Jemima Lewis: Why be a lawyer when a nanny earns more?

The reign of the middle classes is nearly over; we might as well learn a useful trade and at least get rich
Click to follow
The Independent Online

These must be unnerving times for Britain's blue-collar workers. Suddenly, everyone's after their jobs. It started last year, when Which? magazine reported that plumbers were now in such scarce supply they could command up to £100,000 a year for their services. Thundering hordes of middle-class graduates promptly signed up for plumbing courses, though with mixed results: there are now said to be 26,000 newly qualified plumbers twiddling their thumbs, unable to find work.

Next, childcare was touted as the route to riches. Conservative broadsheets noted with ill-disguised resentment that even unqualified nannies were demanding as much as £28,000 a year - with a car, mobile phone, gym membership and free foreign travel thrown in. That makes them better paid than many teachers and nurses - though the riches of Croesus would not tempt me to look after a stranger's child for a living.

Not to worry: the really smart way to make money, it now appears, is to be a car mechanic. A report published by What Car? magazine last week claimed that the average hourly rate charged by garage mechanics has overtaken that of barristers or doctors. Some garages, it seems, charge up to £140 an hour, compared to a maximum of £63 an hour for a locum doctor or £100 an hour for a junior barrister.

Like most such reports, this should be read with a sceptical eye. It is the garages that charge these astronomical fees, not the mechanics who work for them. Employees can expect to take home only a fraction of the loot. It is disingenuous, too, to compare the fees of the most expensive garages to those of the lowliest barrister.

Yet the survey does speak to a broader truth: the deep, unspoken status anxiety afflicting the middle classes. There was a golden age, less than a century ago, when the most coveted jobs were those of the bourgeoisie. Doctors, lawyers, academics and accountants - more or less anyone clad in corduroy or pin-stripes - were regarded as the pillars of society. They had gravitas, handsome paunches, big houses and friends in high places. The rewards of their work were not just financial (not at all, in the case of academics), but social: they basked in the esteem of the lower orders.

Lately, however, the pillars have started to crumble. Doctors no longer command the same unquestioning reverence, now that we can't be sure they're not out to kill us for kicks. The spread of compensation culture from America to Britain has brought with it a concomitant hatred and distrust of lawyers. The fact that British lawyers are not especially rich cuts no ice with a generation raised on American jokes.

As for the corduroy brigade: who wants to be an intellectual these days? Universities are routinely derided as little more than glorified remedial centres, where the knuckle-dragging masses go to learn the things they weren't taught at school - such as spelling and counting - before heading off to plumbing college.

John Major's dream of a country populated almost entirely by graduates has come true, but not in the way he hoped. Market forces - not to mention human nature - dictate that the more commonplace a commodity becomes, the less value attaches to it: and so it has proved with the university degree. You'd think a Conservative might have anticipated that - but it's too late now. Politicians may squabble ad infinitum about whether today's graduates are as well educated as yesterday's; what is beyond question is that their qualifications count for less.

What Britain now has is a dwindling manual labour force and a vast, nouveau middle class, competing for the jobs that the upper-middle classes once claimed by right. And just as some careers have a habit of losing status once women get involved, the invasion of the masses has taken the gloss off the white-collar professions. Society's admiring gaze has shifted elsewhere: to that new, and entirely unintellectual, breed of aristocrat known as the celebrity.

What is the point of slogging through years of medical school if your patients aren't going to be even the teeniest bit awestruck? Why bother with the agony of a law degree when what the world really needs is more mechanics? And how dare all those media students try to pass themselves off as professionals? These are the spectral voices that haunt the middle classes in the night.

The values of the bourgeoisie - elitism, intellectualism, a paternal do-gooding streak - have become either unspeakable or unremarkable. We gaze out from our crumbling citadels and feel ... doomed. Our reign is nearly over: we might as well learn a useful trade and at least get rich.

George Orwell saw this coming decades ago, and counselled surrender. "We of the sinking middle class," he wrote, "may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose.