Rising through the corporate ranks isn’t always easy, but there can be an additional set of challenges if you grew up in a poor- or working-class household and have to learn social codes as well as your job.
A Harvard Business Review article by Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend published this week shed light on how working class and middle and upper class people think of themselves. The upshot: they are less individualist than those from privileged backgrounds.
Instead, people who grew up without a lot of money tend to see themselves as part of a community, no matter where they are. The authors cited research saying that people of lower income tend to consider themselves “interdependent with and highly connected to others.”
They write that parents in these households “teach their children the importance of following the rules and adjusting to the needs of others, in part because there is no economic safety net to fall back on.”
Translation: more money equals a developed sense of individualism, because a financial safety net can often replace a human one. But having less money, while it’s hard, can give people a better understanding of human dynamics.
This also relates to finding success at in the office if you come from humble beginnings There are ways to bridge the gap.
The roles of “social fit and cultural capital”
You don’t know about what you haven’t been exposed to, as shown in the Harvard Business Review article.
“Even after students graduate from college and transition to professional workplaces, employees from working-class backgrounds report feeling a lack of social fit and cultural capital, compared with their peers. A student at a top business school, reflecting on her experience in a professional workplace, told us: ‘It was kind of a shock to me to be in a workplace and feel very much like I’m in this very elite environment where I just don’t fit in…. I was much more aware of how I talked, how I presented myself, what I wore, what kind of family experiences I chose to share, all those things,'” Stephens and Townsend wrote.
Full rides don’t solve all problems
Getting a coveted full ride to one of the most prestigious institutions doesn’t make hardships evaporate for lower-income students.
Nick Anderson wrote about the reality of full rides to Ivy league schools in a 2016 Washington Post article, focusing on Columbia University in New York City. While students with scholarships may have tuition taken care of, they still have to watch living expenses carefully, which cuts them out of a lot of social events and outings.
Anderson described just how stressful that scarcity of ready cash can be, to the extent of crowd-sourcing meals.
“Here at Columbia University, money pressures lead many to cut corners on textbook purchases and skip city excursions routine for affluent classmates. Some borrow thousands of dollars a year to pay bills. Some feel obliged to send money home occasionally to help their families. Others spend less on university meal plans, slipping extra food into their backpacks when they leave a dining hall and hunting for free grub through a Facebook network called CU Meal Share.”
Building social and cultural capital in a new economic group
Here’s how to continue to learn and develop within more privileged economic surroundings, even after you’ve scored a job you never would have dreamed of when you were growing up.
1. The earlier, the better
Don’t be afraid to start getting out of your comfort zone as soon as you can.
A 2011 research article in Research in Higher Education touched on the importance of learning the social codes of new environments as early as possible. Habituation goes a long way.
“One’s habitus sets parameters around that which is imaginable; students cannot aspire to a profession that they have not heard about. Still, early interventions and educational experiences can ‘prepare the soil; for an infusion of cultural and social capital that is important for individual mobility.”
That doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance if you’re already out of college. You can still seize opportunities to learn if you’re already working.
2. Take free, online courses to build up common skills
You already graduated with a degree, but consider spending some of your time taking classes for free, even if that means working late at night or on the weekend, on top of your side hustle. It makes it easier to learn without the social stress of comparisons to classmates, and extra skills will put you on the playing field with colleagues who had ample training in the byways of business before they got to the same office.
MOOCs are Massive, Open Online Courses. The website edX offers courses though schools like MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Boston University and Georgetown University. Classes like Berkeley’s “Academic and Business Writing” start soon, while Cornell’s “Structuring Business Agreements for Success” starts today.
If foreign languages are the barrier to rising in the organization, there are many ways to learn outside expensive courses. One of our favorites: learn Spanish, French, Russian, Italian through the Duolingo website or download it on Apple’s App store or Google Play to study up for free.
The truth is that rising in the world from a lower-income background is going to be harder. There’s nothing wrong with putting in extra work outside of the office if it gets you where you want to be.
3. Listen up during your commute
To free podcasts, that is.
Listening to experts’ engaging conversations about current events, pop culture and everything in between is a great way to learn something new, not to mention a way to guarantee that you’ll be able to chime in at your next dinner party and to form a common bond with people from other backgrounds. Having a common frame of reference is a great way to feel like less of an outsider.
Check out NPR’s selection of podcasts on news, business, pop culture, the environment and more. Or scan Apple’s podcasts. Call Your Girlfriend, hosted by Ann Friedman, is a great option for women looking for career and life advice, and Death Sex and Money hosted by Anna Sale is a great conversational ride that shows how to connect well to people. APM’s Dinner Party Download is a great way to keep up on what’s happening in arts and culture. The New York Times‘ The Daily podcast is one of our favorites as well, for its smart, concise discussions of daily news events.
You can also listen audio books on your ride to work using Audible.
4. Network, network, network
Who you know will always be important, so seek out ways to get to know people working in a field that excites you. People of all backgrounds can make great connections, because what makes a great professional network is the ability to connect with others — and that’s possible regardless of where you came from. In fact, different living experiences are actually an advantage in networking, because our differences are what make us interesting.
Another advantage: those from lower-income backgrounds rely on community and are open to collaboration, which makes understanding people easier.
We like Kelly Hoey’s Build Your Dream Network as a good primer on how to form good connections that will always be ready with advice or a good job recommendation. (The key: reciprocity. Be there for people who want to be there for you.)
Heather R. Huhman, founder and president of content marketing and digital PR consultancy Come Recommended, wrote about how who you know can help you grow in a 2014 Business Insider article.
“Personal and professional growth is crucial to a successful career. Similar to the guidance and support provided by a portion of your network, some of your contacts might also be beneficial in helping your reach new heights within your career, whether it’s pushing you to apply for a position you initially felt was out of your realm or simply inspiring you to work harder on a daily basis,” Huhman wrote.
Even if you didn’t grow up in a household with a lot of money, there are ways to fill in the gaps and continue to educate yourself after you’re already employed.