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Britain's 'Tap on the Shoulder' Hereditocracy

26/06/2013 11:01 BST | Updated 24/08/2013 10:12 BST

If one thing that has made the world since graduation especially difficult, it's been the foul and filthy stench of nepotism and cronyism. The slimy reality that the positive employability status of many young people is the product of provenance. Not the strict doing of ability or merit; but thanks to the old but very apt idiom of the English language that "it's not what you know, but who you know that matters."

And get this - up to 11 million people in this country, a third of the workforce, owe their jobs to relatives or friends.

Rant over. I digress. Let's go lateral and explore the matter in more depth.

On this topic I always like to remind people that there's a little more to the story of tech mavericks Mark Zuckerberg and Nick D'Aloisio than just a bedroom, manic talent and bloody minded determination. I always like to point to the parents involved.

In Mark's case his father was a dentist who taught him Atari BASIC Programming in the 1990s. Then later had the foresight to hire software developer David Newman to tutor Mark privately. In Nick's case, his mother is a city lawyer and his father a leading banker with one of the worlds largest banks. I also remind people about Hanah Caan. Daughter of James Caan. And I'm sure you know the story there.

What these parents have is vast amounts of information and contacts. This is of huge value and by sharing the information and contacts they can help their child to overcome Education's Information Asymmetry, Education's Skills Asymmetry and where necessary, open doors and make introductions. And if all else fails, give them a job.

The power of the parent to determine the employability and job prospects of a young person cannot be under-estimated. And when we talk about social mobility and employability it's all about these two things: information and contacts.

On the first point, I want to discuss the idea of being information rich. For a young person to be successful in the job hunt they need to go to where the jobs are going to be. Unfortunately many young people currently aspire to the wrongs jobs as the FT reported. Rather, children need to make informed career choices about what and where to study or do an apprenticeship.

It's no good choosing to study law on blind faith, since a little research would tell you that the Law Society recently said that "young people are not being warned about the shortage of legal jobs." Unfortunately, many information poor lower and middle class families encourage young people to pursue law in face of facts that say don't.

I've said before that law school is often the default career choice and I've even asked 'Why does everyone want to go to law school?' and it's clear that it's the doing of an old myth that has come to see law as some sort of panacea. A career of big money and prestige. But this is a nonsence.

In America where the legal economy and job prospects for graduates is just as bad as the UK, around 2/3s of parents want their child to go to law school. But what was extra worrying about that study was that 80% of low income households wanted their child to go to law school. It would be perfectly reasonable to expect similar findings among UK households.

It would be wiser to get into careers like IT and engineering. And I've found that this is where information rich parents come in. They can help children and young adults to allocate their time and human capital wisely. They can see the information and trends as it is currently and prospectively, thereby giving their children really valuable opportunities.

Associated benefits include extra tutoring at home and the sort of mentoring and guidance that can really put them ahead of the game.

The issue of 'information' was raised in a recent BBC Radio 4 episode of Start the Week on social mobility hosted by Stephanie Flanders. They discussed the advantage children have when applying to Oxbridge and other universities if they have "more resourceful parents with information."

On the second point of having contacts and a large network, I think Robert Peston said it best on internships when he spoke on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme:

"It's unbelievably unfair. If you haven't got money, if you haven't got contacts, you can't get into the firm."

Robert Peston also wrote a good blog on paying for work experience which you can read here.

The actaul and non-monetary value of work experience goes without saying. But to be clear: I've already said that "All theory and no practice makes Jack an unemployable boy," and research by High Fliers Research found that 'graduates who have had internships are three times as likely to land jobs.'

There are many less well-connected students and graduates in desperate need of work experience but who can't get anything. And as can also be the case, many students are actually unaware of that employers expect experience until its too late of course.

But when you have a well off, informed and contact rich parents, this isn't an issue.

To use an example: I knew someone who's father worked in finance in Dubai. Without even putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, his father rang up a business contact, said a few pleasantries and secured his son a four month summer internship in a Dubai law firm. The standard meritocratic procedures for similar internships require acreage of tedium, demanding applicants to do 6 part application forms.

What we have in Great Britain is a section of the community who live in a chumocracy, a heridotocracy or whatever you so wish to call it. A world if institutionalised privilege.

Look at James Caan, the government's social mobility czar. One day (June 4 2013) pontificating about the needs to let their children progress on their own. The next day (June 5 2013) standing red-faced as it was revealed that he employed his daughter in one of his companies.

I clapped when David Starkey tore into some of the benefactors of this sort of privilege on a recent episode of Question Time. He even gave David Dimbleby a rather vicious verbal prod. That was then followed up with a blog in the Spectator that did a feature on Dimbleby's velvet padded past.

I can give you a host more examples of well known public faces who've enjoyed the information and contacts of their parents.

Nick Clegg got an internship in a bank thanks to his dad, revealed after Nick Clegg launched what was one of his flagship policies to drive social mobility.

David Cameron openly revealed that he secured an internship for his young neighbor. And of course David Cameron spent his gap year working with his godfather, Tim Rathbone MP and also enjoyed three months in Hong Kong thanks to his father.

The leader of UKIP and MEP Nigel Farage famously reprimanded EU Foreign Minister Baroness Cathy Ashton for the nepotism responsible for putting her in the said position.

Zosia Mamet who plays shoshanna in HBO's show, 'Girls' is the daughter of famous playwright David Mamet.

So what are we to do?

I'm not one to push for equality of outcomes so I don't want to pull down the world as described above. I just think that we need to give the same opportunities to kids without parents with contacts and job market information. To do that we need to bring in a national system of mentors.

The potential for mentoring to address some of the unfairness and inquality of opportunity is very real. The value of mentoring was well said here:

"The number one predictor of future success? Mentors. The number one way to increase the percentage of underrepresented minorities in top career fields? Mentors.

I recognize how much easier it is for those raised in well-off families to find mentors. They have spent their lives cultivating an appealing, graceful assurance. They know how to network, have access to people who know people, and have the confidence to ask for what they want. The rest of us need an MFA program."

So what we need is more like Robert Peston's Speakers for Schools. But what we need most is something similar to America's Big Brothers, Big Sisters initiative. The stated aim of the American youth initiative is well summed up by the advertisement it runs on Bloomberg Radio. It goes like this:

"I'm a graphic designer. I'm a graphic designer because my big brother gave me the belief that I could be somebody in this world."

What Big Brothers, Big Sisters does is to give young people a mentor and role model who is an information and contact rich man and woman. What they do is to inform and educate, signpost and paint a picture of the world as it can be for that young person.

We cannot go forward with the status quo. We need reform from top to bottom. We need to empower working class children by giving them access to information and contacts as others enjoy it . Reform needs to touch government too. That means having a cabinet that reflects the diverse makeup of the country. Michael Gove has said that the public school monopoly on power is "morally indefensible"

But rhetoric doesn't match reality. As Rod liddle said:

"If the government were remotely serious about social mobility, then the prime minister wouldn't staff his private office almost exclusively with the braying old Etonian chums he once quaffed champagne with in the Bullingdon club."

And therein lies the challenges. We must make it happen.