November 19, 2019

The Price of Upward Mobility

“Jennifer Morton was born in Lima, Peru, raised in a household that she considers “somewhere between working class and middle class,” and—thanks in part to the generosity of some extended-family members—went to a premier private school. Her education there catapulted her to Princeton, where she became the first person in her family to get a bachelor’s degree. She’s now a professor herself, teaching philosophy at the City College of New York.

There is a special place in the American imagination for stories like Morton’s, in which gumption is rewarded and opportunity is capitalized on. But Morton considers the standard, vaunted narrative of ascending America’s class ladder to be “fundamentally dishonest,” as she explains in her new book, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility.

It’s a conclusion she reached after reflecting on her own experiences, those of her low-income and first-generation college students, and her interviews with other “strivers,” as she calls them, who have embarked on and established careers. “We rarely tell students that their success may come at the expense of some of the things that they hold most dear,” she writes, referring to the costs that being upwardly mobile can exact on people’s relationships with their family, friends, and community, as well as on their sense of self. She discusses these costs not to deter people from pursuing higher education and well-paid careers, but to note that such pursuits are not downside-free.”

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