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Keywords:

  • Life stories;
  • career narratives;
  • social mobility;
  • social class;
  • qualitative data;
  • National Child Development Study

Abstract

While the pattern of social mobility in postwar Britain has been extensively studied, revealing considerable upward mobility, much less is known about the subjective dimension to mobility. In this article, we employ a new sample of in-depth interviews with 50-year old men from the National Child Development Study to examine in detail the link between objective mobility patterns and the way the upwardly mobile narrate their life trajectories. In contrast to the mobility ideology suggested by the Oxford mobility survey of the early 1970s, in which the upwardly mobile recognized and internalized their success as a project of the self, we report how members of this later generation of men with highly successful careers prefer instead to articulate ‘modest’ life stories.

By treating the career as a narrative device, we are able to show how the disavowal of the dominant, linear hierarchical career model by these men allows them to tell particular and distinctive stories which establish their individuality and personhood, while, paradoxically, recognizing the cultural power of the dominant model. In particular, we highlight the use of ‘linear contingent’ narratives by these men, in which specific events, especially those connected with occupational and geographical transitions, are deployed as contingent thresholds to mark out key shifts and passages in their lives. We then compare their accounts with those of immobile and downwardly men, who instead deploy ‘ghostly’ stories, preoccupied by the past, or defensive accounts, displaying unease with their failure to live up to the expectations of the linear career model.

Having shown that men's accounts of mobility are suffused with an awareness of their need to establish their own individuality through repudiating the social trope of the instrumental careerist, we conclude that the links between career identities and objective mobility patterns are not straightforward and need careful unravelling.