What does it take to make it in modern Britain? Ask a politician, and they’ll tell you it’s hard work. Ask a millionaire, and they’ll tell you it’s talent. Ask a CEO and they’ll tell you it’s dedication. But what if none of those things is enough? What does it therefore mean to be socially mobile?
We live in a society where the single greatest indicator of what your job will be is the job of your parents. Where power and privilege are concentrated among the seven per cent of the population who were privately educated. Where, if your name sounds black or Asian, you’ll need to send out twice as many job applications as your white neighbour. And if your health outcomes early on are poor and you’re homeless, this makes matters even more dire.
I know something about social mobility. I am a barrister who was raised on benefits and attended some of the lowest-performing schools in the country, in the rough and deprived London borough of Brent.
In People Like Us I argue that far from being typical, my own story is an anomaly. Rather than something which could be emulated by others in Britain today, it is an exception which brings the rule into sharp focus.
The success I have achieved is far from easily attainable to the vast majority of people out there; and that’s because such a success is usually determined by the parents to whom you’re born and the circumstances which dictate your destiny.
At the age of nine, I arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child refugee who had just buried his father. Not understanding anything about the new country I would call home, I barely spoke any English and was completely disoriented. I grew up moving from one squalid council accommodation to the next for most of my childhood.
At the age of 18 I found myself homeless and living in a Centrepoint hostel in central London. I had to work steadily under difficult conditions, with no guidance as to what a real future would look like, and learning for myself first-hand the requisite cultural and social capital needed to succeed in Britain’s top professions.
Ultimately, I am telling an individual’s own personal journey; not necessarily one which is ready-made for those who wish to emulate my success. I am candid about what has worked for me and I implore individuals to think hard about what works for them; including, controversially, to change the way they speak if they feel it would help them get on.
There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
I am convinced that it is in part luck that allowed me to realise, very young (and without being dispirited), both the limitations of the cards life had dealt me and the possibilities offered by them as well. It was my luck, again, to have had the intellectual capacity, the physical health and the absence of immediate pressure to ruthlessly focus on creating a better future for me and my family. I was lucky, also, to meet a series of mentors who guided me through the new worlds in which I found myself. To put it another way, if I genuinely believed that what I have achieved and overcome was possible for anyone, then I would have profoundly misunderstood the overarching lesson of my life. Therefore, if you, or someone you know, has succeeded against all the odds, please let go of the idea that all that’s required is some hard work and determination for others to do the same.
The reality remains that for a young refugee boy, who buried his father at the age of nine, arrived in Britain without his mother, and was brought up in poverty and among profound deprivation, the chances that you would be writing a book like People Like Us are minuscule. Not impossible, but highly improbable.
In that context, what politicians should really be saying is this: the chance of you succeeding in Britain today is down to many factors: the wealth and profession of your parents, the kind of school you attended, your mental and physical health and the quality of your early environment, in terms of stability and attention. You’ll need to work harder than you ever imagined – and hope that whatever talents you have, given the fast-paced development of automation, are going to still be needed when you grow up. You’ll need a lot of luck as you go; and let’s hope that, along the way, someone explains the unwritten rules of the world you want to join. And you’ll need to make it through all that with your belief in yourself – and your vision for the future – still intact. And then – maybe – you’ll make it.