that will look good on a resume
    Getting them internships/early career jobs through their networks
    Teaching them norms of career progression, job interviewing, and professionalism
    Paying for their college, first homes, leaving them an inheritance
    Pushing them into high paying fields of study

    Introducing them to a social network of rich people.
    Paying for extracurricular activities that will look good on a resume

  • coniinthegarden

    That’s only part of it. And, anyway, what are “best” genes? Those that make someone selfish, ruthless and cunning?

  • Devin

    Ensuring they go to good schools, by moving or paying private schools
    Encouraging extracurricular activities that will look good on a resume
    Getting them internships/early career jobs through their networks
    Teaching them norms of career progression, job interviewing, and professionalism
    Paying for their college, first homes, leaving them an inheritance
    Pushing them into high paying fields of study

  • Mostly nepotism, job at the family business, that and (largely) class-exclusive forms of social connections, such as the “Greek system,” or country clubs.

    And of course the unpaid internship, which completely drops any pretense from “it takes money to make money.”

  • Freddie deBoer

    This is what I’ve been saying about education for years: what we think we care about is absolute performance, but what we actually care about is relative performance, and that is zero sum.

  • I think that many in the upper middle class imagine a world where everyone *is* like them (e.g. a world where the only jobs are doctors, lawyers, professors, et cetera). While this is kind of comical, it’s not totally incoherent, especially with mass automation. In fact, it is highly conceivable that the class composition of an entire *country* changes, perhaps at the cost of the rest of the world.

  • Indeed, a common refrain from those on the left is that we need good jobs. Usually this is taken to mean something like the unionized manufacturing jobs of yesteryear, which gave labor power. But there is no reason these jobs couldn’t be the professions of upper middle class fantasies (we are talking about radical change, after all).

  • Ronan

    I doubt anyone in the world imagines this.

  • What Ronan said. The jobopocalypse is real, but it’s the middle, not the bottom, of the workfarce esteem pyramid, that’s going extinct.

  • Devin

    There is a lot of opportunity to out compete upper middle class striver kids because their advantages are not insurmountable with reasonable talent. Its the rich who you truly can’t beat, the only way to keep them from dominating society is to tax them heavily.

  • TheRealWhiskeyPete

    What’s the mechanism for finding a poor kid to take to work? Do I hang around a city park in some shady neighborhood, eyeballing the filthy little urchins until I find a suitable candidate? Do I collar the janitor at my office: “Hey, Fred! Can I remove your son from squalor and poverty for the day, and maybe give him a glimpse of a better, white-collar, future?”

  • Actually l like bezels

    filthy little urchins ?

  • coniinthegarden

    Upward mobility is not possible without downward mobility. In the 1970s-1990s I’ve lived in some European societies for extended periods of time and I observed that there was present a certain nonchalance by middle class parents towards their children’s futures. They were allowed to fall on the income ladder by either entering less profitable professions (liberal arts etc.) or if they didn’t possess the IQ, talents or desire to go to college it was not seen as a tragedy if they went to a trade school or got an unskilled job. I believe that this attitude was possible because poverty has been almost completely eliminated through universal healthcare, living wage and a generous safety net while free college guaranteed their GRANDchildren could get upward socially mobile again.

  • tvandp

    I agree with your overall point, but there are a few effects that mitigate this lack of social mobility.

    One is that upper-middle class parents are often comfortable with their kid trading money for cultural//social capital. Paying for a humanities degree at a liberal arts college, then being fine with the kid working at a non-profit (generally downwardly mobile) or in arts administration or as a policy wonk or a TV writer. The parents don’t mind because the kids still generally have something they care about//are happy about//can move up a career ladder with.
    When a finance power couple gives birth to a museum grant writer, another finance job opens up.
    Of course, this has the negative side effect that even good non-profit work is less attainable to the less wealthy. I work at a museum, and all but one employee here has an upper-crust background.

    Another is that rich kids often trip over their dicks. They are phenomenal at that. They can do it all day. And they don’t always land on their feet at age 30, either.

    The other is that rich people have a much lower birthrate, relative to less wealthy people. If a lawyer power couple only has one kid, a spot just opened up for someone else.
    If you really want social mobility, I guess castrate the rich?