Johann Hari: Time to end the work experience scam

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

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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

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