I love rags to riches stories. A new Canadian arrives penniless and within two decades, he’s a multi-millionaire. Someone from the wrong side of the tracks gets spotted, tries out for an audition and becomes a well paid actress. It makes a great movie plot. Cinderella, The Blind Side, Prince and the Pauper and Slumdog Millionaire are just a few examples. It is possible, no matter how humble your background or the education level of your parents or grandparents to advance upwards in socioeconomic class.
In Canada, one of the first questions we often ask is, “What do you do?” I don’t want to be defined by what I do but by who I am. I want people to know me first and not pre-judge me based on my job title. I have a friend who is a lawyer and had so many conversations either stop dead or turn into lawyer jokes when she told people what she did that she started to respond, “I work in an office.” It was true but it wasn’t the whole story. We want to know where people are in the hierarchy of life and knowing what someone does is a key to figuring out where they stand in our social system. It is more polite than asking how much they earn or the details of their net worth.
In North America we have what is often referred to as the “American Dream”. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. With enough work and a little luck, anyone can make it. In this, our land of opportunity, there are no cultural constraints on how much you can make and where you fit in the social hierarchy.
The idea of rags to riches being a good thing is relatively new in our western culture. Even a few decades ago, people distinguished between new money and old with the implication that new money was empty and without class. The Beverly Hillbillies were rich but a perfect example new money; low class people who happened to have a lot of money. The idea was that people with old money had class and breeding while people whose money was new had none.
Do we, in our culture still define people by social class? Do we still distinguish between old money and new? Is the “Canadian Dream” just about currency and possessions or is it more? How do we define social class?
Socio-linguists might argue social class can be identified through dialect and use of grammar. Historians might suggest that it is something in our past, deeply rooted in our family and cultural history. Others might claim it’s purely net worth, the neighborhood you live in, the way you dress or the social class in which you were raised.
Every culture has its own way of defining class and often it’s not about net worth. Perhaps it is something in a person’s posture, the way they relate to others or command respect without words. Or is it a simple mathematical formula? job title + family wealth + education + net worth = social class. After all, isn’t social class really about our perceptions and where we place ourselves and others in a hierarchy of importance.
What’s your view, how do you define or recognize socioeconomic class in Canada? Is it only about wealth, or is it something more? Under what conditions would it be possible for someone from a humble background to gain entrance into a high socioeconomic class?
Kathryn has been a staff writer for MDJ since January 2009. During the day she works in an office. In her off hours, she volunteers as a financial coach helping ordinary Canadians with the basics of money management. Kathryn, along with her husband and two children live in Ontario.