The New Case for Social Climbing

Meritocracy is make-believe. It’s all about who you know.

a stairway to a crown set against clouds
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

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I was born to be a social climber. The Evita score was ever present on my grandparents’ stereo when I was growing up, and I idolized Eva Perón, who made her way from poverty to the highest echelons of government and society. She was a woman who, at least from the musical’s point of view, saw clearly where she was in life and decided she wasn’t going to stay there. What did a tiny thing like class background matter to a person with wit, determination, and a knack for making friends? These were qualities, I realized, that could transform your future. They were also things that money couldn’t buy. Which worked out nicely, because my family didn’t have any.

At 18, I left working-class Brooklyn for an Ivy League college. I had worked hard, gotten into a good school, and now … now what? The summer between my freshman and sophomore years, while my well-off classmates were interning at publishing houses and record labels, I found myself stocking discounted shoes in the European Designer section of Century 21. Up until then, I had seen myself as a relatively straightforward beneficiary of the much-vaunted system of American meritocracy, so my initial explanation for the disparity between our experiences was that I had fallen down on the job of excellence. I swallowed and digested that sense of inferiority.

Then I started to ask questions. Where exactly had my peers’ jobs come from? Time and again, the provenance of these plush opportunities was a family connection or friendly favor. My classmates were also bright and eager, of course, and naturally felt they merited what they had been given. But for me a crack had appeared in the system.

In my junior year, a male acquaintance of mine—of equally humble beginnings—suggested that I run for president of the senior class. I scoffed at the idea, being, as most young people at liberal establishments should be, anti-establishment. My friend explained that I was being shortsighted. A star student athlete, he’d spent his summers at plum internships offered up by alumni athletes and donors. The experience had clued him in to something: In elite circles, not all opportunities were advertised. There were rooms that the rest of us didn’t know existed, and those rooms came with possibilities never advertised by the career-services office. But you could find a way inside. Being class president was more than a line on a résumé, he said—it was a chance to do just that.

I won, and during my senior year, I was invited into oak-paneled rooms and introduced to people with titles of importance in the real world. I shook hands and made polite conversation and boldly stated my great ambitions to get a job “in the arts.” I got lots of tense smiles in return.

But nothing happened. No offers manifested, no suggestions of whom I should talk to. Worse, I got the strange sense that I was doing something shameful, that approaching those in power so openly with what I wanted was somehow sordid. I suspected that I was acting like a social climber, and that social climbing was wrong. Only later did I realize that the climbing wasn’t the problem; I just wasn’t very good at it yet.

I am here to make a modern case for social climbing. To take up the defense of today’s parvenus and tuft-hunters. To destigmatize and demystify the art form—because it surely is an art. One that I don’t believe any of us can afford to ignore in this era of growing income inequality, decreasing social mobility, and increased isolation—particularly not young people who are stymied by the state of capitalism and boxed in by lack of opportunity, and who, more and more, work and socialize online. Meritocracy is make-believe; wealth is elusive. But there’s one form of capital that is not finite, and it is social.

When people think of social climbing, they typically picture a Real Housewives type of social aspirant, one whose goal is entirely self-indulgent—simply to see and be seen in ever more exclusive rooms. The perception is that climbers are shallow, needy people who want desperately for their “betters” to like them.

I have in mind something different, and more useful: the cultivation of relationships that have the potential—in large and small ways—to improve your lot in life. You could just call what I’m talking about “networking”; it might sound nicer. But networking evokes efficient (if often forgettable) business coffees arranged on LinkedIn, and what I’m advocating is striking up a meaningful conversation with someone at your company office party. And then converting that conversation into a rapport, which leads to a connection that might, down the line, lead you to another, better job. I prefer the term social climbing because it puts the emphasis where it belongs: on the dynamics of the ascent.

As I got older, and made my way into more elite circles, I understood better why my earliest, ham-handed efforts to further my career were seen as déclassé. Upward mobility was all well and good when perceived as the earned reward for one’s talent and work ethic. But brazen hobnobbing was the terrain of charlatans and grifters, if not criminals and sociopaths. The phrase social climber is still thrown around as an insult. The Washington Examiner, just last month, labeled Meghan Markle “an opportunistic social climber,” when discussing the duke and duchess’s Netflix documentary. The message is: One can climb, but one certainly shouldn’t.

The implication, of course, is that if you are talented enough, you don’t need to social climb. Opportunities for advancement will present themselves to you. All you have to do is work hard, sit politely, and wait.

But I’ve never been very patient.

Besides, why, in a capitalist society that deifies billionaires for accumulating financial capital, should I feel shame for trying to accumulate the social kind?

Before I was a writer, I was a co-proprietor of a successful luxury wedding-planning business, though it didn’t start out that way. A friend and I opened the business in 2003 with ambitions of creating the type of stunning productions that were featured in magazines. (Wedding magazines, believe it or not, were once big business.)

The world of wedding-industry professionals is intensely stratified; the pecking order, like the profit margins, mirrors the incomes and class standings of the families it serves. As in life, some wedding planners are born into privilege. They can hang an eponymous shingle advertising, say, Logan Vanderveen Events in the morning and be planning the lavish nuptials of Upper East Side blue bloods by noon. For the rest of us, the path is paved with grunt work: navigating wedding-factory catering halls staffed by grumpy maître d’s worried that you’re encroaching on their tips; placating anxious bridezillas who have gone over budget and are desperately seeking a scapegoat. (The hassle and drama scale up with the budgets, but the compensation does too.)

In the beginning, we believed that if we just worked hard, we would gain the recognition our business deserved. Instead, two years in, I realized we were caught in a cul-de-sac. Our clients and fellow vendors loved us and referred us to friends and family. But those new clients had the same budgets as the old ones. We planned the same wedding over and over and over, which was not only creatively boring; it meant we never made more money. This wouldn’t do.

So my partner and I went on a charm offensive. We emailed the writers and editors of bridal magazines and offered to take them for drinks; we organized happy hours for planners producing events way nicer than ours, because you never knew what overflow business they might be able to send our way. We initiated coffees with higher-end photographers, florists, and caterers. If we were invited to an industry party, we went. We shook hands, we clinked glasses, we got to know people, and we let people get to know us. Little by little, big-budget client referrals and publicity opportunities began flowing in.

If I were to pinpoint the moment when our business transformed from growing to “in demand,” it wasn’t during any one particular wedding we produced but rather during one specific dinner party I schmoozed my way around.

I had befriended a much more established wedding planner, who invited me to a dinner where the editor of the wedding publication of the moment—New York Weddings-–was speaking. Seating was open, and I remember thinking that perhaps it was a bit audacious of me to grab the spot next to the guest of honor. But I had nothing to lose. Several glasses of wine and the discovery of our shared Hispanic roots later, I found my business the newest addition to the editor’s list of top New York planners. My partner and I ate off that listing for years.

The American dream promised that the child of the farmer could one day become a merchant, and that the child of the merchant could one day become a banker, and so on. Each generation’s hands becoming progressively less calloused than those of the generation before, the transformation made possible through the “American work ethic” and the magic of “meritocracy.” The belief that, in America, the cream naturally rises to the top.

Of course, this is bullshit. The school system is largely dysfunctional for all but the wealthiest families. Corruption scandals such as Varsity Blues and the student-debt crisis have cast a pall on even the promise of higher education. Against the backdrop of rising income inequality, rags-to-riches stories have aged from instructive examples to tall tales. The ascents of luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey are about as relevant to our current reality as Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox.

In America, transforming your lot in life is impossible. Mostly.

It’s true that most capital in our economy is gripped by the hands of the few. But social capital—the relationships that any individual, in any stratum of society, can cultivate for themselves—is the exception. Social capital can achieve what meritocracy fails to deliver.

Though being class president didn’t land me a job, other connections did. One of my part-time gigs was at the school art gallery, where I got to know an older professor who would stop by to chat. One day he asked what I was doing after graduation, and I offered my usual line about “hoping to land a job in the arts.” A few days later, he came by again and handed me a stack of sealed envelopes addressed to gallerists and dealers he knew, all filled with letters of introduction. Overwhelmed, I asked him why he’d done it. He said I was smart and responsible, he’d heard I was class president, and he’d enjoyed getting to know me. Why wouldn’t he help me?

I realized then what my friend the athlete had already understood: The first step of social climbing is not about seeing what people can do for you, but rather seeing people. You learn where they grew up, what books or shows they like, how old their kids are, what you might have in common. You get into the room not to use people, but to know people.

Considering all the upsides, where does the social climber’s bad rap come from? People who seek to improve their station in life have been the objects of suspicion or the butts of jokes since the dawn of social mobility itself.

Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, performed for King Louis XIV’s court in 1670, may feature popular culture’s first social climber. The play satirizes Monsieur Jourdain, the son of a rich merchant, whose aim in life is not to accumulate more wealth, but to be accepted by the aristocracy. The title itself is an oxymoron: A member of the middle class can never become a gentleman. A joke, but one of great comfort to the audience at court. Yes, they have more money than the rest of you here, but they will never have access to this room. These relationships.

By the close of the 17th century, aristocrats, merchants, and servants were crowding into theaters to see bawdy satires like John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse, in which a buffoonish Sir Novelty Fashion squanders his fortune purchasing the more impressive title of Lord Foppington. The joke had evolved: Okay, maybe they can access this room, but everyone (including the servants) knows they still can’t buy class.

In 1722, Daniel Defoe published Moll Flanders, about a woman who cons and sleeps her way into the middle class. Moll might have been seen as unscrupulously obsessed with improving her station in life, but as a widow with no social standing or means, she was also desperate. She wasn’t posing as a gentlewoman to get into great parties; she was climbing to survive.

The social climbers I’m talking about are more like Moll than Sir Novelty. Motivated by economic necessity, we see access as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. We would never squander money to get into the party; we get into the party so that other people might squander money on us.

The scorn for the climber is rich—literally. It isn’t that the wealthy don’t utilize social capital for advancement; they just do so quietly. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s perceived as their right. Wealth, and the things it can procure—elite education, invitations to private clubs, stays at exclusive resorts—come with a cascade effect of trust, merited or not. “If you are in this space, you must be one of us.” This was precisely the genius of Shonda Rhimes’s series Inventing Anna. You get to watch the character discover—just by dropping the right name or stepping onto the right yacht—what people were willing to offer her. No questions asked.

In this view, Elon Musk rallying his “friends” to help him acquire Twitter looks like the “baller” move of a billionaire out to buy his favorite toy instead of what it really was: favor-begging. When a wealthy family calls in favors from friends to write their child recommendation letters to Harvard, they just “want the very best for their kid.” But surely they also want the cocktail-party bragging rights that said admission bestows. For the wealthy, more than any of us, the social and material gains of climbing are intertwined. The degree of ascent might not be as steep, but the fear of falling is more extreme.

When practiced well, social climbing is not only about ascent, but also about sprawl. It’s about building a robust network of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life.  When the dry cleaner who rushes your orders at no charge needs someone to counter a bad Yelp review, you write it. When a former colleague needs an introduction at your new company, you gladly oblige. The adroit practitioner understands that the perks flow in all directions.

Though I perfected the art of climbing in adulthood, it was my youth in Brooklyn that laid the foundation for my success. My friends and I didn’t have powerful connections or fancy parties to go to, but we all understood that relationships were a kind of capital. My friends could hook me up with designer coats that “fell off a truck,” underage admission into nightclubs, employee discounts at retail stores. No one wanted to be considered a “user,” and so, in exchange, I did my own favors, like providing alibis for my friends’ romantic liaisons to their parents, or forging absence notes because I was good at “adult handwriting.”

Now I see that paying it forward is the most rewarding aspect of a successful climb. Helping someone who—like the young me—might not even know where to find the ladder get up a rung or two. Unlike financial capital, whose power grows when hoarded and wielded by the few, social capital is most potent when shared.

This is why I am frustrated not only by the continued stigma around social climbing, but by the general devaluation of relationships. A 2021 survey by the Survey Center on American Life found that 12 percent of Americans report having no close friends, up from 3 percent in 1990. More disturbing, the number of people who have 10 or more close friends is also down, from 33 percent in 1990 to 13 percent last year. Our digital networks may still be expanding, but our social lives are shrinking. According to Gallup, just two in 10 American employees say they have a “best friend” at work.

Too many people—particularly young people just establishing their career—seem disinterested in engaging in exactly the things that might help cultivate or revitalize these relationships, like going into offices or socializing with colleagues outside of work. The workplace isn’t the only route to a social network, but it is one of the easiest places to form long-lasting relationships. Work puts on display not only our personality, but also our ethics—how we respond to stress, how we treat others when faced with adversity. These are qualities that build trust and meaningful connections.

When we disengage from one another, we forfeit the only source of capital that we can generate entirely for ourselves. Employers give us paychecks, but they also provide us with this additional commodity. Refusing to return to the office is akin to leaving it on the table.

Some might find valuing relationships in economic terms distasteful, but I think it’s worth asking why. Is it because being in reciprocal service to people you know and like seems “icky”? Or is it because of a trope invented to make the elite feel more secure about their station in life—one that, coupled with the myth of meritocracy, has left the rest of us sitting around, waiting to be anointed by the powerful with the gift of opportunity?