The first pecking order I became aware of was in housing. My family lived in a semi-detached house (known as a duplex in north America). At some point I began to realize that I went to school with some people who lived in detached houses, some who lived in council houses (social housing), and some who lived in flats (apartments). Without anyone actually saying anything, I realized that some homes had more status than others.
Students at my primary and secondary schools all wore uniforms, so it wasn’t immediately apparent which of us came from families with higher social status and which did not. We didn’t wear jewellery, so the only methods we had to personalize our outfits were with our haircuts and, for the girls, our hemlines. Generally speaking, we didn’t know much about our families’ relative wealth.
The second pecking order I realized, with some dismay, was gender. I left school just before my 17th birthday and became employed as a secretary. Being a female teenager in the late 60’s meant having a fast and sometimes dirty introduction to male dominance. Some of my employment memories came to mind when I first saw the TV show Mad Men. It was so close to my bad experiences that I could not watch the whole episode, far less the whole series.
It was in my late teens that I realized how significant regional accents were in England. I was blessed with a northwest London accent, which meant that I could get by in most social situations. There was one time, though, that I felt I had been pegged negatively. I was visiting friends in Oxford and staying over with some people I didn’t know. In the morning, when we were making the beds, a young woman expressed her surprise that I knew how to make “hospital” corners. Her tone made it clear that she did not think I was classy enough to know how to tuck in sheets properly, but the only thing she knew about me was the way I talked.
For most of my early life, the BBC was the only radio station and my source for music, news, commentary, and comedy. In the 1960’s, though, the pirate radio stations introduced us to not only different content, but also different accents. It was only then that it dawned on me how many accents had been excluded from my world, and how many regional experiences had been silenced.
Recently, I have been thinking about how pecking orders have changed over the years and how some of us are still hanging on to old ones while new ones have taken over.
Members of the British aristocracy still have status, but it’s a bit difficult to pull rank when you can’t afford to get the roof fixed. I’m a bit out of touch with who ranks high in the UK these days, but I know it has less to do with accents and more to do with money and fame. Similarly in north America, we vote into power the famous and we socially elevate people with money.
It doesn’t seem to matter if those people are well-educated or if they have good morals or if their ethical standards have been proven. We put them above us, regardless.
Some of us were raised to believe that it mattered if we had good manners, if we cared about others, if we worked hard, if we paid our bills, if we valued our families. Today it seems clear that those things don’t necessarily provide social standing any more. At least, not the kind of standing needed to be a leader. What our leaders today have in spades are connections, influence, and media savvy. Oh, and having pots of money doesn’t hurt, either. In fact, with enough of those things, you can get away with adultery, tax fraud, significant indebtedness, and pedophilia.
If I am confused about the pecking order now, how much more difficult must it be for young people. How does anyone know how to get ahead, or even to maintain social respect? All the markers of success have changed and many of the routes to get there have disappeared or changed beyond recognition.
I thought life was confusing when I stopped wearing a school uniform, but that is nothing compared to the bewilderment today. Some of our leaders may feel smug if they have gotten away with bad behaviour, but I wonder if they know what they have done to the aspirations of others. And, if they know, I wonder if they care.