Comment: Posh 'post turtles' and the UK's weird class system
It can be awkward, unfashionable and a little parochial to talk about class in the UK. Even the word itself conjures up images of black and white newsreels of miners’ strikes, student rallies and dogeared Communist Manifestos.
And nothing can shut down a polite political discussion like it. The mere mention of class has the power to compel politicians and journalists alike to start reenacting Monty Python’s classic ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch: “We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o'clock in the morning, clean the bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in-week out.”
I’ve been guilty of this too. I enjoy telling some of the well-heeled folk I meet in my day-to-day life about my first job as a labourer on a building site (that lasted about a week), or exaggerating the hardships faced during my (actually very comfortable) childhood in working-class Carlisle, just south of the border.
It can be a bit of fun, making light of the different, almost alien cultures of different classes. I remember my friends at university arguing over which was better – a Rayburn or an Aga. I had no idea what either of those things were, and I’m still not 100 per cent sure, if I’m honest.
But there’s a serious edge to Britain’s weird class system – and that’s the difference in opportunities we face.
For all the talk of diversity in the workplace, with access schemes and mentorships for women and ethnic minorities, it would surprise many people to learn that the biggest indication of lifetime achievement and health is actually your parents’ occupations.
More than half (56 per cent) of UK women from professional and managerial backgrounds (whose parents did those types of jobs) go on to do those same jobs, according to ONS Labour Force Survey figures from 2018. The figure for men, 63 per cent, is higher. But the percentage of working-class women in professional or managerial jobs is just 33 per cent, and for men 35 per cent – showing that although gender disadvantages social mobility, your parent’s occupation is much more important.
The same plays out for ethnicity: 60 per cent of white people with professional parents work in professional jobs, and the same figure for ethnic minorities is 56 per cent. For working-class white people, however, just 34 per cent work in professional jobs – the exact same percentage of working-class ethnic minorities who go on to professional careers.
The consequence of these statistics is two-fold. Firstly, we have people in law, politics, journalism and business who may have been elevated above their abilities simply because they had a head start getting there, and two, they might not be very good. The classic ‘post turtle’ stuck on a fence: “You know he didn't get up there by himself. He doesn't belong there; you wonder who put him there; he can't get anything done while he's up there; and you just want to help the poor, dumb thing down."
Secondly, there’s a wealth of talent and intelligence that is overlooked. As a simple analogy, imagine only picking a national sports team from the seven per cent of people who attended private schools.
The Ruperts and Henrys of the UK would be trounced – it actually goes a long way to explaining why Scotland and England fare so poorly in rugby, comparative to their size, given that the sport is concentrated in fancy, fee-charging schools, while Wales, where the game transcends class, punches well above its weight.
The problem is summed up perfectly by Stephen Jay Gould, an American scientist who was sick of people debating over what caused Einstein’s genius: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
It can feel uncomfortable to endlessly debate class, but in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, it needs to be at the heart of any future government policy to alleviate the squeeze.