Johann Hari: Time to end the work experience scam

We want a Britain where the smart kids pull ahead whoever their parents are

Share
Related Topics

When you get to work today, will your coffee be fetched by an unpaid intern? Have you wangled a work experience placement for your own child? Does your business rest on this bottom layer of the unpaid and unmerited? Then you are part of a scam – one that disfigures and damages Britain.

Today, when a student leaves university and embarks on a job hunt, she often smacks into a wall. Many of the best jobs require her to work unpaid for months on end before she has enough points on her CV to even start applying for paid positions. Automatically, most of the population is ruled out and only the children of the rich remain to pick the juiciest plums.

It nearly happened to me. When I graduated in 2001, I knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I also knew there was no way I could work unpaid for some indefinite period. My parents didn't have the money. I couldn't see a way in. I knew people who had been skivvying in television studios and newspaper offices for six months. One friend of mine was even sleeping at night on the floor of the think-tank where she had been working, unpaid, for nearly a year. Now I was freakishly lucky: after I explained this dilemma to Peter Wilby, the principled editor of The New Statesman, he paid me enough to live on. But huge numbers of people who are more talented than me fell at that hurdle and ended up in jobs that under-use their abilities.

This is happening all over Britain's professions. The wealthy writer (and self-confessed "pushy mum") Rachel Johnson is admirably honest about it. She says: "The truth is getting a job depends almost entirely on getting work experience, which depends almost entirely on whom you or your family knows ... This back-scratching cycle of privilege is the middle-class Circle of Life. So it's all jolly unfair, frankly."

Who does this cheat? Johnson says: "All those students who support themselves through university, only to find out when they leave that the glittering prizes have already been handed out, at a ceremony they never knew was taking place, to the undergraduate with the best connections."

This isn't just bad for the people who are shut out. It is bad for the professions – and the country. Talent is distributed throughout the population – but we are only picking from a tiny tier, based on their parents' bank balance. Imagine if the England football team was made up of the sons of the 1966 winners and their mates. How would they perform? Imagine if films could be cast using only the children of actors. How many talents would we exclude?

We don't have to speculate: a recent study showed just how corrosive nepotism is. Social scientists at the London School of Economics wanted to discover why Britain's productivity was so much lower than many rivals, and they found the single biggest cause was our large number of family-run businesses. By definition, these businesses do not seek out the best person, they simply hand them on to their kids. The LSE researchers wrote: "Half of the difference between British companies [and others] is due to the number of second generation-run businesses ... If you want to ruin your family business, give it to your eldest son."

Nepotism in the professions draws on a slightly wider pool: it is not just your own kids but the children of other rich people. Yet it still debars millions of people of greater merit. This is why you see the same surnames endlessly cropping up in British public life, dripping with mediocrity.

In one of those revealing moments that dramatises the differences that remain between Labour and the Conservatives, Gordon Brown this week proposed to shut this scam down. He wants the Government to pay for three months of work experience for everyone, and six months for people from the poorest families. This would mean that, for the first time, significant numbers of people would be financially able to get on the first rung of the professions. He has commissioned Alan Milburn, the former health secretary, to figure out how to make sure poorer young people have access to the best work experience placements. I think there is a strong case for requiring companies to advertise for applicants, and judge them on merit – just as the public sector does.

The Conservatives have savaged the plan. Chris Grayling, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: "This is all about Gordon Brown fighting class wars." Perhaps it isn't surprising that David Cameron's Tories don't see the problem: when Cameron himself applied for a job at the Conservative Research Department, he didn't get it, so he got his uncle, the Queen's equerry, to call from Buckingham Palace. Then he was hired.

Of course, work experience isn't the only hurdle that prevents kids from normal families getting ahead – but it is a crucial one. Yet right-wing newspapers have denounced the proposals as a "war on the middle class", designed to "persecute" them. This is odd on two fronts. The language of the "middle class" is misleading: the median wage in Britain is £22,000 a year: half of the population earns less, and half earns more. Professionals earning more than £60,000 a year are in the top 7 per cent. They aren't the middle; they're the wealthy. And how is asking their children to compete in an open process based on merit "persecution"?

Nepotism is so unjust that few people try to defend it, but it is worth taking a look at those who try, because they state the assumptions that lie beneath this talk. Adam Bellow (the son of Saul) wrote a book celebrating nepotism as "natural". He is right to say that wealthy parents will naturally want to pass on their privilege – but it is equally natural for everyone else to want their children to have a chance to rise. Why see one of these natural instincts as sacrosanct, yet dismiss the other?

This is a question about what kind of country we want to live in. Do we want a Britain where the smartest kids pull ahead whoever their parents are – or do we want the wealthy to be a separate, self-reinforcing caste, united under the motto "no string unpulled"?

To read Johann's latest article for Slate magazine, click here.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own