What is Social Capital and Why Does It Matter?

From a young age, we are told that if you work hard, you’ll achieve everything that you want. If you just apply yourself in school, you’ll become successful, whether this means becoming a famous actor or actress, the CEO of a Fortune 500, or having any form of influence in society. If you just go to university, get that degree, find that full-time job and work your way up, you’ll be comfortable in no time. You’ll earn enough to buy a nice house; you’ll retire at sixty and you’ll have enough leisure time to dedicate to all the charitable causes and hobbies you’ve been delaying dipping your toe in to. However, is this really the case? Do those that work the hardest, really get the most rewards? Or are some people just more likely to stumble upwards than other people, and if so, why is this?

 The UK has a serious social mobility issue which has become more apparent in recent years, demonstrated perfectly by the current chumocracy we see in the dishing out of government contracts to the owner of our elected official’s favourite pubs. Social mobility refers to the ability of an individual to move upward in social status, based on common social variables, such as wealth, occupation, or education level. A person’s social mobility is highly dependent on a few factors, such as, the degree to which a ‘class’ system exists within the country, and a person’s social capital. The UK is inherently a very classist system, with even George Orwell saying that Britain is “the most class-ridden society under the sun.” This means that actually, class, and your social capital, does matter. As they say, it’s not what you know, but who you know and how you know them.

Social capital refers to “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” Whilst this in itself is a vague concept, it is inherently about the societal norms in which you grow up in, the strength and influence of the network of people, such as friends and family, you can call upon, and the degree of trust and reciprocity across these networks. This is a term I have found myself grappling with in recent years, reflecting on my own experiences growing up in a working-class area – I have an incredibly strong personal network of friends and family, and I trust them with my life. I’m sure if I rang up one of my third aunts twice removed, they’d do me any favour that I needed, and they could manage. I don’t think they could lend me a million pounds, or secure me a contract to provide PPE, but I know they’d definitely lend me a cup of sugar and let me stay for tea.

This is what social capital comes down to though – the weight of that personal network you have, and it’s standing in society. Rich people stay rich by keeping wealth and opportunities circulating within their circles – there is no such thing as a true meritocracy in such a capitalist, classist society like the UK. I think of acquaintances of mine that have gained work experience whilst at university because their Dad’s best friend works for one of the Top 4 banks, and whilst the bank doesn’t usually offer such work experience… if they can borrow the house in Dorset for a week, they’ll take them on. It’s within these transactions of opportunity between elites and the upper and middle echelons of society, that inequality is reproduced, and mobility is stunted. This may seem like an innocent, helping out of a friend, but the consequences of these tiny little interactions run deep.

When person A has work experience at a bank that their Dad’s friend gave them in exchange for a week in Dorset, whilst person B only has their part-time retail job as work experience because they do not have such connections in their personal network. All else being equal, such as grades, degree, and where they studied, and they’re both being sifted through a recruitment portal… who gets in? Person B is stunted in comparison to Person A, despite having the same grades and qualifications. In the long term, person A leverages that work experience to get a full-time job at the bank and reproduce those inequalities for those within their own personal network (most likely, people from a similar class background). Person B is left to compete in the apparently meritocratic system in which young people are expected to manoeuvre – they may get their lucky break and go from there, but not every person B can make that lucky break. This is how social inequality is reproduced, this is how social mobility becomes stagnant, and this is how we end up in the current crisis we are in: the elites of society holding all of the power.

When this example is extended even further up the ladder of society, we look at senior leaders in this country. Most senior leaders benefit from this form of social capital – being given a leg up, and having visible, accessible role models whose careers they can emulate and seek guidance from. However, when these senior positions are filled for the most part, by those within these upper classes of society, the policies, and practices that they implement are implemented based upon their own ideas and experiences of the world. We are living through a prime example of this, with ten years of Tory rule decimating some of the prime ‘levelling-out’ schemes and opportunities that had been previously in place: the closing of the Sure Start scheme, the defunding of the NHS, the underfunding and defunding of vital youth clubs and services, and the withdrawal from schemes such as Erasmus+. When those at the top have never experienced the bottom, they feel no shame in cutting away the safety ladders that provide many working-class people with any opportunity to climb up the social mobility ladder too.

Commissioned for The Everyday Magazine

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