Sir Rocco Forte and Elizabeth Murdoch are obvious cases of families perpetuating their economic position: Elizabeth has just landed a plum job in Daddy's media empire, while Sir Rocco ran (until recently) the Forte leisure group his father built. But these were supposed to be the exceptions. Nepotism may explain away the huge family businesses. But for the rest of us, educational qualifications and ability to do the job were supposed to be the criteria for success. Gerry Robinson is a better role model than Sir Rocco in the meritocratic, classless society that John Major claims to aspire to, having worked his way up from the bottom to head Granada.
The trouble is that the evidence on earning power and class status shows that society and the labour market are rather less mobile than anecdotes about people like Mr Robinson suggest. Research released in January by Howard Reed and Paul Johnson at the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that patterns of poverty and affluence persist from one generation to another. Over half of those whose fathers were among the top 25 per cent of earners are in the same bracket themselves a generation later. In comparison, only one in eight of those whose fathers were in the bottom 25 per cent of earners have made it up the ladder to join the top earners today.
Like other academic evidence on the subject, most of the striking conclusions are about men rather than women; women's role in the labour market has changed so much across the generations that it is more difficult to assess the different factors affecting their success.
In absolute terms things have improved since the war. We all know professionals and managers - people like Gerry Robinson - whose parents were working class. But part of this is because there are far more middle class jobs available today than there were 50 years ago. An increase in opportunities for working class children has been matched exactly by an increase in opportunities for middle class children. In relative terms little has changed.
Summarising their academic research in the first issue of Prospect last autumn, Adam Swift and Gordon Marshall argue that "more 'room at the top' has not been accompanied by greater equality of opportunities to get there".
Dividing occupations into salariat (professionals, managers, administrators and higher grade technicians) and non-salariat (everyone else), they find that the chances of a man from a salariat or middle-class background getting a salariat job are still more than seven times greater than those of a man with working class parents.
But this alone won't undermine the claim that Britain is meritocratic. Career success today does at least largely depend on education: the qualifications you have count for more than anything else in determining the jobs you can do, and the level of salary you will earn.
How can it be true that high academic achievers in general get the best paid jobs, but at the same time employees' fate is affected by their fathers' occupation? There are two obvious explanations. First, uncomfortable as it may sound, middle class children could be more able and intelligent than their working class peers. If this is true the current distribution of jobs and rewards in the British economy could be meritocratic and efficient. Second, the middle classes could be much better at making sure their kids benefit from education - in which case opportunities at an early age are decidedly unequal.
Sussex academic Peter Saunders is an advocate of the first explanation. In research published last December, he found that IQ test results at age 11 provided a more accurate guide to a child's later success than their parents' occupation. He argues that certain models of inherited intelligence would create patterns of meritocratic economic mobility very similar to those in contemporary Britain.
But his research does not back up his meritocratic thesis. Even if he is correct in his assessment of the importance of inherited ability, he underestimates the additional effect of family background. After taking educational qualifications into account, your father's occupation can still make a difference to your life chances.
Swift and Marshall examined whether class background affects the eventual success of people with identical qualifications. They find that among school leavers who don't get any O-levels or high-scoring GCSEs, 23 per cent of those with parents in salariat jobs still make it into the middle classes after all, compared with only 7 per cent of those whose parents are in low skilled and manual jobs.
Any parent will be aware of the different educational opportunities that children can face. It may be hard to measure with statistics, but it doesn't take much anecdotal evidence to construct a plausible hypothesis that the children of the middle classes get extra educational advantages. Anyone in a salariat occupation who wants to pass on their lifestyle to their children suspects that only the very best qualifications will be enough to secure their children's future.
Stories abound about the parents who search London, not just to avoid bad comprehensives, but to find their child "the best" school in the region. Or about the anxious mum who arranges extra after-school tuition to stimulate her five year old. Those with high levels of education and earning power are bound to find it easier to purchase or to arrange the best education for their children.
What the various studies do reveal is that the bright and brilliant can make it to the top regardless of their family background. But opportunities are clearly not yet equal. Children with average abilities who get poor education will not fulfil their potential.
Those of us in the top 20 per cent of earners need not get too smug. Sure, we didn't get where we are today through the pure power of patronage; education and hard work helped. But we didn't fight our way up through a genuinely competitive labour market either. Britain is not a classless society yet, but the economic pressure to get the best people into the right jobs should mean that unequal access to opportunities becomes ever harder to sustain.Reuse content