Hamish McRae: Networking makes our world go round. But what if you're excluded?

'This need to network has put a premium on contacts, with some alarming social effects'
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The Independent Online

People want to get richer; but they also want to live more fulfilled lives.

This is one of the sub-texts to the election campaign. Clearly there are rising imbalances in society, with a relatively small number of people in industries like finance achieving extraordinary rewards, but at the cost of frenzied lives that leave little time for social and family commitments. Meanwhile, other people doing what seem like equally useful jobs (to many people, more useful) earn dreadfully low rewards, while still others have an excess of leisure, because they have lost their jobs or been retired early. What can politicians do, if anything, to help us achieve a better balance?

The first thing to do is to understand why gaps are widening. There are a number of explanations. One is growing competition for scarce talent, the quest for the very best. The American author Robert H Frank first identified this back in 1994 in a famous article, "Talent and the Winner-Take-All Society" in The American Prospect. We are in a world where we want the best footballer, opera star, lawyer or investment banker. But because these people have limited time, we bid up their price to unheard-of levels ­ and make their lives pretty frantic, too.

Now Robert Reich, labour secretary in the first Clinton Administration, has added a further insight to the conundrum. In his book, The Future of Success, published this week, he argues that the new technologies have increased the tension between people as consumers and people as providers. As consumers, we demand better, cheaper products and services, and the intensity of competition in the marketplace forces companies to provide those. That pressure redounds on us as workers, for we have less secure jobs and have to work ever harder to meet consumer demand.

But that affects everyone. Why is there more inequality? Reich believes that networks have become more important ­ networks of people, as much as networks of communications.

This gives a new twist to the old adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know". Contacts used to matter, because patronage mattered. To some extent that still holds true. Look at the way the Government has used Tony Blair's understanding of patronage to build support, particularly in the business community. He has flooded the Lords with new business peers, many of whom have given money, and who now enhance the image of Labour as the party of business.

But networks are no longer principally about patronage. The world economy has become incredibly complex and specialised. Within a speciality, it is much faster to get things done if you know the particular expert and can ask for advice. But specialists also need to communicate with people in different disciplines. So company executives need to know people in government, the civil service, finance and even the media. They need to do that worldwide; hence the growth of international conferences, usually in agreeable places like Nice or Aspen.

This need to network has put a premium on contacts, with alarming social effects. People who go to the right university, attend the right MBA courses or spend time with the right management consultants, leap ahead of the rest. That is great for self-confident professionals from prosperous homes in rich countries, but leads to the exclusion of clever, hard-working people who for reasons of birth do not have an entry-ticket to this world.

The most important question, of course, is what do you do about it?

To their credit, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are very aware of the problem. So they repeatedly stress the inequality of opportunity, the need to improve qualifications, and have even come up with the "baby bond" idea so that all 18-year-olds will have nest-eggs to help them get a better start in life.

But you can't fix this by top-down initiatives. Obviously, there are things government can do, like trying to change the culture of schools so that fewer children leave without basic skills. Attacking dumbing-down more generally would help people's life chances too, though here our government seems as guilty as any other section of society. Trying to encourage a wider selection of people to participate in organisations over which the Government does have some leverage might help ­ though the "People's Peers" aspect of the House of Lords reform also shows that the Government hasn't quite got the message here, either.

There is also, surely, a powerful need to create loops back into organisations so that people who fall at the first hurdles have opportunities to correct these failures later on. A classic example is the way someone who misses out on university first time around can loop back through the Open University or Birkbeck. Maybe those organisations could be replicated in other areas.

I suspect, though, that coping with the inequalities that come from people being excluded from networks will mostly have to be bottom-up. People will have to create their own networks. The Oxbridge/INSEAD/McKinsey network is a grand one, but it is only one of many.

Geeks in California created a network that spawned the boom economy of Silicon Valley. Indian entrepreneurs in Britain help each other by backing friends' and family members' businesses. A lot of the venture capital industry operates on an informal, friends-helping-friends basis ­ certainly at a start-up level.

What matters, perhaps, is that people feel themselves to be part of a network of friends, not just because those friends might be useful in later life ­ that is a bit yucky ­ but because balance matters in life. That is where Robert Reich starts. He sees the world through an American prism. For all its virtues, a land where most people have plenty of possessions but only get two weeks' holiday, or where an 18-year-old can buy a gun more easily than a beer, is not the greatest model of a balanced society.

Of course, people ought to make time for their friends and families. But ultimately, it is their choice whether they do so. Politicians may be able to help remove a few of the roadblocks that prevent people leading more fulfilled lives, but many of their actions in the past have had the opposite effect. Breaking up communities to build tower blocks? Wrecking good schools for political reasons? A little more humility, please, from the politicians, and from us, a little more sensitivity about how we run our lives.