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Of course posh people get posh jobs Working-class Britain won't topple the privileged

George Osborne knows his place. Simon Dawson-Pool/Getty

George Osborne knows his place. Simon Dawson-Pool/Getty


September 13, 2021   5 mins

Imagine you are sitting on a plane about to take off. The pilot speaks over the intercom: “Ladies and gentlemen, I know some people are nervous about flying, so I just want to reassure you. You’re in safe hands with me at the controls – my dad was a pilot.”

It wouldn’t happen, would it? The rules, conventions and incentives that put that pilot in the cockpit would do so on the basis of talent, effort and training rather than birth, wouldn’t they? Other than royalty and the dustier bits of the House of Lords, our modern, egalitarian society surely has no scope for people to do important jobs just because their parents did them first. Has it?

Well here’s a number to ponder: 24. In Britain, a child who has at least one parent who is a medical doctor is 24 times more likely than other children to grow up to become a doctor. For all lawyers, the figure is around 18, and almost certainly higher for barristers. Comparable figures aren’t easily available for journalists, but no one who has spent any time in the trade would doubt that hereditary hacks are at least as common. Even outsiders can easily spot the average media types who are just plodding along in daddy’s footsteps.

The old nobility, the people with the horses and the land and the congenital defects, have largely been marginalised in 21st-century Britain. But that doesn’t mean we’ve done away with aristocracy and inherited prestige. We still have aristocrats, but instead of wearing green wellies and going shooting, they put on white coats and wigs and write columns.

That is the real story of social class and privilege in the professions. The accountancy and professional services firm KPMG is barely a minor character in that story, despite its honourable efforts. It is trying to become less posh by setting targets for senior staff from working-class backgrounds, meaning people whose highest-earning parent when they were 14 did a manual or technical job.

This is 
 fine. The firm has had good coverage and is setting a good example by acknowledging that class matters, alongside the other personal characteristics that employers routinely fret about. But it should be seen in perspective. KPMG has 582 UK partners and reckons 20% are currently from a working class background, meaning 116 of them. Hitting the firm’s target of 29% means another 50 or so by the end of the decade.

It is a step in the right direction, and the value of the example being set cannot be dismissed. But does it really matter if a few dozen more kids from the wrong end of the socio-economic scale hit the big time as accountants, when the properly prestigious jobs remain in the hands of the posh and their offspring? Because accountancy isn’t really posh. I mean no disrespect to KPMG, or accountants in general, when I say this. I also accept that this point demonstrates what Freud called the Narcissism of Small Differences. But there are indeed distinctions to be drawn here. All professions are elite, but some are more elite than others.

It is in what the sociologist Michael Savage calls the gentlemanly professions – law and medicine especially – where posh power and hereditary privilege are greatest. Go back to that figure about doctors’ kids becoming doctors, which comes from Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman of the LSE.

This is jaw-dropping, or should be. Medicine is a life-and-death activity, one that must be done by the very best people available.  Is it really possible that so many of the very best just happen, by sheer coincidence, to be the children of doctors? OK, the familiarity with the job you pick up from a doctor-parent might confer some advantage in training and practising. But if anyone seriously believes that aptitude for medicine is entirely inherited, I cannot find them.

The wider data on entry to medical careers point in the same direction: what your parents do and earn matters more than your effort and ability. In 2017, a total of 320 students entering medical school by the “standard” route came from the poorest fifth of UK households. The number who came from the richest fifth was 2835. For every poor, clever teenager allowed to enter medicine, nine rich kids were admitted.

Even this marks a (modest) improvement. Among qualified medics, 74% are from the highest socio-economic group. That makes doctors the poshest professionals, beating even lawyers and journalists (both 64% posh). There are all sorts of reasons for the rich and privileged to dominate jobs such as medicine, and all sorts of why reasons poor, smart kids with stethoscopes are scarce. But whatever the causes, the consequences are stark. One of them is that we regularly put our lives in the hands of people who have not been drawn from the widest possible talent pool.

Of course, the same could be said about something that’s also vital to manage well: democratic debate. Anyone committing journalism about privilege and hereditary advantage has to acknowledge that journalists too skew towards the wealthy and advantaged. (For what it’s worth, I’d count as working class, at least on the terms used by KPMG).

The media’s poshness problem has worsened. Earlier generations of hacks contained many feral beasts who’d never set foot in a lecture theatre but used native cunning and love of language and ideas to break stories and make arguments. These days, graduates dominate and the trade has (almost) become a profession. Many print outlets are trying to remedy things by embracing apprenticeships, but it’ll be a long road back to a media whose staff reflect all of the country. The broadcasters, who have more clout, have even more work to do. Channel Four found in 2018 that two-thirds of its staff are from the higher social classes, and fewer than one in ten were working class. The BBC was 61% posh.

This isn’t a new problem though, and it’s hard to see where political or wider social enthusiasm for change will come from.

A couple of decades ago, Tony Blair was a Prime Minister with a vast Commons majority and near-total dominance of the political arena. He looked, briefly, at reforming the truly elite professions, then backed off, deciding it was easier to fight battles against enemies such as the trade unions, Saddam Hussein, and Gordon Brown. Brown, too, nibbled at the idea of widening access to the professions, and some of his agenda survived under the Coalition and Nick Clegg. But even those modest efforts have withered and to use medicine as an example again, tepid interventions mean small changes. Despite a decade of promises and initiatives, the number of low-income youngsters entering medicine rose by just 70 in the 10 years to 2017.

Truly changing the make-up of the people who oversee our health, our laws and our debate would require the focused energy of a Prime Minister prepared to make the issue a priority over several years. Boris Johnson shows no enthusiasm for such a crusade, and as for Sir Keir Starmer, well: would anyone bet on him attempting something that was beyond Tony Blair, much less achieving it?

And where is the pressure on the politicians? Where is the outrage, the urgent demand for change? Britain should be furious about privilege and the professions. And not just because of a lack of justice but because of a lack of quality.

That’s what debates about social mobility and fair access to the professions come down to in the end: some of the people who get the “top” jobs get them not because they’re the best at doing the work, but because of what and who their parents were. The abiding power of poshness means some second-rate still people get to do first-rank jobs. Tim Nice-but-Dim still runs quite a lot of Britain. Given the impact of the work that lawyers and doctors and, yes, journalists do, that should be nothing less than a scandal.

Yet by and large, unposh Britain just shrugs and accepts that posh people get posh jobs, since it was ever thus. It’s been 55 years since that Frost Report sketch where John Cleese looks down on Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett declares: “I know my place”, but little has really moved on, including public opinion. And until that changes, our professions, privileged and self-interested, won’t be the best, but they’ll be the ones we deserve.


James Kirkup is Director of the London-based Social Market Foundation

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Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

What do I want from a doctor ? Intelligence, medical knowledge, a smidgeon of empathy and an effective treatment plan.
The academic ability required to train as a doctor is largely inherited, I just don’t care what the social class is providing the doctor treating me has the above qualities. Equality and Equity do not interest me in this situation.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Agree, Claire, the article ignores intelligence as a factor and the need to pass exams. If it is the case that money is required to get on that would be different. But the author has not provided evidence that money is a factor and instead focused on a divisive, emotive line. As far as recruiting is concerned, there seems to be an unwritten ‘political’ test to pass for journalism in most media forms.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Yes, this struck me as very odd.

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
2 years ago

There also seems to be the elephant in the room that parents in these elevated positions generally have more drive than those sat at home scratching their nether regions. Meaning they are far more likely to push their children to “achieve”.
Surely the “I want to grow up to be just like my mum/dad” plays a part here too. It is all over kids TV, so they have these kinds of things instilled in them from a young age.
“Like father like son” “apple never falls far from the tree” etc etc. I would suggest these things exist for a reason. Not that it is necessarily right (or wrong) but I would suggest it is not a mystery why these things happen, and that although there are class issues at play in the UK (and the rest of the world) it is not the only reason for this issue. Careers advice would be my main reason, improve that and start at a younger age and I guarantee you will see a change.

Simon Humphries
Simon Humphries
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Yes. I agree. In order to make the author’s hypothesis I stand up, one would at least need to demonstrate that the children of professionals get some sort of privileged access to training programmes. Maybe they do, but the author has provided no evidence of it.

Graham Cresswell
Graham Cresswell
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Correct. However, I think that patients and passengers, who place their lives in the hands of others, also expect that their doctors and their airline pilots will also exude confidence and education, which suggests they need to look and sound a bit posh. That may be iniquitous but it’s the truth. I speak as an East End lad who started with a gross cockney accent and became a doctor and an airline pilot. I don’t resent the fact that it was obvious that, to be taken seriously, one needs to look and sound the part. I guess I may have made some progress because I remember, back in the day when we could invite passengers in to the flight deck, one such, on a flight from East Midlands, asked, “Ee, were that you on’t Tannoy?” and when I confessed that it was, she replied, “Ee yo reet dead posh, yo are!” – to the uncontrollable amusement of the co-pilot.

Last edited 2 years ago by Graham Cresswell
Jim Cox
Jim Cox
2 years ago

Like “My Fair Lady”! Hard work and intelligence can still get one ahead. But having affluent parents can still help. Colleges only have a certain amount of scholarship money. Also, affluent parents can and do pull strings to get their kids into top colleges.

kenetgiles
kenetgiles
2 years ago
Reply to  Jim Cox

They also push their kids to work and study hard to produce the required results. I guess they know what works and what doesn’t.

Andrew Sainsbury
Andrew Sainsbury
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

The point of the article is that social class or something else unrelated to ability has probably chosen your doctor for you; if the talent pool is artificially restricted society loses – and it’s not just the professions.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago

I think the point of the article is to promote the fallacy that you describe, I don’t believe it. If you get the necessary GCSEs and A levels and pass the medical exams you will become a doctor. The percentage of Drs from working class backgrounds show that it can be done. If anything will help, apart from hard work, it’ll be going to a decent school. The better state education is the more chance there is of working class boys and girls getting into medical school.
Blaming “posh” people is just another culture war salvo, in my opinion.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I think this is one that will really divide Unherd readers. I think the numbers provided are a bit of a smoking gun – it’s clear that whatever the reasons, privilege in Britain is to a significant extent inherited.
it’s not necessarily blaming “posh” people – most people want to advantage their own children if they can – the question really is: is this consistent with a society which claims to be based on equality of opportunity; is this really putting the most talented where they are most needed.
on the policies to change this – yes improving education has to be one of them.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

The very concept of “privilege” as a form of criticism is an attack by one group of people on another. It seems to me it has replaced the word “bourgeois” as used throughout the 20th century by old Marxists.
There will always be lucky people and unlucky people. There are many rich ones who become drug addicts and alcoholics and fail. Poor ones with loving supportive parents who work hard and succeed and make their way to the top.
Life is hard. I think it is better not to blame others but to either take responsibility for yourself and strive, or, if you are one of the lucky and/or wealthy ones, help the less well off with schemes, teaching or mentoring as Caroline Watson suggests below.
Let’s be positive, not negative and destructive.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

I’d happily bring back “bourgeois”.
and the funny thing is – the richer your parents are, the luckier you get.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think we’ll have to agree to differ.
(I have to add, if there’s one person I’m not very keen on in our world, it’s George Osborne, but perhaps once you get to know him he’s really sweet !)

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

You imply that that’s a good thing, that people’s life chances in large parts rely on being born rich.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Do I? Explain? In any case that is not my view.
What we should aim at, though of course will never fully achieve, is a situation in which the position of ones parents in society (in itself) has NO influence on ones life chances.
Impossible in full, both on practical grounds and because to achieve fully would likely mean sacrificing other goods such as freedom. And by that I don’t mean the freedom to make as much dosh as you can.
But we could do far better than we are doing at the moment.

kenetgiles
kenetgiles
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’d say it’s neither a good thing or a bad thing; it just happens to be a fact of life. Evidence suggests that there are lot’s of people who aren’t born rich but who nonetheless do pretty well for themselves by effectively using the talents they’re born with.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

>The very concept of “privilege” as a form of criticism is an attack by one group of people on another
Yes, when it’s attached automatically to a group whose actual level of privilege varies enormously (as in white privilege, or male privilege) or when it is misused (as in thin privilege) – but it’s entirely appropriate when attached to groups who are genuinely privileged. Privileged privilege if you must.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Life is really not that hard if you have inherited wealth, connections and confidence.

kenetgiles
kenetgiles
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

But there are plenty of examples of people who make a mess of what they’ve inherited

kenetgiles
kenetgiles
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Is there a modern western society where privilege is NOT to a significant extent inherited?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

No one is blaming anyone, but I agree with the author that there is a real problem. The UK is one of the most unequal and divided societies in Europe, whether by class, education, regionally or income. If your politics are laissez-faire, then perhaps, who cares? But it is funny how Unherd commentators get (or purport to get) outraged over one aspect of this divide, related to the such issues as Brexit, but then seemingly don’t give a damn about enormous socio economic divides in our society (which by the way are often linked to those cultural issues).

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I think that is because Unherd readers are an odd constituency. Some are automatic tories with the full set of automatic Tory views, but their are others who are more varied (old left, anti woke, believe in redistribution but have no faith in the public sector, left but pro free speech, science denial refuseniks etc etc).
Articles like this one divide the audience and stop it becoming an auto Tory bubble. Good. Keep them coming! If you’re not finding stuff to disagree with, you’re not thinking!

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

Personally I want the best person available. If the talent pool of potential recruits is largely restricted to the wealthy then potentially I’m not getting that

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Unless the the talent/adaptation in question is inherited, which is central to the argument (see many of the comments below). Medicine and Law often run in families, not always but often.(As does acting, circus performing, farming, butchering, army etc etc) By dividing people up into “wealthy” or “privileged” and “working class” you take away their humanity, it’s easy then to assert it’s the money that makes the difference (it certainly helps, which is why there are things like grants and financial assistance) rather than recognizing that a whole host of aspects make a difference, including genes, IQ, culture, school, parental encouragement etc.
Marxist analysis is very clever but essentially it takes away our humanity.
As I said before, I think education is key, which is surely why social mobility was so good during the first three quarters of the 20th century, until Labour took away the grammar schools and the Assisted Places scheme.

Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

You may not need the best. In many jobs it is more about achieving a level of competence.
By insisting on the best you actually play into the hands of those restricting entry into a profession in order to maintain wages and elite status.
There is a good general rule btw: if a profession is far more concerned about the quality of entrants than it is about the quality of service once they get there, then they are almost certainly rent seeking (effectively profiteering at the public’s expense).
Many professions could doubtless be opened up more quite safely (just how intelligent does a GP really have to be). Wages and costs would fall, elite status would fall, but opportunities would be opened up. The “best” might go into other jobs where high intelligence is really a requirement.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Claire D

That’s just an assertion without a shred of evidence behind it.

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher
Last edited 2 years ago by Claire D
Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Nepotism is a problem in today’s professional classes but I don’t think rectifying it will solve the inequality issues in this country.

What would be far more beneficial to the working classes, rather than elevating a small number of select individuals to the swollen ranks of the middle classes, would be to improve the pay and conditions of lowers skilled jobs as a whole.

The problem is, it’s far easier, and cheaper, to appoint a few token hires, then make a big fuss of it in the press; than to burst the assets bubbles and reduce immigration numbers, which prop up the wealth of the professional classes, at the expense of everyone beneath them.

Making a few more of the working class, middle class, does noting to resolve the economic dominance of the professional classes, which is the underlying cause of inequality in this country.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Exactly so! In fact quotas and targets and “awareness campaigns” are things that makes the posh bit of the country feel good but has no effect whereas the remedies that you suggest would make them feel bad (racist by their own definition) or make them poorer. Even though they would improve working class lives.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Purely anecdotal: but it’s hard not to miss how scarily stupid, narrow and ignorant a lot of well off people are. And status obsessed. I sometimes feel that taking some of their money from them and putting it to better use would actually do them a world of good.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

What would be far more beneficial to the working classes, rather than elevating a small number of select individuals to the swollen ranks of the middle classes, would be to improve the pay and conditions of lowers skilled jobs as a whole.

it probably needs both, and the one doesn’t exclude the other – but yes, totally agree.
We’ve let wealth gaps open up, and we badly need a reset.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I agree. Make plastering as well paid as GP work and the problem is largely solved.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I would suggest another factor that contributes to so many doctor’s kids and lawyer’s kids entering the professions is assortative mating.
I know this might sound a bit like eugenics but there is a heritable component to intelligence and doctors and lawyers (yes, and journalists) tend to be good at book learning. They have to pass many exams over many years in college to become a doctor/lawyer. In my experience, professionals tend to marry other professionals so it’s not surprising if their kids are academically able. Add to that the fact their parents understand the educational system, over time, in a hypercompetitive, status-oriented society like the US, you end up with a self-perpetuating professional class.
As another commenter suggested, part of the solution is to pay better salaries for non-professional jobs that require more manual skills than academic skills. Right now the US simply imports cheap labor to fill manual jobs.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In addition to the genetics (and possibly more important), parents will transmit, attitudes, habits and priorities that match their jobs. Academic parents teach vocabulary, show it is important to study, and help with the homework. They also give an impression of a normal, familiar life that match their particular job. By the time they become adult, doctors’ children may be actually better qualified for starting on e.g. medicine, because better prepared, even if they are not of superior inherited intelligence.

Graham Cresswell
Graham Cresswell
2 years ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Despite both coming from the lower reaches of the working class, my mother was bright and my father not so much. However, on transferring from an East End primary school to the local grammar school, I was suddenly confronted with children for whom aspiration was unremarkable. This compared with my earlier experience when aspiration was a source of suspicion (sometimes referred to as “getting above oneself”). I’m sure you are quite right that a child’s outcomes are greatly advanced by exposure to environments where eventual professional status is normalised along with exposure to correct grammar and sophisticated argument. I suspect this is much more important than exposure to high household income.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The thing we must remember when arguing from innate intelligence is that in any era, regardless of the size of elite and it’s wealth, and the size of the poor and its poverty, there would have been those (mostly the rich) arguing (or simply taking for granted) that this was simply the natural order of things.
There are people now doing complex jobs whose ancestors would have been considered as innately only fit as factory fodder or as farm labour.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

There is a particular blindness here ….
Newsflash! Many of those born to the working class dislike the middle class and have no intention of joining it. Bourgeoisie amazed. “We thought everybody wanted to be just like us,” gasped a doctor.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

That’s doubtless true, and having grown up working class I still retain some of that residual dislike. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to get their hands on their high paying jobs if it wasn’t that they look like an exclusive club.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think the high paying jobs are doubly attractive if you don’t have to associate with middle class twits to get them.

Milos Bingles
Milos Bingles
2 years ago

I went to a state school in Leicester and moved to London to pursue a career in advertising. To get on the ladder graduates have to run the gantlet of the placement system. You’re paid naff all. I had to work 9-6 on placement at the agency then get my arse back to Watford to work in a call center from 7-12. I did this for nearly two years. It was exhausting. Rich kids don’t have this problem. They can enter the placement system, be that in advertising, media, journalism, safe in the knowledge they can be supported by rich parents living in the South East. I succeeded as a result of pure determination. Many others from a similar background would have sacked it off.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

And of course you lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. You used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, and go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

This one is really separating the sheep from the gloats (sic)

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Milos Bingles

When I was struggling with low wages, unemployment , family, mortgage (interest rates of 16%), I was well aware that rich people didn’t have those problems.
So what?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Well, in my case I realised my dad wasn’t rich enough. So I got my head down, joined a gym, bulked up, took kung fu classes, and one day I went home and gave the lazy ba5t4rd a severe beating.
It served the slothful git right for making me grow up poor. He learnt a valuable lesson that day and it’s one he still thanks me for.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Is that your general policy? If someone is poor, he should be beaten for it until he gets rich?

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Well I thought this was funny. And pointed. Not sure if others didn’t get it, or got it and didn’t agree.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Children have been following in their father’s footsteps since the beginning of time. It is proposed to put a stop to that?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

Absolutely spot on, and the old saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” also holds true.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Is it me or this article sounds like a lot of nonsense? The author is claiming we are riddled with nepotism left right and centre. The obvious conclusion is that medicine university courses are a travesty and all teachers and those who run the universities should be jailed.
Pray tell where is the proof of that?
Isn’t more likely that the reason why certain kids do certain things and others don’t have to do perhaps with the way schools are run and the influence they get in the home? Just guessing here…

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Of course.

Much of intelligence is inherited, so bright parent help here. Attitude to education is largely influenced by parents, so bright and well-educated parents are a help here. Young people are aware of what their parents do, and simple familiarity must increase the probability at least of a similar career choice.

So, bright, well-educated parents are more likely to have bright well-educated children, who are more likely to follow them into (broadly) similar occupations.

Not certainly, not exclusively, but more likely, just on the probabilities.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Most working-class people would probably settle for the upper classes not trying to overturn their votes – as seen in the red wall.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
2 years ago

A greater proportion of the people who went to university in the sixties and seventies were working class because of grammar schools and grants. Comprehensive education and tuition fees have destroyed social mobility.
Nevertheless, many of those people, despite being intelligent and educated, didn’t progress to high level jobs because they didn’t know how. People became teachers, civil servants, local government officials and junior doctors because they were secure public sector jobs with pensions and, when you have grown up with very little, security is what matters. They also tended to stay in their home areas, or move to similar ones, because they couldn’t afford to go to London and that, in those days, was where the progress was. There was very little careers advice, at either school or university; most adults in those places had never worked outside education.
When I took an exam to join the civil service in 1982, at the suggestion of my university careers service, I didn’t know what it was. My parents said that it was ‘the tax office and that’, and told me about people that they knew who had ‘good jobs with pensions’. They were clerks in small town outposts and were never going to be anything else but, to them, they had ‘good jobs’. When I filled in the preference form and listed locations and departments that I fancied, it never occurred to me to check that the two lists matched up. My chosen locations didn’t have offices for my chosen departments. I had no one to advise me.
I was asked to phone the Civil Service Commission and was offered the DHSS in Brixton! Even I could tell that was flying a kite, but my actual choice wasn’t much better. I didn’t know that government departments had their headquarters in London and that was where you had to go to get on. With no family support, I doubt that I could have afforded it anyway. My mother thought that a daughter going to live away from home was shameful and everyone would think that I was pregnant! She also thought that I should stay at home and work locally and give her the money; she resented having to work herself and thought it was my turn.
I ignored that and escaped but I know, from later working with people from ‘civil service families’, that having parents and their colleagues who know how the system worked was hugely beneficial to them.
Education is important for bright working class young people, but so is mentoring. My old college has a mentoring scheme for students which links them with alumni and local people who can advise them on career progression. That is vital for working class students because they are being educated into a world that they don’t understand and for which they have no signposts. It’s not even about money; it’s about arcane knowledge.

Last edited 2 years ago by Caroline Watson
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Very good post. ‘Arcane knowledge’ – and maybe also where you feel comfortable?

I’d just add one thing. High-education jobs expanded enormously for a generation or two after the war. That gave space for a lot of people from non-academic families, because the academic families simply could not produce all the warm bodies needed. When the ;high-education’ jobs could not expand any more, that in itself did a lot to reduce social mobility – maybe more than comprehensive education.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Yes – part of the issue is social capital. So what are the strategies we need to compensate for those differences?
good post btw

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

One thing that needs doing is spending rather more time introducing adolescents to the wide range of jobs out there, and have actual practitioners of such jobs explain what it is that they do, and how you need to train to get there. My mother used to have speakers come in to her class of 13-year-olds weekly, and countless children ended up learning about things they had never heard of.

Kevin Milligan
Kevin Milligan
2 years ago

The working class tend to be street-smart but not elite-smart. Changing the processes that benefit the posh when it comes to access to elite roles is one approach. Providing mentoring and support to help better navigate the processes is another. No one is saying that doctors and barristers aren’t highly competent or undeserving of their success. It’s about widening opportunity.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Only 5% went to Uni or any HE up to the 1970s and it only slowly went up from there. Poor kids paid rich kids’ fees. Clearly a dumb target for 50% to Uni was stupid. Far more should have been done for the non uni kids, starting with scrapping GCSEs which allow kids ( including arts uni students) to drop all STEM at 16.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
2 years ago

Schools and parents. Many working class kids, don’t even know that barristers, doctors,surgeons, lawyers journalists,psychologists, philosophers, concert pianists and artists exist let alone that they could become one. Even if they show aptitude, they need a home with encouraging parents and a place to study. The cleaner at my wife’s school has two kids who have both become doctors, the parents are the sort of white working class, I assumed had been lost 50 years ago. It’s a minor miracle.

Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

Many working class kids, don’t even know that barristers, doctors,surgeons, lawyers journalists,psychologists, philosophers, concert pianists and artists exist let alone that they could become one.”
I’m fairly sure that doctors are up there with teachers, police officers and train drivers in the “jobs that children have heard of” category.

John McGibbon
John McGibbon
2 years ago

I would imagine that in the event medicine, law or journalism realise that they have an issue, the solution will be a diversity drive seeking out people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, but those they seek out will have specific ethnic heritages or certain shaped genitalia. There will be no room for poor, white boys.

Last edited 2 years ago by John McGibbon
Mark Kerridge
Mark Kerridge
2 years ago

I’m not bothered in the slightest what social class a doctor or a barrister comes from, only that they are competent. Journalism and media are more of a concern but not by much since the power of the MSM to control narratives has been diluted by the internet ( here we are ). Of far greater concern is the posh domination of finance / banking and insurance etc. Who hasn’t met a massively mediocre posh boy (or girl ) who works as a fund manager or similar ? But I suppose if it wasn’t for unearned income they’d hardly have any at all.

Last edited 2 years ago by Mark Kerridge
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Kerridge

I think going forward I’m going to be more interested in where my doctor did his A Levels and what grades he got than in where he got his degree.
If he got into medical school with BBB, I suspect social engineering to be at work and I’ll find somebody else.
When I was at university the mode degree class was a 2:ii, earned by about 45%. Firsts and Thirds were about 5% each, speshes and passes another 2 to 3 % and the other 40% were 2:i.
Nowadays it’s something like 70% 2:i.
The reason university degree classes have been dumbed down these last 20 years is because so many duds are being let in because socialism. They’re not good enough to get a decent degree, even with foundation courses offered to them, so standards are lowered accordingly.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago

Most of the working classes have narrower horizons and lesser aspirations, begetting kids with the same narrownesses, surrounded by peers with the same limitations, jammed into schools which are an enotional ferment where teachers are barely able to cope with behaviour management, let alone broadening visions, for all but a very few. Once upon a time, grammar schools were a way of getting 20% out of that limited environment, but it was paradoxically a Labour goverrnment that forced most of them to close in favour of the great homogenizer of the comprehensive.

I would be happy if I could talk to the plumber about, oh, the best way to get a fair electoral system, or the effects of the British Empire on the expansion of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Doesn’t matter that he’s a plumber as such, it’s the inquisitive outlook and the emotional maturity that matter. It’s a long project, but giving all kids broader horizons and “pick yourself up, dust yourself off and do it again”-ism is for sure needed.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

The bubble does appear to have shrunk in the media for sure. A family and network diagram may underline e.g. that we now have to listen to Alan Coren’s kids babbling on in the Beeb and beyond.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

The Coren kids illustrate what I suspect is a universal trait: The offspring of the talented revert to the mean. It is presumably true of the offspring of the fabulously dim.

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

Erm… Who are Coren and his kids??

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I was going to make the point that social media means that even if one generation of luvvies hands the job to the next, no one is watching anymore. They are watching something on YouTube instead.

But you made the point more eloquently. Coren who?

Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Hahahaha, but just to be clear, I have really no idea who they are. I am not trying to be clever.
I even Google it, but I am none the wiser. I have found a guy in his 50s, but with young children, so it can’t be him.

Edit: the guy I have found is the son, NOT the father.
Anyway, never heard of them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrea X
Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Alan Coren: Giles Coren, Victoria Coren Mitchell
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Coren

Last edited 2 years ago by Mike Doyle
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt B

Nobody ever makes the connection between nepotism in the media and the decline of traditional media. It’s always blamed on the internet, but what if the mediocrity of journalists is the reason?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Could also be the arrival of journalism that consists of little more than a personal opinion. I would dispute their right to be called journalists, when columnists seems more apt.
Where did all our non biased reporters go?
It irritates me beyond belief, as I want to read facts, not someone else’s opinion skewing the story.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Perhaps the most useless blob in opinion journalism is Bryony Gordon, whose output consists literally entirely of articles about herself. It comes as no surprise to learn that her mother used to be editor of the Daily Express. A substantial chunk of even broadsheet writing now consists of similarly vacuous females – Hannah Betts, Stacey Duguid, Katie Glass – with nothing to say and no discernible talent other than being able to write 1,000 words without saying anything.
This is not quite the same as the BBC filter, where the story chosen and its presentation are all based on the Guardian’s worldview, but it’s another facet of the same issue – namely that journalists imagine we need to hear their opinions to know what to make of the facts.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

As the years roll by, I find myself less and less willing too condemn the french revolution out of hand.

Last edited 2 years ago by Terry Needham
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago

Sarka, BTL commentator in the Guardian, pointed to the example of Czechoslovakia under communism. For a generation there was strong government pressure against the children of the bourgeoisie, and in favour of children of industrial workwers, when it came to education. And after that generation, universities were still dominated by the children of people with a university education. Whether it is genes or culture at work (I favour the latter), it sounds like the mechanism is too strong to get rid of. At best we can modulate it.

BTW, we should remember that the post-war period was unique. The ranks of the educated swelled enormously, so that there was room for lots and lots of people from non-academic backgrounds *and also* for all the children of the incumbents. Now we can no longer increase the number of highly educated jobs, we have to deal with the mechanisms that drive these things.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rasmus Fogh
Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago

And the point of this article is?
We could also say the same of the children of the working classes, who also tended to follow on in their parents footsteps. Nepotism is not restricted to those whom the author deems “posh”. “Jobs for the boys” exists at every level.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Er – if you follow in your fathers footsteps and become a street cleaner I don’t think many of us would consider that nepotism – unless jobs of any sort were vanishingly rare.
what an odd comment

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Mick Schumacher? Kasper Schmeichel? Jacques Villeneuve?

Nepotism?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

As a counter point, would ending the father-to-son effect (to the extent it exists) necessarily make things better in all respects?

I recall a conversation witrh someone who had been a partner in a top-class law firm. His made this observation, when comparing how people made their career choices when he was young with how people made their career choices, say, forty years later.

Formerly, young people chose a career because they thought they would be well suited to it according to temperament and aptitude. This was often influenced by what they had learned about their father’s occupation.

But latterly, young people chose whatever occupation they thought would pay most handsomely.

So – although I don’t want to be treated by Tim Nice-But-Dim – I might prefer the doctor who chose the line of work knowing about it from his or her parent, rather than someone who just wanted to maximise earnings.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
2 years ago

There are so many reasons that posh people pursue posh professions. First of all they feel entitled (in a good way) and have aspirations that they go and pursue. They have also heard of these posh jobs and know people who do them. It makes sense to them to go for it. They probably also finished school with a better education and qualifications than their working-class peers and they then also have the financial stability to go spend more time and money pursuing their life goals. People of less means need to go get a job now and earn some money.

Richard Riheed
Richard Riheed
2 years ago

The author brings in the KPMG example of recruiting more working class people. Surely this begs the question, why do we need more accountants? The world is swarming with them. I have met lots of them in my time. Some are extremely nice, humble honest individuals, some are venal and corrupt. Some offer constructive guidance and help, some simply shift money from one tax haven to another. All of them make a very good living – good for them. But can we thin them out please?

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Riheed

…zigackly !!

David Lonsdale
David Lonsdale
2 years ago

Some years back my local comprehensive educated daughters and I were invited to our local Public School careers evening, since the girls had achieved well at GCSE. We felt out of our depth as so many of the reps manning the stands publicising various professions were obviously focused on the very well presented and confidently (and loudly) well-enunciating parents and off-spring. It was upon over-hearing a rep telling one of these parents that ” A course at our college (of law) will put your son onto the inside curve for a prominent position in the legal profession” (the fees were eye-watering) that I felt it was time to go home.
Since then, I have had another child doing part of their education at a private school since said comprehensive couldn’t support their special needs. I have to say that the private school delivered everything we asked for and more, and the resulting hole in my retirement savings was worth it!

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

I don’t think it is surprising if some children may naturally follow their parents’ in choosing a career. Various of my ancestors had father following son. That isn’t to say wealth and private education don’t make a difference. In one bank I worked for almost everyone in our department went to Oxford or Cambridge (but were 50:50 privately or state school educated (as I was). In another bank I worked at we weren’t all graduates but almost everyone British went to a prestigious public school. As a final point, with regard the preponderance of privately educated lawyers and doctors, I would love to know the absolute figures. When I worked as a lawyer in a relatively large and prestigious firm, most of my colleagues seemed to be educated at state schools.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

In the 1980s the first question at an interview at medical school was whether the interviewee had any doctors in the family. Is that still the case?
Newspapers have changed. The internet has destroyed local papers, the traditional training ground for young journalists. The working class person can no longer point to experience in local papers when competing with an Oxbridge graduate for a position with a national paper. The nationals have changed too. Far fewer reporters and many more commentators. Working for a national no longer means standing out in the cold waiting for news of an industrial dispute.

Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
2 years ago

More tendentious rot. Parents need to encourage children. Children need to be challenged and stretched by teachers who make them want to work. Wittering about privilege achieves nothing. Blair’s priorities were supposed to be education, education, education. The result? The blob and the leftie teaching unions are failing our young people.

Susan Marshall
Susan Marshall
2 years ago

It doesn’t only apply to the top professions and upper classes. It abounds throughout society which is why we don’t fight it. In every walk of life you are more likely to follow in your father or mother’s footsteps. Even when it comes to supermarket work, there are families that dominate the jobs. Or take our local hospital, the admin staff appointment system is full of nepotism.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Susan Marshall

I don’t think following mum into shelf stacking at Asda is what most people consider nepotism. Are you seriously trying to justify inherited privilege on that basis?

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think a closed shop still operates in e.g. train/tube driving

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

Tim Nice-but-Dim still runs quite a lot of Britain.

Is that true? In my experience (I worked legal and financial services circles), that ended decades ago.

Even if he was in that line of work because his father had been before him, Tim nevertheless had to be up to the mark. Nice but dim wouldn’t be tolerated.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

It’s an urban myth popular among socialists who know nothing of which they speak.
It’s up there with the one about the City being full of ex-public schoolboys. It’s not, it’s actually full of foreigners, because all the City cares about money and making more of it. They don’t care who your dad is or where you were at school. If it made money to hire minorities they’d do it, if trading desks made more money advised by astrologers they’d hire astrologers.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

It’s an urban myth popular among socialists

As well as Dominic Cummings, whose opinion on them is well known, and for many of us rings frighteningly true.
A guy from the RAF I shared an MBA class with described the “pillock” effect in the military. The ranks get filled with “people like us” in peacetime – but they get moved sideways to make room for talent if there’s a war on.
Interestingly it was the military who showed an early interest in IQ tests as a background independent way of identifying natural talent.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

As a student I applied to join the RAF and went on a Biggin Hill selection to be aircrew. At the time they thought I needed to grow up and ‘please reapply in two years’. I just joined up as an airman thinking I could get in through the backdoor if I showed some commitment. Foolish boy. During the summer holidays I got a job driving a van. On one of the various form filling exercises I put down ‘van driver’ as ‘previous occupation’. My mother was livid.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Zorro Tomorrow

Did you have a career in the RAF, then?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

Early IQ/aptitude/attitude testing at schools, regular reviews of this, plus streaming into specialisms and providing support where needed. Some kids may have the iq but would rather kick a ball around or have attention span too short for the dedication it takes to be a doctor.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

I think it’s more a case of some seed falling on stony ground. For a whole lot of reasons, including not really fitting in, it’s quite tough for bright working class kids to succeed. I think that unless you’ve grown up with that, it’s really hard to appreciate. In my experience, although they know there are “bad homes”, most middle class people take their own childhood experience to be entirely normal and typical. It isn’t.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

Given some of the comments, it would be interesting to know what the outcomes should be if intelligence was controlled for. I think IQ would be a reasonable proxy for this, given the large numbers. If the whole thing was “fair”, what should the outcomes look like.
I’d also be curious to know if those from working class backgrounds who succeed are more intelligent, or have personality differences to those from middle class backgrounds. Are they brighter, tougher, harder working? If they are succeeding against the odds you might expect this.

Last edited 2 years ago by David Morley
Amy Malek
Amy Malek
2 years ago

Not living in the UK, I’m not privy to the whys and wherefores of who scales the ladder and who doesn’t.
The theory that doctors breed doctors and lawyers breed lawyers is on its surface a plausible one.
However, across the Pond it is the Asian students who secure the Valedictorian and Salutatorian positions across the board:. regardless of the high school setting.
They are the ones for whom Rice University (extremely selective school) in Houston bestows full academic scholarships upon.
Which is necessary as many of the parents will be attending secondary school graduation ceremonies in aprons covered in sweet and sour sauce from their Mom and Pop diners.
Frankly, many Asian students are willing to make the grade in STEM even if their English is not fluent.
I suspect the only way is to test if the intelligence gene passed on from immigrant parents in order to see if there is true continuity.
However, the numbers which matter: GPA and college admission scores are the ones that the students send into the stratosphere.
BTW I am Caucasian.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago
Reply to  Amy Malek

Really worthwhile input, thank you.
in terms of IQ, East Asians do seem to have an advantage, though it is relatively marginal and I doubt if it accounts for the whole difference in success. What it perhaps does show is that cultural and parental attitudes play a big role in enabling bright kids to succeed.
Controversial I know, but I suspect that bright white and black British kids (especially boys) are held back by similar factors. They underachieve for their intelligence.

Amy Malek
Amy Malek
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Thanks for the positive feedback.
I stated what I did with some trepidation that I might be labeled a racist of sorts.
But it’s quite an observable phenomenon in the US.

John Hicks
John Hicks
2 years ago

“Posh”. – Port side out, starboard side Home? Apparently the best side of the ship when travelling to India during the pretentious years of British rule. Although their societal influence has been considerable, I would doubt POSHNESS as driver for following a parent’s profession. This discussion mentions a few.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
2 years ago

Mmmmm….where is the evidence James, that personal professional services must be better from a consumer point of view, if the number of duly qualified hoi polloi reflected their percentage of the population? There has already been substantial change in the professions, especially legal practice, along the gender axis, but the jury is out on whether that has had any broader public benefit.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

It’s astounding how complacent some Unherd contributors are on this issue. Perhaps it’s a bit too close to home!

Just ask yourself, is this country the best governed and administered in the world? Are our institutions, overwhelmingly run by people from a narrow background, run particularly competently?

Everything we have seen in the past few years shows that it is not, not by a long mile. We are very far from getting the best people into influential positions.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

It’s complicated. ( Warning- post contains generalisations but based on reading and varied work in education for 40 yrs).The infrastructure of opportunity is hard to develop outside London. I believe almost no state school kids get to Oxbridge from ‘the North’ and working class kids like to stick around family on their city/town so limit themselves. Another factor- working class kids and families live month to month. You work to pay the bills. Posh kids can try things out for a while because there’s 3 or 4 generations of wealth and contacts there. None of this is fair but you can’t legislate it away. It might seem perverse but we should scrap GCSE. It paradoxically permits dropping STEM at 16 for many ( including hapless arts and humanities degree students). This cuts many off from tech jobs- I don’t mean sales etc in tech I mean making and doing tech). The early exam factory in schools also stymies sport etc. Have entrepreneurial skills and Duke of Edinburgh for all. Kids would be far happier and more world of work oriented. Academic A Levels of course with fewer going to Uni- more into high quality vocational.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago

If we stick to the technical professions you discuss; law and medicine.
I’d imagine that yes, you’re more likely to enter those professions if there is a familial history.
But what your analysis ignores is whether there is any inheritance of good (or smart) genes.