Dreaming of Social Mobility: A Train Trip to Central London

Meeting point: 8am, Canning Town underground station. The American investment bank who sponsored this employability programme in East London had invited 15 young participants for a round of mock interviews at their headquarters in London’s business district. Participants had worked hard for this event. They had received ten weeks of training provided by one of Newham’s many charities, on communication and self-management, motivation and resilience, leadership and teamwork, and diversity and ethics. Amongst this were the crucial interview and cv skills now being put to test at the end of the programme.

When I arrived at the metro station, a small group had already been waiting. They were nervously rehearsing the answers that they had prepared like before an important exam. All participants had been asked to select a real job offer for which they wanted to be interviewed. Plumbers, bricklayers, mechanics, carpenters, security men, sales officers, football coaches and an accountant: these were the jobs participants wanted to be interviewed for. The employability coach had sent the job offers and candidates’ CVs to Jannette, who was responsible for the management of the programme at the bank. Jannette then allocated every job candidate to a volunteer from the bank who had agreed to conduct the interview. Indeed, as part of its commitment to a better world, this investment bank regularly asks its employees to engage with London’s impoverished communities through events and activities such as this.

Many of the unemployed participants live in situations of poverty and social marginality. Some are homeless or have a criminal record. Most of them had never left their boroughs. Indeed, despite the politics of equity and inclusion promoted by the current Mayor of London, the city remains a highly racially and economically segregated place. But that morning we travelled from the city’s impoverished peripheries to the skyscrapers of central London; a journey emblematic of the promise of social mobility represented by employability programmes such as this. Indeed, these mock interviews were held at the end of long programme in which these individuals were told that professional inclusion and socioeconomic independence is a choice, it depends on their willingness to work on themselves and adapt their behaviour to the expectation of employers.

Of course, this interview at the investment bank was just an exercise, a simulation of an actual job opportunity. At the same time, the lines between fantasy and reality were intentionally kept blurred. Participants were real job seekers, being interviewed for real positions, in real offices, by professionals in suits asking real questions. Candidates were also requested to dress formally like in the case of a real job interview. Many of them had to borrow clothes from friends or parents. Others asked the social services to provide funds so that they could buy a shirt or a jacket. Yet others found some trousers in a local charity shop. Becoming a real job candidate was not just about learning to speak and behave in a way that their instructor considered professional; they also had to look like professionals.

The fantasy was also kept alive because, just once, the simulation had turned into a reality; a candidate in a previous cohort had succeeded to convince the interviewer about her qualities and managed to secure a real position in administration. This could happen again, Natasha, the employability coach, kept repeating. If you work hard on yourself, you will succeed. Aamiina, one of the young women attending the training had started to believe in this promise.  She had chosen to apply for an apprenticeship as an accountant.  She is smart and has the qualifications necessary for such a position. Aamiina had not dared to openly talk about her hopes, but in confidence admitted that this could be her chance. She had prepared the interview in detail: she analysed the job offer, identified the qualities and skills expected of an accountant, and tried to anticipate the questions that the interviewer might ask. She is really good, I thought, while watching her practice the interview with one of her peers on the tube.

We arrived at the headquarters of the investment bank around 9.30, one and half hours after we had left the station in the outskirts of London. A security officer accompanied us to the second floor where we received a visiting badge and were asked to take seats in luxurious leather armchairs. Can we touch this? Fadouma, one of the participants, asked me. She pointed to an art catalogue placed on one of the side tables. The sculptures, pictures and art installations in the corridors made everyone feel more uncomfortable than I had expected. Shh, don’t speak so loudly, cautioned Mary. Amir had made a comment on another participant’s blazer. It was too large.

Jannette greeted us and explained that the interviews would begin. The ritual was the same for all participants. One after the other the candidates were received by an employee of the bank, and after a formal introduction where accompanied into the offices where the interviews would take place. Aamiina was called last. She had been waiting in her armchair and nervously read the job offer again and again. She had printed it out for the occasion. The first candidates had already come back from their interviews. Yes, he was amazing, so self-confident, he is perfect for this position concluded one interviewer before leaving. Another: She was so well prepared, really no negatives, I would have taken her. Yet another: He really knows what he wants. So determined. Wow, of course he would get the job.

Aamiina was interviewed by one of the senior managers of the bank. He is actually in a position to make her an offer, I whispered to Natasha sitting next to me. I was counting the minutes, imagining her sitting in her office chair and answering the officer’s questions. She wore an elegant, dark suit with a blouse. She will be perfect, I thought. Nervously I tried to count the floors of the Shard ─the highest building in London─ that I could see through the big window on my left. 71. Or 70? I was not sure. 23 minutes later I saw her come out with the senior manager. I tried to guess from her look whether or not he had made her an offer. Welcome to the firm, he smiled, while referencing a famous film of the 1990s. The fantasy again. No real offer. Aamiina was quiet. Yes, it went well, her look revealed that she had expected more. For a moment we had all believed that the fantasy could become true. A last group picture with the representative of the bank and then back to East London. Great job guys, Jannette noted before taking back our visitor badges. We are proud of you. Continue working hard.

Now, for sure, this event at the bank has been useful for employment seekers. It enables them to be exposed to an interview situation, to receive useful feedback on their CV, and in the way they had handled the interview questions. But at the same time, this event contributes to the perpetuation of an illusion on which employability programmes more generally draw, namely that social mobility is possible for everybody; that working in one of these glamorous investment banks can be achieved even by individuals from East London, if only one would work hard enough on oneself. Even if data shows that individuals from lower classes seldom climb the social ladder, this illusion urges individuals to carry on working on themselves. It tranquillises them; the hope it gives them prevents them from resisting the tremendous discrepancies between rich and poor that characterise London’s society. In this sense, these employability programmes are not really about inclusion and equity as politicians, educators and other defenders of these programmes claim. Rather, these programmes often end up being about ensuring individuals don’t make the capitalist system responsible for their situation of socioeconomic exclusion. Instead, young unemployed people continue to believe in the idea that we are all free and equal; they continue to blame themselves for the discrimination experienced for being born in London’s peripheries.


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