September 13, 2021

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.

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