The study, which has followed the fortunes of 18,000 people born in March 1958, shows that in 1991, when they were 33, ability and motivation as measured at school, plus qualifications gained, were powerful predictors of the jobs people did.
Parents' social class, housing conditions, whether the child went to a private or state school, and whether parents had high ambitions for their children, were much lesser influences.
"Ability and motivation are the key predictors of lower-working-class success and of middle-class failure," Peter Saunders, professor of sociology at the University of Sussex, concludes.
Writing in a pamphlet for the free-market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, Prof Saunders says sociologists have been "barking up the wrong tree."
"Occupational selection, by and large, is not rigged," he says. "The dice are not heavily loaded. The game is worth playing even for those born into the poorest social conditions. If people are increasingly led to believe that the competition is fixed, then of course they will conclude that it makes no sense for them to join the game. State dependency and criminality are then the only games they can join."
It does, says Prof Saunders, "make some difference whether your father is an unskilled manual worker or a well-paid professional, whether your mother left school at the minimum legal age or stayed on to do exams, whether your parents encouraged you in your school work, whether they tried to motivate you with their ambitions or left you to find your own way, whether you had your own bedroom in which to do your homework".
"The importance of sheer luck should not be overlooked", he says, and nobody can doubt, that "inherited privilege still counts for something". But John Major's aim of a "classless society", and Tony Blair's desire to see hard work and effort rewarded, have been achieved to a much greater degree than usually acknowledged.
Professor Saunders concedes that the data on which his conclusions are based are not perfect: some people have been lost to the follow-up studies since 1958, and unemployed, part-time workers and housewives are excluded from his figures. Nonetheless, the study represents "probably the best data set available."
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