Rising up: a jellyfish in sea of the Farne Islands, England. Photo: Getty
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Jellyfish McSaveloy and the social mobility of surnames

Tracking the movement of second names shows how they can affect our life chances.  

Some people like the idea of having what we call a fun name,” such as “Jellyfish McSaveloy” and “Daddy Fantastic”, the Deed Poll website reveals. The UK is relatively permissive when it comes to “fun” names; Denmark, on the other hand, has compiled a list of approved baby names, and last year New Zealand published a selection of banned ones.

By the time a Jellyfish McSaveloy reaches their teens, you can be fairly certain they will be either thick-skinned or a hardened street fighter, but even more common names often hold clues to a person’s background and social standing. A girl named Eleanor is 100 times more likely to attend Oxford University than one named Jade. For economists, the links between certain names and the holder’s wealth and social status make them a useful research tool.

In 2005, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, attempted to unpick how a person’s name affects his or her life chances. Although there is no evidence that a name can change your life, they believe that many babies’ names reflect their parents’ aspirations for them. The evidence: the names that are most popular among wealthier and highly educated Americans become popular among more disadvantaged groups within a few decades. The suggestion is that parents name their children after their more advantaged peers: “Whether they realise it or not, [they] like the sound of names that sound ‘successful’.”

A deeper investigation into names and social mobility was recently conducted by Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, in his book The Son Also Rises. Standard measures of social mobility, which cover only one generation, have no way of discounting the element of luck that affects individual achievement, Clark argues. So he has attempted to measure social mobility over several centuries by tracking the movement of surnames.

In medieval England, many surnames, such as Baker, Plumber and Smith, described a person’s profession. In contrast, the elite often took their surnames from their ancestral home and the “super-elite” could trace their names to the Norman conquerors listed in the 1086 Domesday Book. By the late 1300s, surnames were often inherited; by analysing the names of those entering the great medieval institutions, such as the Church, parliament and Oxbridge, you can measure how many sons of artisans or manual labourers climbed the social ladder. Contrary to popular opinion, medieval England had the same “slow but persistent” rate of social mobility as modern Sweden, Clark argues.

Nor has Britain’s rate of social mobility changed much since then. Clark also traces the progression of a number of rare surnames, such as Bazalgette, Sotheby and Courtauld, that in 1858 were held by some of the UK’s wealthiest families. Even today, the surnames that in the mid-19th century were a mark of high social status are three times more common among MPs than among the rest of the population. Knowing that someone born in 1990 shares the same surname as someone born in 1813 who died wealthy is enough to predict that they are six times more likely than average to study at Oxbridge.

Clark shows that it can take between ten and 15 generations to erase family poverty or prosperity. As tempting as it might be to name your son Warren Buffett in the hope he will end up rich, it won’t make any difference. You might as well call him Jellyfish. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.