Midway through a Julie Burchill column in the Guardian bemoaning the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I was startled to learn the following: Although fewer than 10 percent of British children attend private schools, their alumni make up over 60 percent of the acts on the U.K. pop charts. Twenty years ago, it was 1 percent.
There’s always been a bit of this, of course: Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics and made more money singing the songs of hardscrabble Mississippi bluesmen than the gnarled old-timers who’d lived those lyrics could ever dream of. But he was “middle class” in what your average exquisitely attuned snob would regard as a very drearily provincial sense: Mick’s dad was a teacher in Kent and his mum was an Aussie hairdresser and he went to the local grammar school. The new pop stars attended some of the most exclusive and expensive academies in the land: Chris Martin (of Coldplay and Gwyneth Paltrow) went to Sherborne, and Lily Allen to Bedales, and James Blunt to Harrow. The five lads from Radiohead got together at Abingdon, founded by Richard the Pedagogue in 1100 and where annual boarding fees are now just shy of $50,000. In other words, to recreate the conditions that enabled Radiohead, you’d have to spend about one-and-three-quarter million bucks. You could try it the Elvis way — drive a truck, blow $8.25 to make an acetate, and record your mama’s favorite Ink Spots song — but it’s not clear that works anymore. In the space of two generations, almost every traditional escape route out of England’s slums — from pop music to journalism — has become the preserve of the expensively credentialed. I say “almost” because as far as I know no Old Abingdonian has yet won the heavyweight boxing championship.
A couple of weeks earlier, another Guardianista, Zoe Williams, filed a column deploring the fashionable professions’ increasing reliance on unpaid interns. The first time I used the word “intern” on Fleet Street was 14 years ago when the Monica story broke and my editor asked me to explain to British readers what it meant. Now they’re everywhere. “Most people could weather a fortnight of unpaid work,” writes Miss Williams, “but once you start talking about three or six months, you basically have to be living with your parents, they have to live in the same city — usually London for the desirable posts — and they have to be able to support you. So pretty soon the point arrives when there’s a middle-class stranglehold on the jobs that people want to do — notably in politics, the media and the third sector.” The “third sector” is what the British call all those non-profits the cool kids aspire to. If memory serves, Mr. Blair introduced to Her Majesty’s Government a department called the “Office of the Third Sector,” which sounds so bland it ought to be one of those covers for a ruthless wet-work operation the spooks want to keep off the books, but is, alas, just a way of “coordinating” “resources” between the public sector and the third sector — i.e., a colossal waste of the private sector’s money.
The Internet wallah Tim Worstall thought that Miss Williams had sort of missed her own point with that bit about politics, media, and the third sector: “When the desirable jobs are spending other people’s money, reporting on spending other people’s money and lobbying to spend other people’s money then you know that the society is f***ed.”
While the upper-middle-class corner the pop biz and the NGOs, what’s left for the masses? Back when Mick Jagger was at the LSE, the futuristic comic books were full of computer-brained robot maids whirring from room to room dusting the table, bringing our afternoon tea, and generally liberating humanity from menial labor. How’d that work out? In America, 40 percent of the population now do minimal-skill service jobs. Meanwhile, the robot maids are thin on the ground, but computers have replaced the typing pool and the receptionist and the bookkeeping clerk — in other words, most of the entry-level jobs to the middle class. If you lack the schooling of a typical British pop star but you’ve mastered flipping tacos and the night shift at the KwikkiKrap, what’s there to move on to?
Social mobility is already declining in the credential-crazed United States and the wider West, and will decline further. If you’re already on the right side of the great divide, the world emerging isn’t so different from the way it was back when Harrow was producing Churchill rather than James Blunt: The less ambitious scions of great and well-to-do families amuse themselves with a leisurely varsity and then something not too onerous with a non-profit, in the way that the younger sons of Victorian toffs passed a couple of years in a minor post in a British legation in an agreeable capital.
If you’re on the wrong side of the divide, it’s less like Downton Abbey and more like one of those Latin American favelas the presidential motorcade makes a point of giving a wide berth to. Even Mick Jagger’s parentage — teacher and hairdresser — sounds a bit of an unlikely match in an age when doctors marry fellow doctors rather than their nurses and lawyers fellow attorneys rather than their secretaries. Perhaps we’ll see a resurgence of the love-across-the-classes plot beloved by Edwardian England, back when real-life showgirls (Connie Gilchrist) married real-life earls (the seventh Lord Orkney). But I wouldn’t bet on it: These days, at least on the British pop charts, the earl is his own showgirl.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).