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24 July 2008

No, class counts more than ever

By Peter Wilby

The English class system was always porous. That was what distinguished it from a caste system. By investing in land, buying places at the right schools, and arranging “good” marriages for their children, the moneyed manufacturers of the Industrial Revolution could achieve upward mobility for their descendants. They themselves might struggle to gain acceptance, but their children would have an easier ride, and their grandchildren easier still.

Downward mobility – partly created by the English practice of primogeniture – was once more common than is now realised. Of men born into social classes I and II at the beginning of the 20th century, barely half remained there in adulthood.

Paradoxically, class has become a more, not less, important determinant of life chances. True, success now depends on educational credentials, not breeding. But your parents’ economic status and cultural capital give you enormous advantages in acquiring those credentials.

A few daring innovators and entrepreneurs, mainly from immigrant groups, will always make fortunes from scratch. Unlike the new rich of the 19th century, they will be instantly accepted; if anything, it’s an advantage to have bought your own furniture. For the vast majority, however, class origin matters as much as it ever did.

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