A few days ago I came across an article by Yehong Zhu that had been sent into The Thought Catalogue as a response to the question ‘What’s it like being at an elite school like Yale and working at a fast food job?’ The author used the prompt to describe her experience of working at Waffle House through the summer months before commencing her studies at Harvard University the following autumn.
Recounting her shifts and the menial jobs involved, the jargon and memorising of orders ‘akin to that of an AP biology midterm’ and the exhaustion of standing for hours on end, her account reminded me of my first few months working at Pret a Manger, a British sandwich and salad take-away food chain.
In many ways our circumstances were fairly similar; like Yehong I had left school with the idea that I was some of ‘academic breed’ of person. I had no idea what I wanted to do in later life, but had trawled through sixth form to manage good grades and secured a place at a respected university (albeit significantly less high profile that Harvard -mine being University College London). Nevertheless, I presume it had a comparable outlook among staff and students; many of my future university friends were occupied saving turtles in Madagascar and discovering the underground bars of Berlin. Or standing in on court cases and shifting papers in Goldman Sachs; that well established territory of the future-leader-of-the-world-/-eighteen-year-old-work-experience typecast. But coming to terms with the unavoidable financial burden of studying in London, I had got to July with few plans for the summer, little to no experience of work and desperately in need of a job.
I found a recruitment centre in Victoria Station. I filled in a questionnaire, answered a few questions in person and I was invited to an experience day the following week. I swept the floor, put some toasties in the machine, made a yoghurt pot as per the ‘How To Card’ and was in.
When I started, I signed a 20 hour a week contract being paid £6.95 an hour to work at the till. In less than 3 months I was working close to full time with significantly greater responsibilities and a significantly higher wage. I couldn’t have imagined that after working so hard at school to get there, university would suddenly take such a serious back seat- and that I would have wanted it to. But perhaps ironically, Pret made undergraduate classes seem empty. I came to think of ‘the day job’ as a different sort of education – one in which I was meeting people outside my usual sphere with views and experiences of the world that differed from my own – and almost every other university student I sat in classes with. Apart from the money, there was something exhilerating about the pace of life I found myself leading. I was no longer as simply a student; I had become a ‘Pret Person’ and to me, that was no bad thing.
Of course there were things I found difficult. I wasn’t used to standing on my feet for 8 hours. I wasn’t used to being managed by someone who was struggling with english and being part of a team whose preferred mode of communication was spanish or italian. I wasn’t used to working at such a high intensity; the idea of making a salad in less than a minute including time to get ingredients from the fridge, clear up after and not forget the cherry tomatoes baffled me. How was I so useless?
I was highly aware when I took on the job that hiring me was a risk. I was the only english person of 49 employees in the shop. I found it strange at first, but soon realised why there were so few of us- the english either become managers within 2-3 years or leave within the first month. Neither is necessarily good for the morale of the rest of the team, and being a bit out of my depths when it came to spanish slang and not so up to date with the latest Russian rap hits (although I did learn, of course…) it was a difficult line to walk. So to an extent, I can emphathise with Yehong’s feeling of ‘other-worldliness’. Nothing was what I expected. But at the same time, that in itself was just as much a challenge as perparing for the end of term coursework – only, to me, a far more interesting one to persue.
And that’s where I found Yehong’s account unusually sad.
I don’t want to necessarily critique her experience in any way; we were working in different companies for different lengths of time and in different continents. (Naturally, being part of the EU drastically alters the labour pool for entry level jobs in the UK and therefore the kind of co-workers you expect to find.) But personally, my own time in Pret only served to highlight a sickening realisation; that it’s rarely intellect that separates entry level/ minimum wage workers from those who can afford to aim high. It’s opportunity. For the majority of workers, the £56 they earn for 8 hours of watching the clock constitutes just as much of an ‘existence’ for them as it does for anyone else – not much, but it’s a temporary means to an end.
Of course you can expect to find people who (on the surface) seem to have few ambitions in life. Those who are happy working on the tills from 7am to 3pm five days a week, greeting customers, passing over coffees, retorting the infamous ‘eat in or take away?’ They know what to expect today, tomorrow and the day after that, and if they haven’t yet made it to team trainer, probably this time next year, too. It might be a bit boring, but if you’ve been packaging clothes into bags at a factory in Lithuania for the previous ten years and now find yourself learning english with a growing pension and paid holidays, for you at least, life certainly is stepping up a gear.
But in honestly these were a very small proportion of those I met. Most of them had stories well beyond my own. (See below.) They were ‘fast food workers’ with as much a planned path in life as the rest of us. Some know exactly where they want to go. Others are hopeful of opportunities. The reason they’re there behind the tills is not because of their character, lack of ambition or bad grades. More often than not, it’s because they’re starting without the base that we’ve been given. They have no backstop in life. No support network. Yes, they have degrees, yes they’ve had ‘good’ jobs in the past. But if your degree was in Czech law and the jobs you can find in Prague barely cover your rent, with a strand of courage you’re going to go look for something else, even if it is starting right from the bottom.
Alongside familiarising myself with which detergents are used for ovens, worktops and fridges and the proper security procedure if we ever come across a bomb under a table, what I really took away from my time in Pret was the extent of the glass floor problem we suffer from in Britain. Much is said about the need for social mobility. The need for fluidity within our social strata, so that familial background no longer inhibits personal merit and acumen in determining our position within the social system. In our capitalist, ‘protestant ethic’, western world the idea of social mobility is inescapably tied up with the undying aspiration for our children to exceed our own successes. Many of the parent’s of my colleagues at UCL undoubtedly saw their children’s education as an investment, paying for their clubs, holidays and school fees. They had prized the importance of ‘soft skills’ such as confidence and presentability – maybe even filtering their offspring through weekend drama schools and singing lessons. And now, on the eve of university they were once again financially supporting them during unpaid internships or work experience. For those without the means to subside for 3 months without student finance, such a luxury is naturally not an option.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The last decade has seen much development on the front of the glass ceiling in society. Additional rights and company quotas for women, the disabled and elderly workers have enhanced the possibilities of the aspirational (generally at the top of society) – and rightly so.
But just as pressing an issue, and invariably a more sticky one to tackle is the plight of those in the lowest segments of society who find an equal struggle in reaching up. As the expectation and competition for graduate jobs becomes more fierce, parents will feel an even greater pressure to invest in and support the next generation; the invaluable trust fund or the distant relative who works in a big office (and let’s just hope won’t mind having a free assistant for a week) become not just an asset, but a criterion for economic success. This is the glass floor in it’s creation. We all have the merit – this is a race for the everything else. And dangerously, it’s in these everything else societies that economic inequality is the greatest – a comparison of social mobility in US and Canada will tell us that.
So its those without the parents, without the funds or without the contacts that are stuck underneath the glass floor. In the case of Britain, a significant proportion of those stuck are immigrants- in some (but not all) cases suffering from the added disadvantage of poor langauge skills. But immigrants certainly don’t represent all cases; those who have been in social care, those from poorer backgrounds, rural backgrounds etc etc… They’ve got the personal equalities, education and common sense. But because that’s all they’ve got others are able to slip in ahead of them on the rungs of the social ladder. (And let’s face it – how often do we slide into those algebraic equations we learnt in sixth form in our average ‘graduate’ job?)
As I say, there are few easy fixes. It seems to me there are two strands to take – the broadly leftist or the broadly conservative. The ‘cutting in’ on the social ladder could be targeted – Ed Miliband momentarily took a stand against unpaid internships in the 2015 Labour Manifesto. This would inhibit them from becoming the reserve of the elite. On the other hand, the ability to cut in could made more widely available – particularly to those below much of societies’ glass floor. To varying degrees of success, the academy idea has paved the way in bringing students from poorer backgrounds closer to employers and corporations. (Still largely restricted to urban areas though.) At the same time, the present government’s emphasis on apprenticeships has highlighted the benefits of employees ‘working up the ranks’ rather than recruiting one level of worker for the entry level jobs and relying on a graduate scheme to fill the roles at the top. Realistically, no one can stop people from taking opportunities to enhance themselves. The only approach is to ensure that those opportunities reach the widest corners of our society.
We may still be a long way from resolving the problems and perceptions of inequality within Britain today. But let’s at least attempt to come to terms with it; my time in Pret gave me a small, valuable insight into one particular corner of the lives of those below many people’s glass floor. They’re not necessarily ‘poor’ – they work incredibly hard and get paid relatively well for it. But in many respects it’s a socially isolating life to lead. They work with foreigners, live with foreigners, go out with foreigners and, of course, when it comes to that all-important telephone interview for the next job? No, they didn’t understand what the person was saying on the phone. Talking too quickly. Maybe using some special terms. So they’re sticking around here for a bit….
Pret was tough, inspiring, and the best form of ‘education’ I could have hoped for at the time. I soon realised that the person pushing our cereal boxes through the checkout in Lidl, or the bored security guard at the Oxford Street Primark- they too are the protagonists of their own love stories, and probably wildly better than our own. They may have read more Dickens novels than our entire sixth form English class; they may have more certificates than us and they probably do speak more languages. They have plans for their route to the nobel peace prize, or UK Top 40 christmas no 1. And dreams for their children and hopes for retirement. And being cynical about it, its only the rest of society jumping ahead of them that’s dragging them down.
In words of the College Dropout himself…..
PS- a few of those I worked alongside:
An Italian ex-circus clown who had toured across europe for 15 years and knew virtually every turkish restaurant in north london (no mean feat). He had almost finished his law degree when I met him, making a coffee each 30 secs, 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week to pay for his course.
My manager Aga, left Turkmenistan with a friend when he was 24. Speaking no english, he got a job working in the kitchen in Pret where he met and married another employee, a Brazilian woman. He had an engineering degree from Ashgabat University as well as degrees in Computer Science and Finance and Accounting from Birkbeck and City Universities in London. When I met him he spoke Russian, Turkmen, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese and understandable English. He used to joke about not having any qualifications in cleaning tables, having spent some much time ‘developing the skill.’
And a 22 year old Hungarian who had become redundant after the cinema he worked at in Budapest shut down. Having learnt english from Game of Thrones, he came to London knowing no one. He arrived at work at 8.30pm each evening, made sandwiches until 4.30am and after 3 buses got home at around 6am. He knew every word to every Jay-Z song, timed to perfection. (Yes, I was jealous.) This summer he went to Ibiza for the first time. He wants to be a DJ.