What does your father do? vs what is your father doing?


Dr Paul Redmond

Speaker, writer, researcher - expert on the generations and the changing world of work. Skilled at helping organisations connect with all age groups.

Before the most recent expansion of higher education, the era when universities first opened their doors to large numbers of working class students was the late 1960s: not quite between the kết thúc of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, but near enough.

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For the first time, significant numbers of students from what we’d now hotline Widening Participation backgrounds began enrolling for degrees. It was an experience many would never forget.

Fortunately for us, they recorded their experiences in some of the most evocative books, poems, plays and movie scripts ever written about higher education. From these, a shared sense of never quite ever fitting in emerges, of living with the constant dread of being ‘caught out,’ or being ‘unmasked’ as a fraud.

And often, all it would take was a certain innocuous-sounding question from a lecturer or fellow student:

“What does your father do?”

Try for a second putting yourself in their shoes. It’s your first day at university. Around you are pipe-smoking, tweed-clad, Brideshead Revisited types (or so they appear to lớn you). You’re alone, homesick, and beginning to feel that you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. And now they wans to lớn know about your dad’s job. You can’t help think that how you answer might just determine the rest of your university life. Perhaps even your future career.

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Because what this generation discovered on arriving at university was the one thing they thought they’d escaped: social (and sexual) discrimination. And it didn’t stop at graduation. Similar levels of discrimination were also thriving in the nascent graduate recruitment industry, where social and cultural capital were often a key factor in deciding who got which jobs.

Fifty-years on, what your parents do, or don’t do is no longer relevant. Partly this is because universities have become more representative of wider society. But it’s also because traditional ideas about ‘middle-class’ and ‘working-class’ jobs are becoming redundant. How bởi vì you gauge the social class of a computer coder, a web-designer, or a cloud consultant? Re-wilding specialist, anyone?

The poet Roger McGough, himself one of the first working-class students to lớn enrol at Hull University (tutored by Philip Larkin, no less) has written about the terrors he experienced whenever “some bright spark, usually Sociology” asked him what his father did. McGough’s father was a Liverpool docker – information his son was anxious to conceal from professors and certain head librarians. So he’d mumble ‘docker’ in the hope that it might sound lượt thích ‘doctor’ (“There he goes, a doctor’s son, & every inch the medical man.”) Or he’d try injecting a touch of Hollywood glamour: “He’s a stevedore, from the Spanish, ‘estibador.” But this sounded too ‘On the Waterfront’ & as he noted, “Dad was no Marlon Brando.”

Eventually he opted for, “He works on the docks in Liverpool,” which was technically true while leaving the door mở cửa to numerous middle-class possibilities: customs & excise officer, clerk, Chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.

In later life McGough would cringe when recalling how embarrassed he’d been when talking about his father’s job, a job his father had been exceptionally proud of. At night, the poet would dream he could hear his father’s voice proudly reciting the names of the great docks that he’d known & loved:

“Gladstone, Hornby, Alexandra, Langton, Brocklebank, Canada, Huskisson, Sandon, Wellington.”

This year, as universities prepare to lớn welcome the Class of 2019, let’s recognise and celebrate the overwhelmingly positive influence parents have on our students’ lives & careers. Let’s welcome them all lớn our campuses, dockers & doctors united.

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Because despite what Larkin said, they don’t f*** you up, your mum & dad, they make us who we are.

This article first appeared in the Institute of Student Employers magazine, August 2019

95 10 Comments

I think it"s still relevant at the đứng top universities. Try telling your oxbridge or London Universities friends your parents have never worked & you have no money while they go on about the businesses their family owns & the exotic places they have travelled. Lack of money can prevent social participation in some of the fancier events - cannot afford the dress code, or the nicer halls of residence. Is there social stratification in the more working class universities amongst cliques of friends based on family connections, success & money? How about in more traditionally prestigious courses like medicine, is there more social awkwardness in students from poverty versus prestige than in other courses, even in red brick universities?