Young, middle class, educated? Want to get on? Join the Friends generation

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Class still exerts a powerful influence in Britain in deciding who gets on. Judith Judd, Education Editor, looks at a new study on the secrets of success.

John Major's classless society never happened. Proof of the failure of the former prime minister's pledge to root out class is contained in a study from the Economic and Social Research Council.

The question: "What does your father do?" is just as important now as it was in the Fifties.

Researchers from City University investigated the lives of 9,000 26-year- olds born in the same week of 1970, the young of the Thatcher years. Their study followed another, six years ago, which looked at people born in the same week in 1958.

The effect of class, and particularly of their fathers' occupation, mattered just as much for the younger group as it did for the older.

Professor John Bynner, one of the study's authors, said: "Social class is a very important factor in educational achievement. That is then enormously important in determining your own social class."

The study divides people into three groups, those who are getting on, those who are getting by and those who are getting nowhere.

And it says that the gap between the top and bottom is growing. One of the most staggering findings, says Professor Bynner, is the change in the fate of people who leave school at the age of 16.

Among the 1958 group nearly 62 per cent of men left at 16 and every one got a job regardless of their skills and training. In the 1970 group, only half left at 16, but many of these drifted in and out of work because of their lack of qualifications.

Professor Bynner said: "The top end is doing very well. Young people can command salaries they never dreamed of. They are postponing marriage and they have a buoyant single lifestyle.

"At the other end are people who are connected to a world which no longer exists."

Other changes distinguish the 1970 group from the 1958 one. Although even the men are more likely to concede that the sexes are equal, in general people have moved towards the right.

More support the death penalty and are worried about law and order, and more support censorship.

The Thatcher years appear to have made their mark. The work ethic is stronger and only 41 per cent of the 1970 group are in favour of the redistribution of wealth compared with 50 per cent of the 1958 group.

The research also highlights the changing position of women. Those without children were very much the equal of their male peers while those with children tended to have more traditional roles.

The three levels are:

The getting on type - university educated, born into a middle-class family, part of the Friends generation which has postponed marriage and partnership.

The getting by type - fewer qualifications, modest wages and limited prospects, vulnerable when times are hard and in a committed relationship, often with children.

The getting nowhere type - often dependent on benefit and only intermittently in work, has no qualifications or training skills, lives with parents or is a parent in a broken relationship; is anxious, depressed and often ill.

l Twenty-somethings in the 1990s, edited by John Bynner, Elsa Ferri and Peter Shepherd, is published by Ashgate Publishing Limited; (01252) 331551.

Know your place, page 3