Gotta Role With It?

I had been wondering which came first, the role one plays on a stage, or the role one plays in a family, a team or an organisation. It sounded like the stage came first, because the verb ‘play’ with things that are unserious and fun and for their own sake, whereas the roles people ‘play’ as parents and as security guards seem like the very definition of serious.

A search of the Etymonline portal suggested that indeed the stage was where the term started and that the ‘rôle’ is a derivative of the ‘roll’ of script that the French acteur would have been given with their lines and stage directions around 1600. So little did you know that roll of paper on your bathroom wall isn’t just a homophone of your role as sweeper-keeper in your weekly five-a-side match, but close siblings. You have to love how those metaphors linking our social constructs to the physical world wash up in everyday speech. It was something beloved and dearly missed Belfast artist Patrick Saunders used speak about when he explained how he translated complex information into cartoons.

While we anglophones have gone on to derive roleplay and role models, the French deploy rôle in some interesting phrases. If I tell you that “Vous avez le beau rôle”, this translates literally to “you have the good role”, but what I mean to say is that you have it easy.  Meanwhile, if “je me donne le beau rôle”, i.e. if I “give myself the good role”, this means I am showing myself in a favourable light. I like this one, as it returns from the figurative back to the root of the metaphor, namely performance. A lot of what we do, whether it’s writing a job application, putting on our telephone voice or offering a firm handshake, is about ‘giving ourselves the good role’- assigning ourselves. We’re acting as version of ourselves. The language around acting and performance give us some clues as to how this might be tough on us. Inhabiting the role, owning the character, embodying the role, allowing the character to take over; all these combine into a convincing screen or stage portrayal. But what if that character is Public You? What if the audience is a significant number of the people in your life, or even yourself?

I got into analysing roles through some accidental introspection. In the second year of my Master’s, I took a course in counselling skills. One particular week, a conversation about work stress broke out after two people had done a video in the standard format where one person counsels the other, in this case about a workplace dilemma. I found myself wondering once again why I hadn’t chosen something more mainstream as the subject of my own session the previous week, which I had spent moaning about a minor dispute with flatmates.

My mind wandered on and wondered about the topic. If asked, how would I describe the various stresses and delights of my job working in a service providing support to to adults with intellectual disabilities living in the community? I thought instantly of the two young adults, one young man and one young woman, to whom I’d been assigned as “Keyworker”. Both had had rough years for different reasons. At the same time, their difficulties have been juxtaposed to a series of great achievements in their respective journeys to greater maturity and independence. If asked, I decided I’d say that the undulation between these moments of elation and despondency were at the route of the vaguely sea-sick feeling I had developed from my involvement to date.

Hang on! Why would that be my answer? Surely that’s the answer to a different question- “how are your two Key Clients progressing towards their personal outcomes?”. I’d count myself among the “work to live” half of the population, the half that says work isn’t who I am. So when did these events in the lives of other people come to help configure my well-being? Well, this was, after all, one of my key roles. As far as the organisation was concerned, each person in their care needed someone to fulfil the Keyworker role, so that there was a central point of contact for the various people involved in their life. I kept musing on the word. Where did we get this powerful idea of playing out roles, as if in some great production? My particular problems, I decided after a few afternoons’ scribbling, were that, one, I wasn’t sure how to set boundaries around my professional and personal lives, and two, I wasn’t sure whose expectations should most shape my role, the organisation’s, my colleagues’, or the people themselves receiving our services.

This turned out to be a useful thought which I turned into a survey of fellow keyworkers and ultimately into a dissertation. A few years later, I dug myself out of the trench in which I’d been writing up my PhD and went to a house party. I got chatting about to a friend about my topic, peer pressure and adolescent drug use. My friend told me “you’re not who you think you are, you’re not who other people think you are, you’re who you think other people think you are.” Walking home, I repeated the line until I felt dizzy. When I got in, I considered rewriting a whole chapter and linking my old results from my Master’s under the loose theme of “Great Expectations: Our Grand Performance in the Hall of Mirrors”.

After that, I started to see the same theme everywhere. People’s social posts and public photographs seemed to be in service of a grand narrative of themselves. Seminars about Erving Goffman and the ideas of ‘social dramaturgy’ and the presentation of the self. Having set up a social media account for work, I started to notice my brain condensing thoughts into one-line soundbites of roughly haiku length. At gigs, I became aware that the band aren’t the only ones performing: when the fake finish before the encore happens, a few heads look around and try to start a chant. Why? It’s what the performer expects? It’s what will make this night more memorable for them than the other 86 nights on this tour? Maybe it’s for each other, so we can all feel like we were part of something special and made it special. And yet, few want to be the first one chanting all on their lonesome. Almost as few are happy to be among the first joiner-inners, though after that everyone’s happy to pile on.

I’ve even called off searches for missing items because it just wasn’t a good look, head down examining the curb like a creep. But what’s a good look and who says and who’s even looking? Back to the narrative idea, is my every public action now augmented by an idea of how people, friends, strangers, might view it and whether that perspective coheres with “brand Me”?

These are the inevitable woes of living in the Spindustrial Revolution. By the day, more time and energy seem to be put into sculpting narrative on how things are. This has become the ultimate all-conquering regime of perception. No matter how page-thin the substance, there’s a book’s worth of talking it up to be done. The movement is not without its ideologues. Marketing is good for you. Feeling better about things emits no carbon, apparently . Who are we talking to? Who are we trying to convince and of what? Is feeling better about things better than pursuing and knowing truth?

So there you have it kids, stay in school long enough, daydream for long enough in enough classes and sure enough, like the Shakespearian monkey typists, a useful thought will eventually form. Hmm, Shakespearian monkey typists. At the risk of going meta, that’s probably me trying to be funny, to take the edge off some of the preceding earnestness. I’ll admit that I often fixate on the role of technology in both amplifying majoritarian norms and turning life itself into one long stop-motion performance, the object of which is to seem both normal and sufficiently unusual to be interesting. Of course it’s doing some good, and it’s great that you can be an ocean apart from your son’s regatta and still watch it live via a shaky feed from someone’s bicycle helmet. But moreover, none of this is truly modern. Shakespeare wrote, on some put-upon actor’s roll of script, that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”. That was in 1599. Maybe that’s just as we like it.


The Business End of Social Mobility

I recently had the opportunity to speak to representatives of some of Northern Ireland’s largest employers about research my colleagues and I carried out into social mobility and presented last year at Stormont. The research uses longitudinal data linking census records for people who were of school-going age in 1991 and of working age in 2011. This allows for comparison between the socioeconomic status of the adults in the household the subjects grew up, with individuals’ own socioeconomic status a generation on.


The evening was part of a series of roundtables organised by businesses and by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission on subjects related to diversity and equality of opportunity. This was the first time I’d seen social mobility framed as a diversity issue, but this framing makes sense. The levels social mobility and of equality of opportunity directly affects the makeup of any company’s workforce and the diversity of class backgrounds represented. A lack of social mobility means a lack of diversity of socioeconomic background and results in a concentration of well-heeled and well-supported young people rising up the ranks of well-paying organisations and maintaining influence. From the evening’s conversation, it is clear that organisations are concerned about over-representation of private schools at executive level, not only because of perception or an abstract sense of unfairness, but because an absence of diversity breeds the kind of groupthink and poor decision-making practices that ultimately damage businesses.


I was speaking alongside representatives of a large multinational recruitment agency and of the Social Mobility Foundation. The Social Mobility Foundation identify students in deprived areas with the ability to study at Russell Group Universities and provide them with educational support throughout A-Level and through the university application process. Ann Doherty, SMF trustee and Managing Director of J.P. Morgan spoke about some of the challenges encountered. In particular, she highlighted the role of social capital and learnings from outside the classroom in determining how young people fare through the university application process. More affluent young people have a store of knowledge which they draw on: how to shake hands; how to make eye contact; how to phrase a statement about oneself.



Alexander Mann Solutions were represented by their Global Head of Corporate and Social Responsibility and former winner of BBC’s The Apprentice with Alan Sugar, Tim Campbell. Tim spoke about the vast changes to employment which technology have brought about in recent years and the likelihood of that change accelerating in the next decade. To his mind, this calls for a radical shift in the type of careers we prepare young people for, but also could herald major disruption to the old economic order. The idea of inheriting occupational status from parents’ is partly predicated on the same type of work being available to the next generation and this may not be the case.


The aim of my contribution was twofold. First I wanted to highlight that social mobility is not uncontroversial and not everyone’s idea of utopia. Many in the west take comfort in the idea of social mobility, indicative as it is of the openness of our society and setting us apart from more stringently stratified parts of the world: the dream of being a self-made man or woman is one any child can dream. However, others critique the promotion of mobility as a government objective in the absence of any measures to address wider structural inequalities. What’s the use of having routes between different class categories if the underlying inequalities between class groups remain just as stark, or even worsen? At best this a zero-sum game, whereby everyone climbing a ladder replaces someone heading the opposite direction down a snake.


My second aim was to disentangle some of the different definitions of social mobility which people use, and to illustrate these differences with some data from Northern Ireland. I mainly focus on inter-generational mobility: that is to say comparing a person’s class status to that of their parents. Intra-generational mobility takes a later starting point and refers to how much class status changes of the course of their working career. Collectively, these are referred to as relative mobility, where socioeconomic status is framed relative to an earlier stage. Most of the research I’ve encountered focuses on  comparing groups of interest along these relative mobility measures: ethnic groups in the United States; women versus men; people born in different decades. By far the strongest determinant of upward mobility is academic qualification.


Whereas relative mobility describes an individual’s chances of an upward or downward transition in class status given their starting point, absolute mobility refers to how much movement between social classes there is across society as a whole. This is strongly linked to the make-up of the economy as a whole and to expansions and contractions in different areas and types of employment. In line with international trends, Northern Ireland has seen expansions in the ‘higher’ professional and managerial grades of employment, and in routine occupations, but a significant contraction in ‘intermediate’ grades. Intermediate employment was associated both with small firms and with large industrial employers, both of which have been in decline in Northern Ireland and the west in the era of globalisation.


This is particularly interesting when we frame social mobility as a class diversity issue. In Belfast’s former large employers, like Harland and Wolff shipping and Gallagher’s tobacco factory, one might have expected to find a representative cross-section of all the class strata in society, with the potential for movement from one grade to another. It is hard to imagine many organisations in 2018 which reflect society. It seems instead that routine jobs are carried out in one set of buildings, supermarket chains and call centres, while professions flock to the shinier buildings recently added to the city skyline.


Of course, nostalgia for the industrial era isn’t felt across the community in Northern Ireland, with many Catholics carrying the lived memory of institutional discrimination in favour of their Protestant neighbours. Just so however, the toll on the Protestant community of losing so many of those opportunities for employment is also being acknowledged. Much of the debate locally focuses on these issues of community differentials. However, the point I raised is that this focus risks missing the bigger picture, namely rising inequality across society; the stratification and class segregation through workplaces which is happening not both here and abroad.


We can all visualise an abundance or lack of diversity when it centres on observable traits like ethnicity and gender. We remember pictures of Donald Trump’s incoming cabinet, and not just because the protagonists could be identified as Wall Street executives, but because of the nakedly visible absence of any women or non-whites. These types of privilege lend themselves to still photography: class background usually requires moving pictures, identifiable accents and awkward handshakes.


The discussion was wide-ranging but returned consistently to the idea of diversity and balancing the competing drives to achieve the most diverse possible workforce overall versus employing the ‘most qualified’ candidate for each individual role. On this, I highlighted that the return to academic track qualifications is much higher than to vocational qualifications. Many of the employers present offer apprenticeship routes through the organisation, though conceded that some of the same social capital advantages which are deployed to help people through university applications are used to secure apprenticeships and that unpaid internships are disproportionately taken up by young people who can afford to do so.


A highlight of the evening was the contribution of Baroness May Blood, who brought the discussion back to the central issue of rising inequality. She suggested that rather than focus the conversation on the 75% of young people in Northern Ireland who benefit from the best education in the world and want to go from an A to an A-star, it would be better to start with the 25% in places like the Shankhill Road where she works and where one GCSE might be above average on a given street.


Undoubtedly, the conundrum around mobility sits within a complex set of problems: crime and the attraction of the black economy as an alternative means to gain wealth and status; mental ill-health, oversubscribed services and suicide; none of these are issues which can sensibly be viewed and improved in isolation. And to return to Tim Campbell’s point, the future is uncertain: for some it will present opportunities, while for others the risk which further disruption and change poses to community cohesion and personal identity could be incalculable.


It is interesting and challenging to look at social mobility from the perspective of employers, particularly in the context of organisations striving to achieve greater diversity among their employees. While we may still be some distance from finding the answers, it is good that the questions are being asked and one can only hope that the influential position of employers can be used to pose those same questions to the people tasked with planning for our economic future.