Is class the defining feature of the UK’s business, professional and political landscape?
‘How to break into the elite’, Amol Rajan’s indictment of classist Britain that aired on BBC2 Monday the 29th of July, contained some alarming (if not entirely unexpected) stats, such as:
- if you’re from the upper middle class you’re six times more likely than a working class person to land an ‘elite’ job (in law, banking, consultancy)
- someone from a privileged background who graduates with a 2:2 is more likely to land a top job than a working class person with a first
- despite all the hype around inclusion and diversity, there’s a mass of evidence that many City firms, institutions and professions still recruit in their own image: client facing roles tend to be ‘more exclusive’ (code for recruiting only from fee-paying schools) in order to look and sound reassuringly expensive; 70% of people working in Private Equity are privately educated; the BBC and C4 are stuck in a ‘posh bubble’ etc.
At a statistical level, Amol’s argument – that race and class put young people entering the job market at a double disadvantage – is both compelling and depressing.
Confidence: the birthright of the privileged?
But anecdotally the picture he paints is less clear. Extraversion and confidence, he claims, are crucial to bag yourself a top job (a view supported by the report A Winning Personality by Drs de Vries and Rentfrow). But he goes on to argue that kids from privileged backgrounds are more likely to develop these qualities because of lively conversation from an early age round the family dining table, and (by implication) the encouragement to hold and express opinions, that what they think matters, and other such fillips to privilege and entitlement.
Really? I’ve helped countless clients who work in the elite firms that Amol cites. The overwhelming majority of them are highly intelligent, talented and extremely hard-working – there are very few free lunches out there these days! And many are beset with the same lack of confidence and imposter syndrome that Amol would have us believe are the exclusive domain of the underprivileged. Lack of confidence is a classless condition, and it is something that can be worked on and overcome, no matter where you’re from.
And for all the stats, the abiding memory I have of the BBC2 programme is of a young man, Amaan (a kickboxing world champion who is taking a Masters at Imperial, has a first in Economics, a £90 000 debt and a job in McDonald’s), who is painfully tongue-tied in job interviews. To be honest, on the strength of how he comes over in interview, no-one would take him on even if he had ‘Lord’ in front of his name.
You can’t fake it
This is someone who can be helped! And here again I take issue with Amol (sorry! It was a great programme – but there are some things I just can’t agree with and can’t let go unremarked), when he says that ‘soft skills’ coaching is reprehensible because it’s trying to turn Amaan into someone he isn’t. Bad coaching, I would say. Any suggestion that in order to succeed you have to pretend to be something you’re not is highly suspect. If you act a role that isn’t you it makes people uncomfortable and suspicious and they always know, instinctively, even if they can’t quite put their finger on what’s wrong. So it’s absolutely crucial to be the genuine you.
What would transform Amaan’s life – at least in terms of job prospects – would be coaching in how to perform himself, in how to be himself – more – with skill. This will give him the confidence that comes from a very special form of entitlement: not one that’s handed to him by some fluke of birth or upbringing, but an entitlement that comes from his right to be there, as who he is, and to own his space. There’s frankly nothing more honest or liberating – or indeed so needed in today’s corporate world – than that. I have a unique place, and the confidence to be there.
So thanks Amol for a very thought-provoking and moving programme. But let’s not get too depressed: true human qualities and potential will always out, if people have the self-awareness and techniques to present themselves in the best way, as themselves. Question is, once they get to that place, might they make different choices about the sort of career they really want? If they do, it will be the elite firms and institutions that will lose out.
Despite all the focus on Inclusion and Diversity, and the rhetoric around equality of opportunity, social mobility and education as the great democratising leveller, does class still remain the defining feature of the UK’s business, professional and political landscape?