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Cracking open the middle class closed shop

I thought there was a really good debate after my post on social mobility. There were a few, though, who objected. Their concern was that I was basically arguing in favour of kicking the ladder beneath me, or even of reinforcing the class system.

In that case I probably didn’t explain my argument properly – because that certainly isn’t my position, or even close.

What I was arguing against was the political consensus around creaming off a small minority of working-class people and catapulting them into the middle-class. Social mobility, I argued was about accepting inequality and the class system, but simply making it easier to be move between classes. The same number of people would be cleaners, call centre workers or checkout staff, even if they would end up being slightly different people.

Instead, my argument was that we should support working-class collective struggles to improve pay, conditions and even the dignity of work. That would actually better cater for individual aspiration, too: you can’t afford a family holiday in Spain or a new car if you’re lying awake at night panicking about the gas bill, because you’re subsisting on poor wages.

Neither was I glorifying jobs which can be mind-numbingly tedious or dirty. I once had a job for a few months working in a hearing aid factory (my job included cleaning earwax off rejected hearing aids – yuck). That doesn’t give me any special insights, because I always knew it was temporary. But it did open my eyes to how difficult some jobs can be.

Disproportionately, these are jobs done by women and – particularly in places like London – ethnic minorities. Take retail, an industry that has trebled in size since 1980 and is now the country’s second biggest employer: two-thirds of its workers are women.

We’re still suffering from the legacy of Thatcherism: millions of decent, well-regarded skilled jobs were sucked out of the economy. That’s part of the reason we desperately need a new industrial strategy, particularly focusing on building thriving environment-orientated industries that provide well-paid, skilled ‘green-collar’ jobs.

My point was simply that it has become increasingly fashionable to sneer at jobs society needs to function properly. This is part-and-parcel of the prevailing mantra that we should all aspire to become middle-class.

I do think it’s valid to point out how levels of social mobility have stagnated or even declined in the last thirty years. My own dad was a beneficiary of the post-war boom in social mobility: his father died at sea when he was 6, he was brought up by his single mother (a nurse) in Merseyside, and he ended up going to Sussex University. Despite the expansion of higher education, this is probably more difficult to do than it was before.

Above all, just because I don’t think social mobility is an answer for the vast majority of people, doesn’t mean that I don’t support cracking open the middle-class closed shops. As I said in the article:

Of course I am not saying we should abandon attempts to crack open the worlds of politics and the media, to take two striking examples. Both have become middle-class closed shops because of the scandal of unpaid internships and the growing emphasis on qualifications, among other factors. It’s not just unfair, it leads to bad policies and bad journalism.

Today’s typical professional who was born in 1970 grew up enjoying a family income that was 27% above the average; but for professionals born in 1958, the figure was only 17%. If you take the media, it’s even more extreme: a journalist born in 1958 typically grew up in a family with an income of around 5.5 per cent above the average. For the next generation born in 1970, the gap has widened to a shocking 42.4%. Over half of all journalists went to private school.

We need to democratise the professions so they’re actually representative of the wider population. These are some of the ways I’d do it:

  • Waging war on poverty. Sounds like a ridiculously obvious point, but there are other more important factors than how good a school is. As I said in my article, I was the only boy in my class to go to university not because I was naturally brighter – there were some very bright kids in my class – but because I was middle-class. Take the grammar school experiment. A 1954 report showed that, of around 16,000 grammar school pupils from semi-skilled and unskilled families, around 9,000 failed to get three passes at O-Level. Only one in twenty got two A-levels. Or take the recent report that grammar schools do not increase social mobility for working-class kids. Factors that have a major impact on how well a child does at school include the quality of their housing, poverty, the community you grow up in, a stable family environment (whatever shape that family takes), and so on.
  • Banning unpaid internships. Unpaid internships have proliferated: if you take Parliament, almost half of interns don’t get expenses. They provide around 18,000 hours of free labour a week. This means that professions like politics, the media, law, fashion and so on are increasingly inaccessible to young working-class people. How can the son of a Glasgow shopworker ever dream of affording to live while doing an unpaid internship in London, for example?
  • Getting rid of private education. At the very least, private schools need to be stripped of charitable status, which gives them tax breaks. But I’d like to see a situation where we get rid of them altogether. The response to this is always along the lines of: ‘Why don’t you focus on improving state schools and leave private schools alone?’ I don’t accept this: private schools are about training rich people to skip the queue, and ensuring that class privilege is passed from generation to generation. Not particularly bright rich kids are polished in ways that give them extra advantages over brighter working-class kids: like their performance in interviews, whether at universities or for jobs. What’s more, it’s bad for the people who attend private schools, because they don’t mix with people from different backgrounds, allowing class stereotypes to flourish.
  • Forcing universities to accept bright working-class kids. Peter Wilby has suggested that Oxford and Cambridge should automatically offer places to the top one or two pupils from every school; and then the next best-universities offer to the third and fourth, and so on. That’s an interesting idea, but it would still be biased in favour of middle-class high achievers. What about automatically enrolling the top performers of those who were previously eligible for free school meals, or the scrapped Educational Maintenance Allowance?
  • Clamping down on networks. Lots of middle-class people end up in jobs purely through the contacts of their families or privileged friends. This needs to be snuffed out: not just by compelling all workplaces to advertise vacancies, but also considering punitive action against those known to hire based on personal contacts.
  • Providing non-academic routes. Take newspapers: it was once the case that an aspiring journalist could start by making the tea at their local newspaper office aged 16, and then work their way up. The growing emphasis on very good educational qualifications has, inevitably, disproportionately benefited middle-class people.
  • Investment in adult education. It’s pretty obvious why. Adult education is now facing a battery of cuts. A friend of mine, who didn’t get any GCSEs, ended up going to university on the back of an Access course: these are the sorts of routes which are getting closed off.
  • Apprenticeships. The decline in apprenticeships has – as you’d expect – accompanied the disappearance of skilled jobs; they were also discarded by many of the privatised industries and utilities. Their disappearance has robbed many young working-class people of an avenue to decent work, particularly in many former industrial areas. If we’re going to build new green industries, they need to be linked to a new wave of apprenticeships, too.
  • A stronger trade union movement. There is a great tradition of trade unions offering a route for working-class people into the political world – and in other spheres, too. Part of the reason we’ve seen a decline in the number of working-class politicians is the marginalisation of the labour movement.

These are just a few ideas, and it’d be interesting to hear some others (or criticisms of these). I think they would help democratise the professions, making sure they better represent the society they should be serving.

But of course, even if all of these changes were enforced, it would still leave the question of ‘What about everybody else?’ And that of course was the point of the original article.

One Comment

  1. Steve Kelly says:

    As a Socialist, we should all be working towards a true classless society whereby everyone is respected equally for who they are and what they do.

    Social mobility should be about enabling people to aspire to whatever it is that want out of life. Class should play no part. The moment it does, it is by definition restrictive.

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