Anyone who says that class is dead in the UK is deluding themselves. The upper, middle and working class sandwich of old has been toasted into the super rich-crust, fat middle, squeezed middle and under-crust Subway of today. The amount of money your parents or carers earn still significantly affects the amount of opportunities and resources available to you while you are growing up. But I contend that money is not the biggest cause of unequal potential happiness.
A child living in relative poverty can still grow up feeling as confident in themselves and their basic abilities as a child from a very wealthy home, and with equal prospects for happiness: if they feel loved by their parents; if their parents support them through their education; if their educational environment is supportive and conducive to learning. Therefore there are two bigger obstacles to equal opportunity for children than money: inconsistencies in the quality of state education, and inequalities in parental nurturing of and aspirations for children. There is no reason why state education should not be as consistently good as private education. A massive increase in the number of teachers and a corresponding dramatic reduction in class sizes, coupled with attention to the aesthetics of the learning environment, would help to remove the former obstacle.
It is the latter obstacle which is the cause of the deepest class divide in Britain today: that which has all too often been characterised by the press, and some politicians, as the divide between strivers and skivers. It is the divide between parents falling into the top three layers of the modern class baguette, and the parents of the under-crust. Parents of the bottom layer are typically enmeshed in inter-generational cycles of deprivation, inadequate education, depression, addiction and lack of work. They therefore tend to nurture their children less than other parents, with much lower aspirations both for themselves and their children. This obstacle is very difficult to remove.
But there are two cultural problems which, if dealt with, would make the task easier. Firstly, no journalist or politician should label people in the bottom layer as undeserving “skivers”. It is not the fault of parents who grew up with want, depression, violence or petty crime that they are less likely to develop basic abilities, value education, and feel loving towards their children than parents who grew up with love and security. Secondly, equal opportunity and educational striving are not being recommended for the right reasons. Behind government and press support for “levelling the playing field” lie the hideous assumptions that there are a limited number of desirable (highly paid) jobs available for each generation, for which everyone must compete; that formal qualifications are the only way employers can assess merit, and therefore that the purpose of education is to get qualifications.
These mistaken assumptions (that happiness is wealth, and that only a few can be wealthy) help nobody. They make the under-crust, already painfully aware of their disadvantage in Darwinian economics, more despondent and apathetic. After all, what good is achieving, working or developing interests if you’re condemned to unhappiness? They make early life laborious and stressful for the “striving” classes, because education is reduced to a joyless string of exams. In a cruel irony, children of pushy (sorry, aspiring) parents are being forced to sacrifice a happy youth in the name of a happy adulthood which isn’t guaranteed to be happy. Finally, the assumptions entail the self-fulfilling prophecies that most work is necessarily dull and that jobs are to be taken and not created, and these affect everyone negatively.
Ask yourself this: shouldn’t we demand equal opportunity to be happy, not equal opportunity (if it can be called this when natural talent plays a role) to be one of the lucky ones who escape a “failed” life?