TV

Historian David Olusoga explains why breakdown of social mobility is one of UK's biggest issues

TV historian David Olusoga calls for urgent action to reverse increasing inequality as he launches new series on the history of the United Kingdom

David Olusoga at the derelict former Ravenscraig steelworks site in Motherwell

David Olusoga at the derelict former Ravenscraig steelworks site in Motherwell. Image: BBC / Wall To Wall Media

Historian David Olusoga has spoken out about the decline of social mobility, describing it as one of the biggest issues facing the UK. Ahead of his new BBC documentary series Union With David Olusoga, which focuses on the complex history of the United Kingdom, the respected broadcaster and writer who grew up on a council estate in Gateshead shared his fears for future generations.

“I’m deeply concerned about what I regard as the breakdown of social mobility,” he said.

“As much as I had a hard upbringing, I look at the opportunities and the barriers facing young people from my background today and feel extraordinarily fortunate.

“Racial violence was worse in the ’70s and ’80s but universities had grants. You could enter a middle-class profession as a working-class kid and get a job and a mortgage.”

Olusoga is known for documentaries including A House Through Time, The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files and Statue Wars: One Summer In Bristol. His work always uncovers marginalised stories and amplifies forgotten voices. But he feels someone from his background now would not have the same opportunities he had.

“Young people today are being given options and choices that are so limited compared to those that even I, from a council estate in one of the poorest parts of Britain, was offered,” Olusoga said.

“I was able to sneak through the doors of social mobility, which were slamming shut in the face of the generations behind me. So I feel very fortunate but also very angry.

“What does it mean for the country? What does it say about the fairness of our society if no matter how hard you work, no matter how bright you are, how many exams you pass, there are financial and societal barriers that can be slammed in your face?”

Olusoga’s Letter To My Younger Self interview will appear in The Big Issue magazine on 2 October. In the wide-ranging interview, Olusoga also talks about how television history programmes were a key factor in his own education, his mother’s remarkable resilience, and how his family were forced from their home by the National Front when he was a teenager.

Britain in the early ’70s was one of the most equal societies in developed countries in the world. We’re now one of the least

David Olusoga

Despite what he termed the country becoming “a much nice place”, when asked for his own big issue, Olusoga returned to the topic of the decline of social mobility.

“Generational unfairness is going to be – and should be – one of the biggest issues of coming decades,” he said.

“I had a tough childhood by lots of metrics. But because that childhood was in the ’70s in ’80s, when Britain was a far more equal society than it is today, I had advantages children growing up now do not. I can talk about my childhood and having a hard time. But I was offered a grant to go to university. I was able to use council-subsidised sports facilities to cure my asthma and learn amazing sports. But The Leisure Centre in Gateshead, which transformed my world, has just closed down. And I was able to get a job where I could get a pension and a mortgage.

“There are millions of young people who aren’t going to inherit wealth, who come from backgrounds like mine. And those incredibly important resources are being denied to them.”

Olusoga is convinced more needs to be done by politicians.

“We need to find a way in terms of taxation, in terms of housing, in terms of politics, in terms of priorities, to recognise that one of the great injustices of our time is between generations,” he said.

“I think it’s more important than anything other than climate change. I’m appalled. Britain in the early ’70s was one of the most equal societies in developed countries in the world. We’re now one of the least, and we are not even aware of that enormous transition. But we urgently need to address it.”

Union With David Olusoga is on BBC2 and iPlayer from Monday 2 October at 9pm

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