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Glass Ceilings in the UK
July 21, 2009 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Allan Milburn MP has just published a report [pdf] on social exclusion from the professions in the UK. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian newspaper opines. The Guardian has a few problems on that score of its own however.
posted by pharm (56 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
A family friend sued the foreign office. She lost. Her description of working there was particularly depressing.
posted by chunking express at 6:56 AM on July 21, 2009


Last two links are the same?
posted by Artw at 6:59 AM on July 21, 2009


Yeah, but the latter is to a specific comment. The Guardian has a weird comments system.
posted by pharm at 7:04 AM on July 21, 2009


Was the comment deleted?
posted by chillmost at 7:05 AM on July 21, 2009


Oh. wait. The Guardian editors have deleted the comment!
posted by pharm at 7:05 AM on July 21, 2009


Life is just a big darwinian struggle to see which gene pools can best rape society. As among any dimension there will be natural variation and positive feedback effects. The West is only different in that it does not explicitly implement a caste system, but does allow those few genetic flukes with the appropriate phenotypic capacity to rise through the ranks, and such poster boys are advertised relentlessly to justify the exponentially increasing wealth concentrations.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:06 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ugh. I could extract the list out of my browser cache, however the gist is that a large proportion of Guardian writers went to Oxford (with another tranche having gone to Cambridge).
posted by pharm at 7:13 AM on July 21, 2009


If journalists want to do something about social mobility and the professions, they should stop writing about it and start offering ways into the media that don't involve working for free in the most expensive cities in the world.

Unsurprisingly, Guardian staff are overwhelmingly upper-middle class. Funny, that.
posted by mippy at 7:16 AM on July 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


pharm: what was the comment about? Now I'm curious about why the Guardian would delete something that clearly interested some of us here.
posted by crapmatic at 7:19 AM on July 21, 2009


Probably on similar lines
posted by mippy at 7:21 AM on July 21, 2009


Since it is part of your post, it would be nice to have the whole thing and not just the gist.
posted by ninebelow at 7:23 AM on July 21, 2009


Here we go:
I think that this is as comprehensive as the Guardian's Oxbridge List is going to get for the time being. Where I've been able identify which uni they went to, but not the exact college, I've used 'A. N. Other College', Thank you to everyone who contributed
Martin Kettle : Balliol College, Oxford
George Monbiot : Brasenose College, Oxford
Jonathan Freedland : Wadham College, Oxford
Catherine Bennett : Hertford College, Oxford
Zoe Williams : Lincoln College, Oxford
Tanya Gold : Merton College, Oxford
Marina Hyde : Christ Church, Oxford
Bidisha Bandyopadhyay : St Edmund Hall, Oxford
Melanie Phillips : St Anne's College, Oxford
Emily Bell : A. N. Other College, Oxford
Allegra Stratton : Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Peter Bradshaw : A. N. Other College, Cambridge
David Mitchell : Peterhouse, Cambridge
Riazat Butt : A. N. Other College, Oxford
David Shariatmadari : King's College, Cambridge
Timothy Garton Ash : St. Antony's College, Oxford
Simon Tisdall : Downing College, Cambridge
Andrew Osborn : Oriel College, Oxford
Jane Martinson : A. N. Other College, Cambridge
John Hooper : St Catharines College, Cambridge
Ian Black : A.N. Other College, Cambridge
Sam Leith : Magdalen College, Oxford
Peter Preston : St John's College, Oxford
Andrew Rawnsley : Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Simon Jenkins : St John's College, Oxford
Alexander Chancellor : Trinity Hall, Cambridge
Alan Rusbridger : Magdalene College, Cambridge
Paul Sagar : Balliol College, Oxford
Richard Norton-Taylor : Hertford College, Oxford
Clare Armitstead : St Hilda's College, Oxford
Janine Gibson : St John's College, Oxford
Martin Wainwright : Merton College, Oxford
Victoria Coren : St Johns College, Oxford
Simon Hoggart : King's College, Cambridge
Nick Cohen : Hertford College, Oxford
Ben Goldacre : Magdalen College, Oxford
Seumas Milne : Balliol College, Oxford
Rowenna Davis : Balliol College, Oxford
Hadley Freeman : St Anne's College, Oxford
Paul Lewis : King's College, Cambridge
John Harris : Queen's College, Oxford
Madeleine Bunting : Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Jackie Ashley : St Anne's College, Oxford
Polly Toynbee : St Anne's College, Oxford
How many of these people got their first jobs because of who they or their parents knew or because of which university or school they went to? How many entered journalism in the first instance on work experience or unpaid internships organised by those contacts?
So is the Graun going to do it's bit to improve social mobility, will they be going for that kitemark or will they continue in their present mould until they are the last bastion of hypocritical old school tie privelege, bleating about social mobility, diversity and inclusivity while operating a hidden caste system that protects the scions of the upper middle class metropolitan elite from ever having to breathe the same air as those that they lecture?


I'm not sure what proportion of the Guardian regular contributor list that lot make up, but it's a sizable chunk of it regardless.
posted by pharm at 7:27 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Ian Bone of Class War fame did a list of public school Guardian journos a while back (think he might have nicked it from Private Eye):
Editor Alan Rusbridger (Cranleigh); political editor Patrick Wintour
(Westminster); leader writer Madeleine Bunting (Queen Mary’s,
Yorkshire); policy editor Jonathan Freedland (University College
School); columnist Polly Toynbee (Badminton); executive editor Ian
Katz (University College School); security affairs editor Richard
Norton Taylor (King’s School, Canterbury); arts editor-in-chief Clare
Margetson (Marlborough College); literary editor Clare Armitstead
(Bedales); public services editor David Brindle (Bablake); city editor
Julia Finch (King’s High, Warwick).; environment editor John Vidal (St
Bees); fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley (City of london School for
Girls); G3 editor Janine Gibson (Walthamstow Hall); northern editor
Martin Wainwright (Shreswbury); and industrial editor David Gow (St
Peter’s, York); Seumas Milne, an Old Wykehamist (Winchester College)
and at Balliol; the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley (Rugby School and
Cambridge U); George Monbiot (Stowe); Zoe Williams (Godolphin and
Latymer)

Seumas Milne incidentally is the son of former BBC DG Alisdair Milne
Milburn's report touches on themes that the Sutton Trust and others have been banging on about for some time.
posted by Abiezer at 7:29 AM on July 21, 2009


Doh, should have previewed.
posted by Abiezer at 7:30 AM on July 21, 2009


OH SNAP?!
posted by chunking express at 7:30 AM on July 21, 2009


Oh, and you can add Alexis Petridis to that list as well.
posted by pharm at 7:31 AM on July 21, 2009


Thanks very much for posting the list, pharm. It certainly doesn't invalidate the Guardian's opinions, but it provides useful background. People who live in glass houses should think about remodeling.
posted by languagehat at 7:33 AM on July 21, 2009


Of course, you can argue that going to Oxbridge in and of itself isn't a signifier of class privilege but when so many of your workforce is drawn from such a small pool & that pool itself draws more tha 50% of its intake from fee-paying schools then you shouldn't be surprised when people start asking pointed questions.
posted by pharm at 7:35 AM on July 21, 2009


So it's good to identify which journos went to exclusive schools, but bad to identify which ones are Joos, amirite?
posted by orthogonality at 7:35 AM on July 21, 2009


In fairness, Ben Goldacre began (and continues) his professional life as a doctor - were I keen to enter medicine or law, I would have been more keen to get into Oxford or Cambridge.

I think what's more pertinent is the public school background. Although there are obvious class factors at play regarding Oxbridge entrance (anecdata: I had an interview at Trinity Hall in 1999. First question: 'What does your father do?' Second question: 'And where does he do that?') in theory anyone can apply for a place there. Not so the public school system.

I work in advertising and almost every male in my office went to public school. However, my housemate classes herself as working-class despite having gone to a girl's day school - she lived in an area which was very rural and therefore a lot of bursaries existed.
posted by mippy at 7:38 AM on July 21, 2009


So it's good to identify which journos went to exclusive schools, but bad to identify which ones are Joos, amirite?

Ys ur rite hebru bb
posted by mippy at 7:40 AM on July 21, 2009


mippy: Indeed. Some of these are where they are thanks to the quality of their work elsewhere. Germaine Greer is another example (whatever you might think of her work, she has a background & ability to write provocatively that makes her a great source of articles on whatever the current zeitgeist happens to be).

To go back to the original links however, Medicine is another field with similar problems as Journalism.
posted by pharm at 7:42 AM on July 21, 2009


mippy: re your interview. As a state school boy who went to Cambridge, your story makes me sad. Not all the dons are class obsessed snobs, but sadly the stereotype does still exist.
posted by pharm at 7:45 AM on July 21, 2009


For non-UKers it should be noted that "public school" in the UK is equivalent to "private school" in the US.
posted by vacapinta at 7:54 AM on July 21, 2009


So it's good to identify which journos went to exclusive schools, but bad to identify which ones are Joos, amirite?
Certainly. The point about a class analysis of society is not to demonise this or that individual who may be among the minority who benefit, but to demonstrate that elites do indeed reproduce themselves. Some people are comfortable with that as a facet of social organisation, many are not; some people deny class exists in a meaningful way any more. It's basic politics; for me, that class not only continues to exist but has in fact become increasingly entrenched after a brief burst of social mobility after WWII puts the lie to any claims that liberal capitalism can deliver a meritocracy of equal opportunity if not equal outcomes, a banner under which it has been sold to us.
No similarity whatsoever to racial or ethnic categorisation; quite obviously the criteria are entirely different. There have been signs of a tendency to reduce class to identity politics, with hand-wring about "the white working class" (as in the BBC series of that name earlier in the year) but the upshot of that IMO will be to feed groups like the BNP who self-appoint themselves as representatives of the same.
posted by Abiezer at 7:56 AM on July 21, 2009


I didn't think Cambridge was right for what I wanted to study - I applied for SPS and wanted to branch out from what I was then doing for my A-levels to further explore sexual politics, feminism and the links between popular culture and society. The impression I got from the interview material sent to me and my interview with the don suggested that was not the place to do it. It wasn't a traditional subject, and the 'newer' universities (by which I mean the Russell Group institution which I attended) seemed to have picked up these areas fairly well. I believe that the Cambridge English course doesn't do much modern literature at all, for example, but is pretty much the best place to go for Elizabethan writing.

A lot of people who have not read The Female Eunuch aren't aware that what it largely is is an exploration of history and literature.
posted by mippy at 7:57 AM on July 21, 2009


More from the Graun on middle-class hacks.
posted by fightorflight at 8:08 AM on July 21, 2009


I blame this on the English love of concealed agency and passive voice. Classism occurs. Just not to anybody or by anybody so something should be done just not by anybody to anybody or for anybody and probably not right now or later but it should be done.
posted by srboisvert at 8:09 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


mippy: I knew SPS people doing that kind of thing, but how much they fitted into the department as a whole I couldn't tell you. I'm certainly not qualified to opine on the quality of the English department either, although famously the Philosophy department in Cambridge tried to prevent (IIRC) the English department giving Derrida an honorary PhD.
posted by pharm at 8:12 AM on July 21, 2009


Geography was irrelevant. In 1967, I moved to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in Blackburn and the editorial staff there were also drawn from the working class. (I think one sub editor, also from "down south", may have qualified as a member of the middle classes).

My dad was an architect in Blackburn. We were seen as 'posh' by people I knew, but once I moved to London I realised just how working class I was. Local media doesn't always correlate with the national outlets. I really wanted to do my MA in Broadcast Journalism, but I couldn't afford a) the £4000 fees b) the cost of living c) the cost of travel to work placements. I could have taken a year, lived at home and tried to save up, but then where I grew up you would be very lucky to get a job paying £12k a year. Greenslade makes a good point - there's now a dearth of non-graduate trainee places for those wanting to get into journalism (the rest of the professions traditionally were graduate access only).
posted by mippy at 8:37 AM on July 21, 2009


Anna Raccoon says it's all about pulling one's finger out

This was, of course, before grants were abolished and loans came in.
posted by mippy at 8:41 AM on July 21, 2009


What terrifies me about the Milburn report is how little a person's chances seem to depend on their own talent/ability in the UK, and how much they seem to depend on their parents' income and will to engineer good life chances for their kids and guide them to a position of maximum opportunity. Because the factors that determine access to the elite start as far back as age 11, and because opportunities for lifelong learning and non-conventional entry are relatively limited, you need to chart your path early. Rather, your parents need to chart it for you, because by the time you're old enough to make your own decisions about what you want to do with your life, it's too late to take effective action. You only get one chance, and that chance isn't even yours.

I still cling to the American belief that You Can Change Your Life, so this scares the bejesus out of me. I love my parents but would rather have been put into a car with a drunk driver than had my ultimate life chances placed squarely in their hands.
posted by stuck on an island at 8:53 AM on July 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Because the factors that determine access to the elite start as far back as age 11

Those parents that move to get their kids into the 'right' primary school would argue it goes back even further. Anecdata: my sister and brother went to non-denominational schools thanks to my parents moving mid-school year. When I was born, they went to get me baptized and the priest refused to do so because of this. So even as a newborn I was denied the chance to join THE CABAL.

If my sister and brother went to Ampleforth I could be in Opus Dei by now.
posted by mippy at 9:03 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stuck on an island: from the Toynbee article: "The report shows graphically how the only countries that nurture talent regardless of class are those where incomes and lifestyles are most equal. The Nordics do best, because the ladder from top to bottom is short: it's easy to climb and the social penality for slipping down is less. The US has the least mobility and the steepest ladders, despite the persistence of the anyone-can-make-it American dream. Britain lives with the same delusion" [emphasis mine]
posted by Infinite Jest at 9:06 AM on July 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I know one Grundian regular journo. Sounds like a fucking horrible place to work with some complete hatstands.
posted by i_cola at 9:24 AM on July 21, 2009


There was this thing, which was divisive and flawed and discriminatory. Called the 11 Plus. Gave a massive chunk of the working class a chance to move up. Look at the composition of the cabinets of Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher and before. You may notice rather more children of miners, taxi drivers et al than today. Grammar schools gave people from all classes a chance to compete with and join the elite. As they were closed down by both Labour and Tory governments, admission to Russell Group (the UK Ivy League) universities and top jobs began to skew even more towards the private school elite. These days they are seen as a third rail and vote loser by all parties - and the middle classes and above are very happy to keep them in the past. Because today schools in the UK are selective not by academic merit but by parental income (for private education and tutors) and house price (the most expensive areas have great free schools, funnily enough). We trashed the 11 Plus for the '£11 Grand Plus' test. How is this fairer than the crudest method of academic selection possible?

All the silly mentoring programmes and reports in the world will not make up for the criminal, structural damage of getting rid of the one ladder up for all and then adding insult to injury with US style tuition fees for University. I listened to various stuffed shirts and champagne socialist dinosaurs pontificate about this on Radio 4, looked out the window at the parentless children on their way (or not) to the local, racially segregated sink school and thought of the obscene futility of it all. The 11 Plus was crude, it mispredicted, it was divisive but its results speak for themselves. You can draw a graph charting the decline of mobility against the loss of Grammar Schools. A crime. Read more (and better argued than I can!) here.
posted by The Salaryman at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


And what pharm posted. A roll call of hypocrisy indeed...
posted by The Salaryman at 10:05 AM on July 21, 2009


Oh and what mippy said applies to all media, entertainment, politics etc here. You need to work for free in very expensive cities for a very long time to get in. Thus they are becoming dynastic and even more elite than before.
posted by The Salaryman at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2009


Ugh. I could extract the list out of my browser cache, however the gist is that a large proportion of Guardian writers went to Oxford (with another tranche having gone to Cambridge).

Yeh, I remember once making a list of people in the front bench teams of the three main political parties, and the results were only a little bit better. Going to either of those two universities is really the main way into the top of British (or at least English) society as an adult. It can be a great leveller, as I understand that even working-class people who go there still receive the same benefits, but getting there is the hard part. I don't believe for a minute that equality of access exists even if you get to their door.

My nice little anecdote is actually also about (nearly) applying for SPS at Cambridge. I am a mature student, and had to take a course to qualify for a university place. The course had sent somebody to Cambridge about ten years previously, but the lead teacher was retiring and this was his last year. I pretty much got full marks on everything I did, and he suggested that I should consider applying for Cambridge, and more specifically X College. I changed my plans to do this, even the course I was wanting to study, because I knew that going to Cambridge was a big deal. However, when it got to the separate Cambridge application, he told me to let him know once I had sent it off. He quite openly said he had a friend who worked at X College, and he would ask his friend to 'look out for it'. I shied away from completing the application, and plumped for a Russell Group instead. I don't know how much he really could have bent the system, but I didn't want to be part of it.
posted by Sova at 10:32 AM on July 21, 2009


I think that's fair comment about the grammar schools, The Salaryman, but wasn't the problem more that the secondary moderns merely attempted to churn out disciplined factory fodder, not that the grammar schools weren't offering decent education to those of academic ability? That is, the 11-plus gave some access to opportunity but condemned many to limited horizons. Not that I'm claiming the comprehensive schools have worked, for the reasons you set out.
posted by Abiezer at 10:59 AM on July 21, 2009


I got the sense from my family friends who still live in London that if your kids didn't get into the good grammar schools they were more or less fucked. And so all of my friends who remained in London worked like dogs so they could get into fancy grammar schools. I didn't realize they had got rid of the 11 plus. (I guess it's just used as an entrance exam for some subset of schools?) It seems kind of ridiculous to base a childs entire future -- more or less -- on exams they take when they're 11.
posted by chunking express at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2009


Having been on the periphery of the Oxbridge applications system from the other side, I believe that one of the big problems that Oxbridge in general has is that the brighter non-public schools just don't apply in the first place. There are some programs in place to try and encourage state-school kids to apply (Target schools in Cambridge was running when I was there) but they don't really seem to be having much effect.

There seem to be cultural issues in play that mean that for lots of state school kids, going to Oxbridge simply doesn't enter their world of possibility — it's "not for them".

Stories like mippy's really don't help of course.

There's a wider issue here as well: many careers in the UK now require a degree which never used to. A degree has become the peacock's tail that advertises the applicant's commitment to a professional career, not something that actually trains them for the job in question. The wasted effort by the successful and the missed opportunities for those that would otherwise have succeeded is huge.
posted by pharm at 12:24 PM on July 21, 2009


Infinite Jest: Of course the US is arguably just as bad in different ways -- I'm a long way from doing any Horatio Alger-type blustering about the land of opportunity.

I guess what surprises me about the UK is that here, rigid social stratification affects even the middle classes, a segment of the population I'm used to thinking of as supremely mobile, and has as much to do with a person's origins as it does with their acquirements. Maybe I'm naive for thinking this, but I did get the impression in the US and Canada (where I went to university) that if you got a degree from a good school, didn't require a six-figure salary and weren't afraid of an honest day's work, the world was pretty much your oyster and nobody would give a rat's ass how you held your fork.

In other words: I am an educated middle-class American; lack of social mobility is not something I ever thought would apply to me.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:09 PM on July 21, 2009


I am an educated middle-class American; [FOO ] is not something I ever thought would apply to me.

So sad.
posted by dirty lies at 2:36 PM on July 21, 2009


Because today schools in the UK are selective not by academic merit but by parental income (for private education and tutors) and house price

I went to school under this current government. I went to a school that was walking distance from my home, but here's the interesting thing - the school my brother and sister went to, in the 1980s, was on the edge of a council estate five minutes further away and had dramatically worse results - one of the reasons I didn't go there. My school took a lot of special needs pupils, and as a church school, selected either on religious grounds, or if you weren't religious, whether you had academic needs on one or the other end of the scale. A single sex school would have been disastrous for me, and either way my parents didn't have money to send me.

I don't know a single person who took on tutors, or whose parents moved to go to my school (though some travelled). I think this is a pretty metropolitan thing, where inner-city schools aren't the best. Many pupils don't live in big cities.
posted by mippy at 3:05 PM on July 21, 2009


The veneration of professional work seems to go hand in hand with the denigration of traditional working class jobs where they aren't being outsourced completely to foreign countries. It seems increasingly hard to argue for the dignity and respect of skilled and manual labour when these jobs are shipped off and those employed are exploited to the hilt, yet many people still cling to the idea that they are in some way working class, are "keeping it real" whatever their paychecks. Doesn't the supposed authenticity and "grit" of working class life, as a narrative of personal self development and as a source of convincing urbanity, suggest a big loose end when we talk about social mobility? Whilst its reversal marks widening inequalities and the failure of government to spread opportunities, its logical progression must be a society of gainfully employed professionals enjoying the services of polite boutiques, winebars and museum malls in the ruins of converted industrial monuments; something like the Spitalfields Market regeneration or the Truman Brewery in London, safe, anodyne chains of controlled experiences and exchanges between ambivalent yuppies and token stall owners.

Would social mobility be such an important indicator of equality if working class jobs weren't so dismissed? Would equality be better served by the recognition of our interdependence and the importance of everyone whatever their place? Would you need to clamber up the class ladder if you thought you were making a genuine contribution to society whether you were farming, making steel or building a mine?
posted by doobiedoo at 3:45 PM on July 21, 2009


> Would social mobility be such an important indicator of equality if working class jobs weren't so dismissed?

Yes. Amazingly, not everyone who comes from a "working-class" background is happy in the jobs such a background is presumed to fit them for. Of course working-class jobs shouldn't be dismissed and everyone should be seen as "making a genuine contribution to society"; that doesn't change the fact that people who want to be engineers, astrophysicists, university professors, or presidents should have a chance to do so even if society respects their father's work as a garbageman or farmer.

> I am an educated middle-class American; [FOO ] is not something I ever thought would apply to me.

So sad.


Oh, go soak your head.
posted by languagehat at 4:50 PM on July 21, 2009


If women's work as mothers were fully respected and well compensated, would that mean they should just be happy doing that and not aspire to anything else?
posted by languagehat at 4:51 PM on July 21, 2009


This is was covered on the news the other day with the great news that 50 years ago there was a greater percentage of those from a low income background entering the legal and medical professions (and conversely a lesser percentage from a high income background) than there is now. And that's after ten years of a supposedly 'Labour' government. I found myself quite surprised at how genuinely angry I was about this.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:11 AM on July 22, 2009


(it's my first comment on MeFi, so please be gentle?) :-)

I have to chime in on this. As a member of "Gen X" I've spent my entire life watching my parent's Baby Boomer generation pull the ladder up as they achieved their goals.

Whether it was "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher" I was taught to chant as a child (benefits of going to a junior school in Coventry), or simply watching the GCSE exam introduced as I neared the 14-16 age group that study for it, I have always had the impression that everything that lets a talented person rise out of their parentage has systematically been eliminated.

My father was a postman, my mother a cook (after being a housewife for many years). We weren't poor enough to get benefits, but we weren't rich enough to afford the costs that were imposed at every step without warning. Still, with enough work I could afford to put myself through A Levels (16-18) and then a job selling double-glazing paid for university (at the cost of my soul...).

Honestly? I think it is ignorance that has allowed this situation to develop. The boomers are the largest voting block in UK society and they've forgotten how they got started in life - so it's perfectly fine to systematically remove those supports in the name of increasing access and increasing equality. It's not just the politicians.

Here's a perfect example: banks and universities are only now (nearly a decade (more?) after people started having to pay for university) allowing their customers formerly known as students to break the courses up into chunks so they can earn a wage in the meantime. This is neglect by university graduates who were paid during their holidays towards people who now have to work all year long and keep up with their studies. Simply being able to start and stop their university education would hugely increase the affordability of university - but don't even bother to ask for that at Oxford or Cambridge.

Society is going to reap a very nasty surprise when this plays out in thirty to forty years time. Holding back any group of talented people results in the kinds of frustrations that lead to wrenching change. In extreme cases you end up with people embracing revolution, rather than evolutionary change. One of the reasons that the UK has survived for four-ish centuries without revolution is the elite's ability and habit to compromise and include subversive elements. My opinion is that the Baby Boomer generation simply doesn't see why it should do that anymore. Just watch the behaviour of politicians and leaders in this country...
posted by Hugh Routley at 5:18 AM on July 22, 2009


Yes. Amazingly, not everyone who comes from a "working-class" background is happy in the jobs such a background is presumed to fit them for.

People can aspire to do whatever they want and it's unfair that certain types of professional work are receding into social exclusivity, I'm not denying that. My parents ran a Chinese takeaway which I helped out in when I was younger before getting a place in private school on the Assisted Places Scheme, when I got into cambridge for architecture I only realised later that it would turn out to be one of the most socially exclusive professions in the UK, so I'm well aware of the host of privileges in play at school, in uni and on the job market - solid self confidence, family stability, the bank of mum and dad, the right social circles, familiarity with prospective careers (no one told me it would take half a year's unpaid internship to get into the best firms) - and the aspirations that keep you going. I have no idea how I'd turn out if I hadn't gone to private school.

Maybe then I'm being hypocritical when I argue for more respect for work that I wouldn't willingly do, but my feeling is that whatever the numbers that enter the professional world, there will always be several times more work in manual and skilled labour and there will always be a need for farmers, miners and factory workers, whether they are employed in this country or concentrated in developing countries out of sight. To hold this brute fact of our ugly, messy, material dependency at a remove diminishes the value of the work and since the dismantling of polytechnics in 1992 it seems like the government is actively trying to discourage domestic training in the trades. According to the report the professions account for over 11 million jobs amongst a workforce of 30 million people in the UK, as important as it is to ensure better access to them, it seems as equitable to recognise the importance and value of the other 19 million jobs out there, not to mention the untold amount of labour that we import from abroad.

If women's work as mothers were fully respected and well compensated, would that mean they should just be happy doing that and not aspire to anything else?

I don't prescribe what women should or shouldn't aspire to, but given that many sacrifice their careers to pursue motherhood I bet many would be much happier to know it was a totally respected and valued decision.
posted by doobiedoo at 5:24 AM on July 22, 2009


...its logical progression must be a society of gainfully employed professionals enjoying the services of polite boutiques, winebars and museum malls in the ruins of converted industrial monuments; something like the Spitalfields Market regeneration or the Truman Brewery in London, safe, anodyne chains of controlled experiences and exchanges between ambivalent yuppies and token stall owners... Would you need to clamber up the class ladder if you thought you were making a genuine contribution to society whether you were farming, making steel or building a mine?

Agreed. Why should social mobility be one-directional? Why is professionalism the only thing worth aspiring to? Is it even desirable for everybody to be middle-class? Ideally, isn't social mobility as much about someone from a council estate being free to aspire to a career in medicine as it is about someone from an affluent suburb being free to pursue carpentry, hairdressing or farming, if that's what they want (without the prefatory rigmarole of university degree --> professional success --> period of soul-searching --> eventual "downshifting")? Or even being free (though not obliged) to be a full-time wife and mother?
posted by stuck on an island at 5:43 AM on July 22, 2009


> Maybe then I'm being hypocritical when I argue for more respect for work that I wouldn't willingly do

You're not being hypocritical, you're just mixing up two different things.

1) All kinds of work should be respected, and all workers should get a living wage (including mothers).

2) Everyone should have access to whatever kind of work they like and are suited for, whether that's garage work, teaching, motherhood, farming, or anything else. There should be no artificial barriers placed in the way, though of course life throws up plenty of obstacles nobody can do anything about.
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on July 22, 2009


Here's a perfect example: banks and universities are only now (nearly a decade (more?) after people started having to pay for university) allowing their customers formerly known as students to break the courses up into chunks so they can earn a wage in the meantime. This is neglect by university graduates who were paid during their holidays towards people who now have to work all year long and keep up with their studies. Simply being able to start and stop their university education would hugely increase the affordability of university - but don't even bother to ask for that at Oxford or Cambridge.

I believe Oxbridge strongly discourage taking on a job during termtime - though some of this may be connected with the more intense academic terms. I didn't work through my holidays, partly for health reasons and partly because getting a summer job where my parents lived was impossible (I managed to find a cleaning job in the summer after my A-levels and got a lot of stick there for not wanting to clean as a career too) and needed to work during term-time to get myself through my degree. Paying south-eastern rents would have been harder - I actively chose not to apply to LSE, which I was very keen on doing, because I knew I wouldn't have afforded to study in London on my own.
posted by mippy at 4:17 AM on July 23, 2009


Yeah, Oxbridge terms are 8 weeks & intense. There really isn't time to work as well if you're doing a science/maths subject. You could probably manage it if you were doing English and didn't care much about your grades: scraping by is easier in the arts than the sciences — conversely getting a first in an arts subject from Cambridge was much tougher as I recall.

Having said that, the colleges don't give a stuff about what you do inbetween terms, though some work would probably be a good idea if you want to do well). In my case my college also gave me somewhere cheap to live during the summer when I'd found a summer job in Cambridge working for the British Antarctic Survey. (Which was fun, if not very well paid.)
posted by pharm at 2:08 PM on July 23, 2009


though some of this may be connected with the more intense academic terms.

Compared to other British universities, Cambridge gives you very long holidays (which they call vacations, oddly). You're only there for three 8 week terms in each year as an undergraduate, and there's barely time to read the paper or watch TV, let alone do paid work. I worked most of the summers when I was an undergraduate.

Annecdata: I wasn't asked what my Dad does at the interview (Churchill, 1994).
posted by pw201 at 2:20 PM on July 23, 2009


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