Civil service posher today than in the 1960s

Yes, Minister: Smug Sir Humphrey Appleby (left) personified the civil service in the 1980s sitcom. © BBC

Is social mobility a myth? The UK civil service is dominated by privately educated Latin speakers, a new report revealed yesterday. For some, it is proof: hard work does not equal success.

The staff at the senior civil service meeting laughed uproariously. Their discussions about how to implement the latest government policy had been a huge success, and now the boss had told a hilarious joke about life in Brussels.

But one woman was not smiling. Kristine stared at her colleagues in confusion. She had no idea what everyone was laughing about – because they were all speaking Latin.

Incredibly, experiences like Kristine’s are far from uncommon.

According to a shocking new report by the Social Mobility Commission, Britain’s top civil service jobs are less accessible to people from working-class backgrounds today than they were in the 1960s.

The numbers are staggering. In 1967, two thirds of all senior civil servants were from privileged homes. Now, this figure stands at 72%.

For working-class employees such as Kristine, rising up the ranks of the civil service is like trying to climb a “velvet drainpipe”. To be successful, civil servants must master an “alienating and intimidating” behavioural code. People who speak with perfect received pronunciation and make jokes about cricket are favoured for the top jobs.

“I used to put on a bit of an accent,” says civil servant Pauline. “Ridiculous and humiliating, when I look back on it.”

But are their stories really that surprising?

Across the Western world today, politicians insist that with enough hard work and determination, anybody can be successful. “Once upon a time, the distribution of power and privilege was determined by birth,” summarises literary critic Stefan Collini. “Now, it is determined by merit.”

“The Britain of the elite is over,” declared former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1997.

“I want Britain to be the greatest meritocracy of the world,” said Theresa May in 2016. “A country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow.”

In the US, politicians from Barack Obama to Donald Trump have spoken of the power of the American dream.

There are many success stories. Apple founder Steve Jobs was born to working-class, immigrant parents. By the age of 23, he was a millionaire. JK Rowling was a single mother living on benefits when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.

But not everyone who works hard will become a multimillionaire, campaigners point out. US professors Mark Rank and Lawrence Eppard believe “the American dream of upward mobility is broken”.

Today, some elite New York preschools have an acceptance rate of just 5% – making them harder to get into than Harvard. In the US, only 8% of children raised in the bottom 20% of income distribution will climb to the top 20% in adulthood.

And the statistics tell a similar story in the UK. In 2018, just 26% of pupils eligible for free school meals went to university – compared to 45% of those who did not receive free meals.

Is social mobility a myth?

Rags to riches

Of course not, say some. The politicians are right: hard work and talent do equal success. The statistics are improving quickly – record numbers of disadvantaged pupils are now being offered university places. Studies show that education is the key to better job prospects and higher lifetime earnings. Every child, no matter the family they were born into, has the opportunity to succeed in life.

Yes, say others. The report on the civil service was named Navigating the Labyrinth for a reason. In theory, everybody has a route to the top. But in reality, for most people the path to success is hidden. Positions of power and privilege are still dominated by the children of the wealthy. Unless there is a complete overhaul of the education system, social mobility will remain a myth forever.

You Decide

  1. Is hard work more important than talent?
  2. Is social class still relevant today?

Activities

  1. What does it mean to be successful? In pairs, write your own definition of the word success. Then list five things you think somebody needs to achieve it.
  2. Last year, Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings called for “misfits and weirdos” to work in the UK civil service. In small groups, come up with your own proposal to reform the civil service and make it more accessible. Then present your idea to the class.

Some People Say...

“Those who are able to climb the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up.”

Chris Hayes (1979 – ), American political commentator

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the word meritocracy was popularised by Michael Young, the author of the 1958 dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young’s novel imagined a society in which top jobs are assigned based upon intelligence and merit, while everyone else is forced into subordinate positions. Over time, resentment grows among the lower classes. The word was later adopted by people who supported the idea, without any of the negative connotations imagined by Young.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds author David Markovits’ argument that it is the success of meritocracy, not its failure, that is the cause of inequality. In his book The Meritocracy Trap, Markovits explains how a group of hardworking, high earning, genuinely meritocratic Americans have risen to the top of US society, leaving others to feel like they have failed. But others point out that parental advantage is still the key to success in America.

Word Watch

Civil service
The civil service helps the government to develop and carry out policies. Civil servants are non-political, remaining in place when political parties enter and leave office.
Social Mobility Commission
A public body appointed by the government. Its aim is to create a UK where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life.
Privileged
The report, based on a survey of more than 300,000 civil servants, defines employees as coming from an advantaged background if their parents have professional or managerial jobs.
Received pronunciation
Often known as the Queen’s English, BBC English or simply RP, received pronunciation is the accent associated with upper and middle class people in southern England.
Meritocracy
The idea that status comes from talent or ability, not privilege or social class.
American dream
The idea that everybody has an equal chance of economic success and happiness in America.
Labyrinth
A maze. In Greek mythology, the Labyrinth was built to house the monstrous Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man creature who fed on human beings.

Subjects

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