The phrase ‘glass floor’ is a great deal newer than the phenomenon. I can’t remember how many years ago I submitted a TV pitch to an independent production company. When I went in for the meeting about it, they handed out copies of the pitch, which they had expanded and revised. Aside from the fact that the argument of the piece had been obliterated, the spelling of the location (Bournville) had been changed throughout (I hope you have already guessed that I know how to spell the name of my hometown correctly). I suggested, as politely as I could, that we might be more likely to persuade someone to buy the programme if it looked like we could spell the place where it was set.
To my absolute bafflement, the woman in charge of the meeting blew her stack.
‘The girl who did that is an intern, she’s working for free,’ she snarled. I wondered aloud if perhaps paying someone to do the job might get you a candidate who could spell something which is written on bars of chocolate in every newsagent in the country. Then I left the meeting and took the pitch elsewhere.
I always think of it when people ask why there are so many rubbish and derivative programmes on television. It’s a hugely desirable industry to work in, but the barriers to entry are considerable: unpaid internships have been commonplace for years, which limits your pool not to the best and brightest, but to the ones who can afford to work unpaid in central London for months at a time. In other words, rich parents count for a lot.
And now there are numbers to back up this suspicion: new findings from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggest that less academically able children from richer families are 35% more likely to become high earners than their brainy-but-broke peers. This can’t surprise many of us: one of the primary forces acting on parents is the desire to see their children succeed. And you would be a shoddy parent indeed if you had no problem with your child slaving away for the minimum wage when you could help them achieve something more remunerative.
The trouble is, there aren’t limitless supplies of great, well-paid jobs. And there aren’t many industries where parental connections can’t help somewhere. One of the reasons I loved being a stand-up comedian was its egalitarian nature. No education, no wealth and no parents pulling strings can force an audience to find you funny. You have to learn by failing, onstage, how to succeed. It’s a brutal way of becoming good at something. But it is undeniable: audiences don’t care where you came from, unless you’re telling them a joke about it.
So we shouldn’t be asking how can we stop privileged parents passing privilege on to their offspring. Wealthy parents don’t love their children any less than poor parents, so of course they will try to ensure their children don’t suffer a drop in living standards when they leave home. The question we need to be asking is this: can someone without family connections and wealth make it into higher-earning industries if they want to? Especially if they have the talent to thrive there, if they could only overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles.
There are lots of practical measures we could take to try and ensure that swathes of employment aren’t inaccessible to the less wealthy, not least the end of an unpaid internship culture which exploits young people and separates the rich from the poor at the very beginning of their working lives. But there is also a question of ambition.
I visit a lot of schools each year, sometimes to talk about Classics and sometimes to talk about broader careers stuff: I was a comedian, I am a writer and broadcaster, and I’ve had to run my own business to get to here, so I have spoken to a lot of students about all of these things. I charge the private schools and visit the state ones for free: a small redistributive act (to which most private schools happily agree).
The difference between the students I meet at private schools and state schools isn’t just in their confidence levels, it’s in their outlook. When I go to a state school, especially outside of London, the sixth-formers are intensely realistic in their expectations. They know they’ll need to earn money straightaway, and they want to know what kind of a living they might make as, say, a writer. The teachers often tell me it’s the only time they’ve spoken to someone who works in a creative industry, and that matters. So we don’t just need to build confidence and expand horizons, we need to make sure there are routes into desirable jobs for everyone, not just the children of the rich.