Less of a 'Clegg-up' for the better off
Does opening up career opportunities for all young people mean preventing families using their connections?
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, has launched a stinging attack on the practice of unpaid internships which give the rich an unfair advantage over the poor.
To get into the top professions, having some internships on your CV can make all the difference. Interns on short-term work placements make useful contacts, learn the tricks of the trade, and are perfectly placed to take advantage of later job opportunities.
But companies generally don't pay interns a fee for the work they do. That means that poorer people can't do them – living is expensive, and working for free is difficult when you're trying to pay the rent.
Worse yet, many internships aren't openly advertised at all. Instead, bosses organise them for children of friends and relatives. That means that when it comes to getting an internship, it's not what you know, but who you know that counts.
That's what Clegg wants to change, as part of the government's broader strategy to encourage social mobility in Britain.
The problem is a thorny one. Despite years of effort from politicians, our prospects in life are hugely affected by our social backgrounds. As Clegg said in a speech in 2008: 'These days, a clever, but poor child, will be overtaken at school by a less clever, but wealthier child by the age of six.'
Only 17% of today's medics, 14% of journalists and 2% of judges went to comprehensive schools.
The top professions are still dominated by people with private – and expensive – educations.
Clegg wants to encourage a 'meritocratic' society, where success comes from ability, not social class. But Labour opponents were quick to point out the irony of being lectured on social mobility by a man whose father is a millionaire, and who himself enjoyed a hugely privileged upbringing.
The deputy prime minister was also embarrassed when it was pointed out that he himself had benefited from internships through family connections. His work placement at a Finnish bank was arranged by his father. He was also accused of getting a job at the European Commission through parental influence.
'The whole system was wrong,' Clegg replied. 'I'm not the slightest bit ashamed of saying that we all inhabited a system which was wrong.'
It wasn't just Labour attacking Clegg. The Conservative leaning Daily Telegraph accused the government yesterday of 'prodding its fingers into the workings of human nature.'
It's only natural, the paper argued, for parents to want their children to get ahead. Clegg's attempt to create a 'fair market' for internships is useless social engineering.
- How important is social mobility? And is it okay for a 'posh boy' like Clegg to lecture us about it?
- People always want to help their friends and family. Should the government interfere?
- Nick Clegg thinks everyone should be able to get an internship anywhere. Where would you be an intern? Write a letter applying for a work placement – and why not send it?
- What are the barriers between children from poor backgrounds and success? How could they be overcome? Write a report for the government.
Some People Say...
“Where some people go up, others must come down.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So 'meritocracy' is about ability rather than social class?
- That's the idea. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed, based on their 'merits' rather than on inherited privilege.
- Sounds good!
- Most people think so. They say that a meritocratic society would put an end to 'undeserved' success. There are doubters though.
- The word 'meritocracy' was invented by Michael Young in 1958. He imagined a society where bright, ambitious people from all backgrounds were elevated to power and those with less ability languished in poverty.
- But if they were bright and ambitious, they deserved to do well!
- Did they? You could argue that having personal qualities like that is a matter of luck, just like being born rich; that being smart isn't the same as being good.