It would pay for us all to be more honest about family advantage

3 min

99 shares, 160 points

Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, is, first and foremost, the story of what happens when someone is born into a career they don’t want and are poorly suited for. Although very few of us are royals, in the US, you are twice as likely as the rest of the population to end up with the same job as your parents, and a similar pattern is found through most of the rich world.

Some people go into the family firm quite literally, in that they turn up for work at somewhere with the family name on the letterhead. But many more do so indirectly: the son of an electrician becomes an electrician, the daughter of a doctor becomes a doctor.

When that work is in the public eye, it occasionally invites excitable comment. In the UK, a cohort of wannabe Labour politicians seeking to go into the family business were dubbed “red princes” — a label that did nothing to advance their prospects.

In the world of the arts, the in-term (originating with a viral tweet early last year) is “nepotism baby”, which has now been shortened to the even more teeth-dissolvingly twee “nepo baby”.

What both terms have in common is they miss the point in the same way: being related to someone in the same industry as you is not “nepotism”, just as being friends with your co-workers or your boss is not the same as “cronyism”. Nepotism and cronyism refer to improper practices, not to lines on a family tree, or to sharing a drink or support for a football club with a colleague.

These terms also obscure a bigger and deeper problem.

Talking about people who go into the family business is a good way for people like me, the first journalist in my family, to feel smug and accomplished. When I’m forced to reveal that my family tree includes a doctor, an Oxford don, a civil servant and a priest I seem a lot less impressive.

A fascinating study by Meta’s research arm finds that, in fact, I am depressingly average: I may not be one of the large number of people with exactly the same job as their parents, but I am one of the much larger number who end up in a white-collar profession just like their parents.

Most of us are comfortable talking about the class privileges that come with having a family in the same industry, because it means we can avoid talking about the class privileges that come with growing up in a household that has NPR or BBC Radio 4 playing over the breakfast table.

As the political philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse write in their thought-provoking book, Family Values, what happens in the family home matters as much as income levels and good schooling. They even go so far as to argue that an egalitarian liberal ought not to help their children with their homework.

While you might not go as far as Swift and Brighouse, it is undeniably true to say that growing up in a home in which there are books — whether they are your own or from a library — and with strong parental obligations, regardless of how many parents you have, are big advantages.

Adding fuel to that fire is a big and understudied change in the rich world: the rise of households where both parents work.

Despite what you might expect, this has actually also led to an increase in the amount of time parents spend with their children, in part because fathers do more, and in part because of changing taboos about how much children should be left unsupervised.

Today’s children, if they are lucky, have a double benefit: they are more likely to be able to learn about the world of work from not one but two successful parents and they are more likely to benefit from having parents who pass on skills and knowledge about the world.

That’s all very well if you have parents who work as doctors or electricians and if you are sincerely happy doing the same. But it increases the number of people who may end up like Prince Harry: deeply and bitterly unhappy in a job they don’t want that has ultimately been chosen for them.

In practice, of course, in a democracy, you are never going to stop people from giving their kids all sorts of advantages. Even the kind of parent who believes that private schooling is socially iniquitous tends to have a definition of “private education” that doesn’t stretch so far as to include violin lessons, still less to educational trips to museums, cathedrals or art galleries at weekends or in the school holidays.

But thinking deeply about what family advantage actually means leads to better social policy than narratives in which advantage is always a commodity held by someone else.

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Source: Financial Times

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