“Shall I fetch the quinoa?” asks an overly enthusiastic barista as his 21-year-old line-manager politely replies “yes”, before taking another triple-barrelled order at the till. It’s a pleasant scene, characterised by the palpable sense of calm that underscores every innocuous human interaction. If you’re not from around these parts, the whole thing might come off a little twee, performative even, perhaps inducing a laugh or some light-to-moderate nausea, chased by an acute sense of inferiority.
Inferiority one learns to conceal beneath a veil of vitriolic sarcasm.
This part of town is where people are called Arlo, where the great and the good converge, at various stages of their long lives, to inoffensively go about their days, oblivious to why most residents in the other three-quarters of their socially segregated city rarely come here.
Social mobility, or lack of, is, undoubtedly, the most pressing problem facing our society. For anybody who is unfamiliar with the term (because not everyone is socially mobile enough to be granted access to the conversations where it is used), it simply means the extent to which people from disadvantaged backgrounds can ascend the social ranks to a life that no longer revolves around chronic financial insecurity and all the hilarity that implies.
Social immobility is why people are born poor and die poor – of poverty-related illnesses – and the privileged pockets of society tell themselves a comforting story about how “t’was ever thus”. What is less contestable is the fact that wherever there is a high concentration of poverty, we usually see a plethora of attendant social problems.
Until now, the great and the good have been able to insulate themselves from these offensive vulgarities. But, as over-lapping constitutional crises engulf the continent, it’s clear social inequality can only be contained for so much longer, before its corrosive effects are felt by all of us.
Put simply, inequality is beginning to tear our society apart.
Social mobility is the comforting theory that we can somehow modulate unfettered capitalism to produce something other than a ravine of inequity from which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will soon be violently vomited up. Trump, Brexit, Le Pen and lunatic-fringe groups like Britain First are just a few of the toxic by-products of a stumbling Western civilisation that, in the absence of industrial primacy, has begun to manufacture and export cultural resentment, wealth polarisation and timid, toothless centrist solutions that only address effects, not causes. See the disproportionate focus on immigration for an example of this.
Social mobility, in theory, means anybody who works hard should be able to carve out some sort of prosperity for themselves. But it’s a bit of a mirage.
Now I’m not saying everyone on Byres Road has it easy. Far from it. An hour in Whole Foods can be tremendously stressful, shaving precious minutes off a 95-year life. But what we can say with absolute certainty is that people on little Arlo’s side of the ravine benefit from a wider margin of error, as well as a less toxic and chronically stressful social environment, making life’s adversities easier to absorb and traverse.
In laymen’s terms, what this means is that Arlo could walk out of his job today and the arse would not fall out of his life.
His margin for error is bigger than wee Kylie across the river in Govan, who depends on minimum wage from her part-time job to keep the flotsam of her precarious existence afloat. Arlo works to supplement his disposable income while studying, not because he would otherwise starve or become homeless. For Arlo, being poor is a phase, for Kylie, it’s the treacle she treads every day of her life.
When Arlo graduates from his degree in pet psychology, he’ll quietly attribute that success solely to his own hard work and strength of character, rather than his social position. I don’t wish to seem bitter or resentful, but I am, so that’s just how it comes out. Fully paid-up members of the Hallouminati, who feel I may be straying into naked classism here, should feel free to cry me a river of kale-flavoured tears.
I do not wish to pad this article out any more than I must by reiterating Prime Minister Theresa May’s uselessness, but in her first speech in office, she did claim she would govern with the great unwashed in mind. She put social mobility at the top of her agenda, so the fact the people she tasked with addressing it have very publicly abandoned her, speaks decibels of her political priorities. And yes, I totally get there’s a squad of you out there, who think poverty is a personality flaw; a fitting punishment for anyone unlucky enough to be born below the breadline. You are the sort of people who can barely conceal contempt for the poor, who glibly deploy well-worn phrases like “t’was ever thus” in reference to inflation, wage stagnation, people living off high-interest credit cards and pay-day loans – as if your mum and dad never bailed you out time after time as you tried slavishly to live up to their lofty expectations.
I’m resigned to the coming storm. There’s no way back. My only hope is that when the inevitable political calamity that will soon engulf our society begins to crescendo, you lot who thought it wasn’t a problem will be the first to face the music.