As news that elite law, accountancy and financial services firms are putting candidates through a ‘poshness test’ makes headlines through a study from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, we ask what, academic qualifications aside, young people can do to circumvent misconceptions that still pervade surrounding class in Britain.
As humans, it is within our nature to make quick assumptions and assessments of individuals that we meet. At a basic, instinctive level, we are ascertaining if they are a threat to us or to our situation. This is of course the basis of first impressions; we utilise the small amount of information at our disposal to build a picture of the individual we are meeting. Much of the picture will be created from such cues as accent, deportment and dress. In an interview situation (we are assuming here that the candidate has attended a university acceptable to the firm in order to secure a place in the candidate chair), this process is heightened as candidates are scrutinised on how they dress, how they act, what they say and how they say it.
Accent is particularly interesting as it is undoubtedly an area that people attach their negative perceptions to. There is a proliferation of regional accents in the UK, with some favoured more than others, due in no small part to perceptions associated with particular accents. The popularity of regional accents varies with time and fashions, indeed, all accents evolve over time. Whereby once a persons’ accent could be used to establish not only geographical/regional location of birth but also their social class, the increasing occurrence of worldwide travel and migration, plus the fluidity of accents, means that accent is no longer a precise tool to categorise. Even the accents of our Royal Family have changed subtly over time, reflecting cultural and societal change.
Yet, despite these changes, the study from the SMCP commission suggest that young people continue to be judged on their accent and soft skills. It is suggested within the report that when educational attainment becomes more widespread, employers have to gather alternative information about the candidate; the qualification is the quality marker but the personal characteristics exhibited at interview stage are what determines talent. And of course, if ‘polish’ is what these elite employers are looking for, it could be considered that polish is something that can only be taught at a private school and in the right social circles. In actual fact, this is not the case, anyone who has a mind to attain this polish can do so; attention to personal appearance, pronunciation and posture could enable them to give a rather different impression in those vital first moments of the interview.
Life is nothing if not a series of tests, it is up to the individual which path they take, but social class does not have to be a barrier to the top jobs. Once it was educational attainment that was a barrier, but this has been smashed. If individuals understand what it takes to make the right first impression, they can utilise the soft skills of the social elite and level out that playing field once more.