Why I say working class and not first-gen.

Níall Glynn
August 31, 2023
5 min read
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The first-gen label f**king irritates me.

When it comes to discussing socio-economic backgrounds and experiences, the terminologies we use matter. In my journey, I've often come across the term “first-gen,” which, refers to those who are the first in their family to attend university. While this is a commendable achievement, I believe that the term can sometimes blur the lines of economic and class-based realities. This is why I am more connected and find it more fitting to say “working class” rather than “first-gen.”

Imagine my surprise when, time and again, I've met individuals boasting that they are "first-gen" because they were the first in their family to attend university. Lovely stuff, well done. However, peeling back layers often reveals a stark contrast between our lives – a sprawling opulent house, multiple cars, and a prosperous and thriving family business. They were financially stable, even affluent, whereas my life has been a relentless counting of every penny. Their struggle to understand university jargon or navigate the academic environment was real, but it was starkly different from the challenges faced by someone who is working class and in the same position. So, I've often wonder, what shared thread existed between us? The realisation is disheartening: very little to be honest.

Using the label "first-gen" can inadvertently push the intricate and vital conversation about class to the backburner. In the diverse spectrum of socio-economic statuses, the experience of attending university for the first time does not equate to the daily realities and challenges faced by the working class in further education. The struggles of balancing multiple jobs, deciding between paying bills, getting food, buying textbooks, or the constant reminder that this place doesn't feel right, are some aspects of the working-class narrative that can't be overshadowed by the broad brush of the "first-gen" label.

Further, the "first-gen" label inherently suggests a break from the past, a divergence from one’s familial history in the realm of higher education. But it fails to encapsulate generational adversities some families endure. Being working class, on the other hand, encapsulates struggles that have been faced over multiple generations. These are deep-rooted, systemic challenges that might have compounded over time, making the journey even more daunting for the present generation.

Moreover, the "first-gen" label has its time constraints - it is only primarily relevant during the college years. Whereas working class doesn't fade away after just like that, is more enduring. It’s a lifelong tag that traces a person's journey from their early years, through their education, and well into their later life. It's not just about the time spent in university but the entire spectrum of experiences that a working-class individual undergoes.

Worryingly, a concerning trend I have observed over the past few years is institutions have a tendency to tokenise "first-gen" students for the sake of diversity optics. Though they're lauded for their academic leaps, they often inadvertently overshadow those genuinely requiring assistance. This creates a false pretence of universalism, subtly implying that class barriers magically disappear within university walls. To higher education institutions, they think they are doing the right thing, but they are just reinforcing the false narrative of we are all the same and class doesn't matter once you get there. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

Furthermore, it sometimes feels as if the term “first-gen” has become a badge of honour to some, almost like a fashionable accessory people wear to appear oppressed or marginalised. It's as if in the quest to belong to a group or be recognised for overcoming challenges, people are eager to adopt labels, even if means little in the grand scheme of things. The sort of glamourisation dilutes the essence of real struggles faced by many.

Centralising the discussion on higher education tends to put undue emphasis on individual achievement. While attaining a college or a university degree is undeniably an accomplishment, it’s not the be all and end all. The narrative around "first-gen" seems disproportionately focused on personal success, on the idea of triumphing over individual odds. But what about the collective struggles that the working class faces? What about unity, shared challenges, and community solidarity? The working-class narrative isn’t about pulling ye self up by your bootstraps. It’s about a community striving, supporting one another, and facing systemic challenges that go beyond just university corridors.

I won’t deny that first-gen students might face challenges in acclimating and adapting to university culture, be it the unfamiliar lingo, the alien environment, or the social nuances. A singular challenge of navigating the world of higher education without a familiar roadmap Sure, that can't be easy. But that’s just a small part of the broader picture. The shared experience tends to stop there. Beyond those university gates, the realities of a first-gen student from an affluent background and a working-class individual can be worlds apart.

Before anyone starts, this is not me saying there is a monolithic working class experience and struggle. Far from it. There are a myriad of experiences that are influenced by gender, race, disability region and religion. Yet, class is the core that links them all. Being "first-gen" doesn't and cannot capture that.

So, when I say I am working class, it’s a reflection of my entire journey, not just my educational milestones. It speaks of my community's collective efforts, our shared challenges, our resilience, and our hopes. I urge everyone to delve deeper, to understand the intricacies of socio-economic statuses, and to use terminologies that resonate truthfully with their lived experiences. Only then can we foster genuine conversations and understanding about class and the myriad paths we walk.

If you want to use it, go-ahead. But it isn't for me.

All thoughts and views are solely of the author

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